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Feature: Bobby Baker talks to Run Riot about Mad Gyms & Kitchens - and wending her way to Paradise

After triumphantly wending her way from acute illness to wellness, internationally acclaimed performance artist Bobby Baker shares her own recipe for Daily Life. Dogs, cycling & cabin cruisers are just a few of the ingredients that go to make up her signature dish. Paradise is a state of mind…

It’s mid afternoon, in a tucked away cafe off the Holloway Road. I’m here to meet the legendary artist and emotional rights campaigner Bobby Baker. And she doesn’t disappoint. Infectiously bubbly yet softly spoken, delightfully charming and intelligent with her trademark crop and mischievous eyes - Bobby manages to exude a Zen like aura that makes one feel instantly at peace. So I set out to discover her secret.

At 59, Bobby Baker is one of our most treasured and celebrated artists. After training as a painter at St Martins, she has gone on to enjoy a successful career spanning over 4-decades. Highlights include: dancing with meringue ladies; making a life sized edible version of her family; curing ‘pea’ patients in her sell-out Barbican show,How to Live; and strapping herself to the back of a truck, screaming at passers-by "Pull Yourselves Together!"

She now runs her own arts company, Daily Life Ltd which is regularly funded by Arts Council England; holds a senior research fellowship in English and Drama at Queen Mary University of London; and is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Arts.

And if all this isn’t enough - between 1997 and 2008, Bobby suffered an acute mental breakdown whilst battling breast cancer. This experience she privately documented into a series of 700 daily watercolour paintings, which premiered at the Wellcome Collection in 2009, and later became a major touring exhibition, ‘Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me’. The accompanying book of the same name was Mind Book of the Year 2011.

We start by chatting about her latest show, Mad Gyms and Kitchens – inspired by her own harrowing journey from illness to hard-won recovery. ‘The show is about the distinction between wellness and illness – it’s about the WHOLE of a person’ says Bobby. ‘It’s a dialogue about daily life.’

For Bobby, the term 'wellness' itself is slightly absurd. ‘It’s in the economy, in politics, in health provision. It was 'recovery' - but now it’s happiness, or wellbeing.’


These days, she spreads her own wisdom on wellness. ‘It’s about making sense of things, for yourself,’ she considers. ‘It’s about taking control, not just doing what the so-called experts tell you.’

In the show, to quote the promotional blurb – ‘a fantastical ‘recovery apparatus’ invites the audience to explore how to get better at feeling better.’  Bobby explains - 'I offer examples of what’s worked for me, but I really want people to think about it for themselves.’

Top tips from Mad Gyms & Kitchens audience members around the country are being collated into a fabulous online scrapbook of inspirational thoughts and images. I ask if she has a favourite so far. ‘Oh I really am spoilt for choice,’ she exclaims gleefully. ‘There are so many, they're very revealing about people. One man drew three blue mountains with the numbers 3, 6 and 5 beside them. He was a research scientist and loved numbers. So that was his essence, what made him feel good.’

Bobby sprinkles our own 'feel-goods' into our conversation at random – dogs, cycling, swimming, kites, cabin cruisers. 'Communicating, making sense of things, writing, painting, music, performance, anything is very self-empowering’ she tells me. 'What we’re really all striving for is a life worth living.’

It’s tempting for people to regard all Bobby’s art as therapy. ‘It’s distinctly not,’ she clarifies. ‘It’s easy to see all type of work as therapeutic. Personally, I’ve always used my work as a way of processing what’s going on, at any stage of my life. My work is my way of surviving - but it’s not therapy.’

Bobby’s own ‘making sense of things’ shopping bag is - 'full of masses of things. Lots and lots of flyers and handouts.’ And so off we wend, taking in emotional therapies (Narrative & Dialectical Behavioural Therapy), Mindfulness, and an intriguing gem called, The Adult Pleasant Event Schedule - which although she ridiculed at the time for being terribly ‘American’ now confesses, did change her life. So what did she find most helpful along the way? ‘Understanding how thoughts and emotions connect,’ she says, ‘then becoming really good at working out what was going on in my own mind.’

We ponder on emotional health for a while, agreeing that strong emotions like anxiety or anger can be very healthy – our way of dealing with fearful situations. It’s only when they become engulfing that we’re in trouble. ‘It’s how you manage it,’ she adds. ‘It’s about addressing it, understanding it, and then dealing with it.’

Bobby feels that being of a ‘certain generation’, meant she postponed her own mental health crisis for too long - ‘I feel inspired and hopeful that more young people are able to talk about it now, deal with it when they are young.’

A hugely optimistic person by nature, determination and hope have been Bobby's guiding lights. So, does she consider herself fully recovered now? ‘YES!’ she beams with a heartwarming gleam in her eye. ‘I’ve gradually worked my own way out. It’s wonderful.’

I suggest this must have taken huge strength of character on her part. ‘More like bloody mindedness’ she roars. ‘I just thought - I’m not going to be beaten by this. Of course, I cannot say I won’t go crazy again the future, but I don’t see any signs of it so far!’

So what is her secret to survival? ‘By going through it, not avoiding it.’ Her empowering motto she tells me is, ‘The Best Way Out is Through.’

For Bobby, like so many, the issues that led to both her emotional and physical ill health were complex. ‘I would say, the main reason for me cracking up was money. So often, people assume it’s some deep trauma, but there are so many reasons for things going wrong. All right, my father was drowned when I was fifteen, which was a terrible tragedy - but that was a hell of a long time ago. Really, it was a whole pattern of things.'

Bobby is much more accepting of herself now. She says she feels a stronger person today for having gone though her period of extreme suffering. ‘I am much happier. I feel privileged! I just wish it had happened when I was much younger. But to have the opportunity to go through something, rather than skate around it, is such a gift. I was really compassionate about the world, but very self-critical. Now I feel OK. I mean, I’m not perfect, I still have to work at it,’ she adds.

‘It’s about taking responsibility for my part in the way things happened, but also assigning responsibility to others. At the end of it all, I realised that I wasn’t actually mad - it was the whole world around me!’

So if she could wave a magic wand – what would Bobby most like to change about society’s current attitudes towards ill health? ‘That we all stop judging - there’s so much judgment attached in our society’ she replies passionately. ‘We are all by nature prejudiced. We all have anxiety, fear and anger inside us. We need them - but we judge other people all the time.'

'Society is always looking for a scapegoat, for somebody to blame. It's quite easy if you're not careful to just think that a particular person is a problem – rather than they have got a problem’ she says. ‘I can say I’m mad. I can say I’m crazy. I can say I’m bonkers – but people can’t say it about me!'

We talk stigma for a while – agreeing that the taboo surrounding mental health today, is similar to the fear, ignorance and embarrassment that was attached to the dreaded ‘C’ word - only 20 years ago. ‘In the 11 years, I was mentally ill, I probably had one or two bunches of flowers - whereas when I got cancer, I must have got hundreds.’ Bobby sighs.

So how do we move things forward? ‘It’s a very gradual process. It’s lots of people talking about it – a collective dialogue’ she replies. ‘I actually think, more and more people now feel able to say they’ve had a bad time - it’s alright to discuss it.’

‘I’m just an artist - so I’ve decided to try and make work about it, because there is no simple solution. Things have changed massively since I first got ill [1997]. I’m really optimistic, but we’ve still got a few hundred years to go!’

Today, Bobby is clearly someone in balance, seemingly at peace with herself and the world around her. ‘I used to dwell on the past or the future,’ she says, ‘now, I just try and enjoy the moment. It takes a lot of practice – but it really is liberating.’ These days, she tells me – she aspires to peace above all else. ‘I met this extraordinary psychologist called Rufus May - he said he was only really interested in peace these days – and I thought that was utterly inspiring.’

So what’s next for Bobby? ‘Well, there’s this big digital project - ‘Geography Dog, History Cat,’ that I’m working on at the moment – making a virtual map of a group of people in the East End through the eyes of a dog and cat.'

‘I would love to spend more time painting soon. I want to do a series of paintings about paradise.’

'There’s an amazing park around the corner that I’ve been obsessed with for years, called Paradise Park. I found myself always finding excuses to go there, or cycle past it. Then one day as I was sitting in there, I realised, here I am – Paradise! Now, because I allow myself the opportunity to do nice things and have these moments of joy, I realise that Paradise doesn’t exist - the whole concept is a fantasy. Paradise is actually just a state of mind.'

After our meeting, I skip on the tube. I feel different, lighter somehow - glowing inside, as though I’ve been bestowed with a priceless secret.

I spend the next couple of days noting my own paradise moments – leaves glistening in the sun; freshly cut grass in my local park; the delicious taste of a juicy burger as it melts in my mouth; the glorious smell of fresh mint. This dialogue is starting to feel good - and I’ve not even seen the show yet! For me, these mindful moments are Paradise Found. Thanks Bobby x

Catch Bobby’s hilarious show as it heads for its final destination:
Bobby Baker's Mad Gyms & Kitchens 
at Southbank Centre, London
31 Aug 2012 - 09 Sep 2012
7pm, 5pm and 1pm

About Bobby Baker's company Daily Life Ltd
Daily Life Ltd is the disability-led arts organisation that produces the work of Bobby Baker, one of the UK’s most celebrated artists. Together with fellow collaborators we explore, investigate, pose questions, entertain, inspire and celebrate daily life and its limitations through an ambitious programme of artworks focusing on arts in health and mental wellbeing.

These artworks cross many disciplines and provide unique, high quality artistic experiences for a wide range of audiences both nationally and internationally. Above all we challenge the stigmatisation and discrimination of people with experience of mental illness and raise public awareness of this vital sector.

In March 2011 Daily Life Ltd became part of Arts Council England’s National Portfolio.

Mad Gyms & Kitchens has been commissioned by the Unlimited programme [Southbank Centre], part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.

Related links
Cultural Olympiad: