If you have never come across Bobby Baker, I envy you. I envy you because you have ahead of you the delicious joy of discovering her work. She is one of the most widely acclaimed performance artists working today, and has a large and impressive back catalogue of work which, using the most fabulously inventive methods (plenty of cake), makes art out of the everyday.
And, there's nothing as everyday as mental illness. In 2009, Bobby exhibited her ‘diary drawings’ at the Wellcome Collection. These pictures, drawn daily over a period of eleven years, depicted Bobby’s experiences of mental illness, in real time, as it was happening to her. Throughout this period, incidentally, Bobby continued to work prolifically, raise a family and continue to forge an impressive career.
Despite her international reputation, and long established success as an artist, Bobby herself had no idea how the drawings would be received or what the impact of going public with something so personal would be. Needless to say, they went down a storm, the Wellcome extended the length of the original exhibition, and it has since been touring, going to Portugal, Belgium and Holland.
The ways in which the exhibition and the book that came out of it have made an impact are wide reaching. The book won Mind Book of the Year in 2011. People recognised themselves and their own experiences in the images. Those with no experience of mental illness felt a glimmer of understanding as to what it might be like. Practitioners and academics in mental health took notice.
Since that exhibition, Bobby has been as busy as ever, her new piece about what it takes to cultivate mental wellness, Mad Gyms and Kitchens, receiving critical and audience approval.
So, when I put a call out to Fellows of the RSA to find out who has interest, experience or expertise relating to mental health and employment, Bobby Baker responded. As a long-time fan of her work, I was ever so slightly starstruck (and definitely not squealing with glee) to see her name in my inbox. As a keen, and in her words ‘patient’ Fellow, she’s been waiting for the right thing to get involved with, and luckily for me, the challenges I outlined sparked her interest.
Today I met with Bobby Baker to discuss her take on the issues around mental health and work. She has a unique perspective, rich with the insight and wisdom that comes from personal experience. Amongst other things, she told me about a new project she’s working on in which she’ll tell the story of the steps along her journey to get to the extraordinary position of influence and leadership she now occupies. It’s quite a story, and the unique way she has of expressing herself, whether in conversation, in her drawings, or in her performance, is bighearted and expansive. Fortunately for the RSA, she’s as generous with her time and ideas as she is in her artistic expression.