Artist and Expert by Experience
Firstly - I’m an artist. You may know about my work from an exhibition of my drawings at the Wellcome Collection in 2009 – Bobby Baker’s Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me 1997-2008. This exhibition continues to tour in several formats and is also a book - which was chosen as MIND Book of the Year in 2011. I’m proudest of all to describe myself as an ‘expert by experience’ of mental health issues and a survivor of mental illness, and the mental health system!
In 1996 I saw a psychiatrist who gave me the first of many diagnoses - ’borderline personality disorder’. Over the next 11 years I received many more diagnoses: mood disorder, eating disorder, anxiety disorder, depressive disorder… I am very critical of the diagnostic framework, especially the notion of ‘personality disorder’. In my eleven years as part of the mental health system, I had forty-one short psychiatric admissions - a fact regarded by my friends in ‘the system’ as a considerable achievement whilst continuing to work! One of the most problematic issues I faced on this journey through the ‘mental health system’ was ‘diagnostic overshadowing’.
Whenever I mentioned any physical symptoms, I was asked “But how do you feel? You’re very stressed” - so it was a battle to get treatment for a variety of physical problems, including late diagnosis of breast cancer, osteoarthritis, dental, and gynaecological issues. It’s important to point out that I led a double life, with my artistic career continuing and thriving throughout this period.
Creative industries as a Resource
So, I know a fair amount about mental health. But I know more about the art world, including the publicly funded arts, which has its own hierarchy, economy, set of issues and systemic flaws – admittedly relatively minor compared to those faced by the NHS – but the creative industries are a resource which deserves to be understood and respected. I am the artistic director of Daily Life Ltd, and our work challenges the well-intentioned trend of the ‘wellbeing agenda’ that strives towards the homogenous delivery of the arts for health with the talent, individuality and potential of participants underestimated and overlooked so that there is a risk that the movement for arts and health is no more than modern day ‘basket weaving’ in another guise.
Bobby then took us on a short illustrated tour of her work:
Having trained in painting at St Martins Art School, and as a young woman in the early 1970s, I couldn’t express my ideas in contemporary art forms such as painting or theatre. I had this sudden and exciting idea – to start making art out of cake. It was so absurd, so rebellious, so interesting in its newness. My first artwork out of cake was a baseball boot.
From the age of twenty-three, I made a firm decision to make artworks based on my own experience. I still needed to make the work even if no one other than myself was interested – in part as a way of processing my own reflections on life, clarifying my ethics and political opinions.