Brain Pickings

Drawing Mental Illness: Artist Bobby Baker’s Visual Diary

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Harvesting the daily flow of consciousness, or what group therapy has to do with marine life.

Despite our proudest cultural and medical advances, mental illness remains largely taboo, partly because the experience of it can be so challenging to articulate. But when performance artist Bobby Baker was diagnosed with borderline personality disorder in 1996, followed by a breast cancer diagnosis, she set out to capture her experience and her journey to recovery in 711 drawings that would serve as her private catharsis over the course of more than a decade. In Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me, Baker makes, at long last, this private experience public through 158 drawings and watercolors — poignant, honest, funny, moving, shocking — spanning 11 years of mental, physical, and emotional healing, a journey Marina Warner aptly calls in the preface a “chronicle of a life repaired.” The book is at once a personal journal and a tenacious thesaurus that helps translate the misunderstood realities of mental illness into an expressive and intuitive visual language the rest of the world can understand, reminiscent of the wonderful Drawing Autism.

I think mental illness is the worst of anything. The hierarchy of suffering is sort of bound into our society. But my personal experience is that the isolation and anguish of severe mental illness was much worse than…having something physical that people could understand better.” ~ Bobby Baker

From how the tears flow into her ears when she does yoga (Day 320) to the weight gain side effects of medication (Day 397) to the uplifting “butterflies of academia” (Day 579) to the strain of chemo (Day 698), Baker’s illustrated micro-narratives are startlingly raw, yet incredibly eloquent and layered.

Day 303

Day 320

Day 397

Day 470

Day 526

Day 579

Day 690

Day 698

The sequence of the drawings follows the artist’s painful but, ultimately, triumphant recovery, with the last stretch of pictures exuding a kind of cathartic exhale, a “huge, happy, light-headed relief,” as Warner puts it. Baker’s favorite drawing is from Day 771, titled “The Daily Flow of Consciousness,” which she believes represents her current state:

Day 771

Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me is magnificent in its entirety. The Guardian has a wonderful audio slideshow of Baker’s work, narrated by the artist herself.

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