Europeana isn’t all ancient art and trench warfare. There’s modern stuff in the collections too. But because it’s recent, a lot of it is still in copyright, which means it can’t be easily shared in places like this blog. But here’s one gem of a collection that has been made available.
Artist Bobby Baker compiled a collection of drawings over an eleven-year period from 1997-2008 while she was a patient in a day centre, following a diagnosis of so-called ‘borderline personality disorder’. Originally private, the drawings gradually became a way for her to communicate complex thoughts and emotions that are difficult to articulate, to her family, friends and professionals.
The drawings chart Bobby’s treatment in day hospitals and acute psychiatric wards, psychological therapies, mediation and the UK’s NHS mental health ‘system’, as well as her family life, friends and work, and the joy of slowly getting better.
Bobby describes her drawing routine: “I planned to stay in the day centre for three weeks and found a small, sunny art room. I made a strict rule: to do a diary drawing every single day I was there. Five years later, since I only went occasionally to the day centre, I made the decision to change my daily drawings to weekly ones.”
The drawings were collected in a book called ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me’ (Profile Books 2010) and an exhibition shown at the Wellcome Collection, London in 2009.
The first drawing is called ‘A sort of doodle – but with a desperate sub-text.’ It shows a gleeful-looking woman running with open arms. But the pencil scribbles reveal a darker side. ‘So much pressure’, ‘I feel strange. I hate it’. On day 17, the drawing shows Bobby naked with lots of squiggly lines painted on her body. She says, ‘I thought that if I piped decorative icing sugar all over my body it might make me feel better.’
In one of the final drawings in Europeana’s collection (number 664), Bobby and her husband hear from a consultant and a specialist breast care nurse that she has cancer. Bobby also reveals that her mother is dying and that she herself occasionally ‘goes barking mad’. She says ‘It’s a relief actually, to have something you’re not judged for’, implying that cancer is more socially acceptable than mental health problems.
These drawings were intended to provide a therapeutic release and way to communicate for the artist. For their audience, they’re challenging and yet refreshing. They’re creative and full of humour and determination, while making us confront how we think of and approach mental illness. See the full set on Europeana here.