According to John O'Donoghue, Bobby Baker shows how art can explain more than words in her award-winning book of 'Diary Drawings'
Can we read images in the same way we’d read a novel or a memoir? Or do pictures connect in a very different way from words? Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me is a collection of 158 drawings, a record of Bobby Baker’s dealings with various mental health services, coping with breast cancer, and her struggle to get the treatment she felt she needed.
The book won this year’s Mind Book of the Year Award and comes from an exhibition first shown at the Wellcome Trust in 2009. Diary Drawings is divided into 17 ‘Stages’, each stage a chapter in Baker’s life over this 11 year period. The Stages were each given a room in the original exhibition and texts from these Stages introduce the images that follow, giving a brief summary of what was going on in Baker’s life at this time.
There’s a final section to the book, ‘Beyond The Stages’, an introduction by Marina Warner, and short essays by Bobby Baker and her daughter Dora Whittuck at the end of the book. The images have been carefully selected, chosen from a total of 711 drawings. Each image is presented on the page as if taken from a ring-bound sketchbook, labelled with a Day Number and a date, and sometimes a title.
Take Day 165, Tuesday 13th January. This is titled, ‘My Psychotherapist’, and has a caption below the image which reads:
I felt angry that this relationship, which had been very helpful initially, just wasn’t working any more. I really liked her and saw how much she wanted to help. I was too polite and felt guilty, so I couldn’t tell her.
The image shows a woman crouching as if sitting on an invisible chair, poised it seems to spring upward, painted all in blue, with grey spiky hair, pale orange boots, a more vivid orange tongue, one hand with long green nails, the other hand with similar red nails. She wears pale orange boots with very long Aladdin-like toes, and clutches a huge carving knife in her left hand. The background is the white background of the ring-bound sketchbook page against a wood-grain effect, as if the page from the sketchbook had been placed on a table.
This image is from Stage 4. It’s at once sinister and child-like, like something out of Struwelpeter. You ‘read’ the drawings in the book not like you’d read a conventional diary or memoir but primarily through looking at the images, and reading the Stages and the captions below each picture. Text is subservient to image, so that Baker’s ‘story’ has to be read mainly through the drawings she made. It’s like looking at a Dream Diary, one in which the Dreams have been illustrated.
Images are so much more visceral than words, and can be at the same time very private. ‘My Psychotherapist’ is a case in point. We feel we know what it means, we sense the hostility, but we have very little beyond the context of what Baker gives us. But then those who are encountering ‘mental health services’ often find that their subjective reality can be a problem for others, one that has to be solved or decoded or translated, not a valid experience in itself that can be understood, or explored on its own terms. I think Bobby Baker shows that art can sometimes do what a whole heap of words can’t.
A striking and impressive book and a worthy winner of this year’s Mind Book Of The Year.
Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me is published by Profile Books. ISBN-10: 1846683742. ISBN-13: 978-1846683749
The book is currently available on Amazon priced at £10.04