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Interview: Bobby Baker, artist

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Bobby Baker is a woman and an artist acclaimed for producing radical work of outstanding quality across disciplines including performance, drawing and multi-media. In a career spanning four decades she has, amongst other things, danced with meringue ladies; made a life-sized version of her family out of cake; and driven around the streets of London strapped to the back of a truck yelling at passers-by through a megaphone to ‘Pull Yourselves Together.’ Baker’s touring exhibition Diary Drawings: Mental Illness and Me 1997- 2008 premiered at the Wellcome Collection in 2009, and the accompanying book of the same name won the Mind Book of the Year 2011. Her most recent live show, Mad Gyms & Kitchens, was commissioned as part of the London 2012 Unlimited project for the Cultural Olympiad. Baker’s work focuses on undervalued and stigmatised aspects of everyday life and human behaviour, expressly undertaking to foreground the lives of women in the mainstream and bring status to so-called ‘humble’ daily activity. Baker occupies a unique professional and personal position in the worlds of both the arts and mental health. Following an AHRC Creative Fellowship at Queen Mary University, London she was awarded an Honorary Doctorate in 2011.

What place does sugar have in your world?

I was at St Martins in the 70s doing paintings and I just couldn't relate to that commercial world, but I loved making things and I just decided at the end of leaving art school to reject the elitism of the art world and to be a business woman. The Royal College kept rejecting me anyway. I was selling these baseball boots that I hand dyed. I did make money but it just got really wearing. I'd always liked making cakes, I started decorating cakes when I was quite young, it was my thing, and I bought some madeira cake - I must have had a plan, it must have been for a birthday, as I carved this cake into a boot during one evening in this horrible place I was living - and then I iced it. At about midnight as I looked at this cake, and it was one of the founding moments of my artistic life. It was this revelation, that I'd made a work of art. And what I loved about it was that it was so badly made, it was sort of dribbly, and you know, the British School of Sculpture based at St Martins all reverently followed Anthony Caro and all that lot, all his acolytes marching up and down the corridors making these huge macho sculptures which had Greek names, and I just felt like - and I still do to this day - like going in there and saying, “now here is A Work of Art of Great Significance”, dun dun dahhh (dramatic music)! It was like I knew I could be an artist on my own terms - that was the turning point.

So I just threw myself into making cakes. I'm still lugging round paintings I did at Art School that I can't quite bring myself to throw away, because I really wasn't into selling work, so the fact that I could now make these things that could be an event, that got consumed and became part of people's bodies was just, delightful. For the parties I had - tea parties - I would spend days making these elaborate little sculptures, a naked woman sitting on a chair, all these little models and meringue ladies laid on the table – the parties were such a flop - everyone standing around, nobody knew what to do. But then I met some performance artists, and by then I was making these life size babies on meat platters, and doing all these drawings about them, so they invited me to bring them along and that was it really, it all started from there.

I did my first performance at Oval house - no actually before that I did one dressed as Princess Anne, in Charing Cross road on her wedding day, we're the same age, it was so wonderful not being her, while performing her and I had the baby cake on a meat platter stabbing it with a knife. Ever so random and experimental that early work - everyone was horrified. The main thing became these little meringue ladies that I still make, supposedly dressed up like them. I’ve taken them many places over the years - in my 20s I ending up dancing on them and handing them out to people. They're really desirable these little things and they were like my team of strong women - my little crew in a way - but so absurd, delicate and brittle. I like meringue - what happens to it.

Bobby Bakers Edible Family In A Mobile Home At Her Prefab Acme House In Conder Street E1 Andrew1

An Edible Family in a Mobile Home, 1976

I did a History of Modern Art out of sugar, meticulously iced onto canvas boards, and I made what was one of the biggest achievement’s of my career, An Edible Family in a Mobile Home (an entire life-size family made of cake and meringue in her Stepney Pre-fab house). It was 1976 and I was 26 years old. I was absolutely determined to do everything, the whole place. I put newsprint on the walls of each room that was appropriate to who was in the room, but then I iced on top of it. In the main room where the father and the baby were it was all the popular press, and I iced around all the figures. In the bedroom where the teenage daughter was sort of suspended, there were these wild iced drawings of her dancing naked - you wouldn't have recognised it, but in my mind they were. What I loved about sugar at the time and I think I still do, is that smell to it - the crystalline beauty of it, and the whole house was sugar – the walls and figures sparkled. It it was utterly beautiful but that didn’t last throughout the week - it became grotesque as it got eaten. Sugar just has that specialness, delight, people just love things made out of it, you can make things from pastry but they’re not as special as the brittleness of sugar.

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An Edible Family in a Mobile Home

One of the other early performance things I did was a life size version of Christmas dinner made out of cake, like the jelly, the Christmas pudding, the turkey, the dish of vegetables. I took it to a party at St Martins - I worked through the night, a ridiculous amount of work, drove it up there, and of course during the party it all got completely smashed and crushed on the floor. So only some of it got eaten. It was rather a wasted effort so I made miniature versions of the meal – 9 peppermint cream dishes served on a tiny silver cake board. 


1973 sugar christmas dinner dishes with moulds.

I so loved those tiny sugar meals that for my most recent project Great & Tiny War in Newcastle, I made new versions of those peppermint creams for one of the rooms. I wanted to convey the idea of the amount of hard invisible labour involved in caring for a family. The title for that room was Grossly Undervalued Domestic Products, based on an extraordinary Adam Smith Memorial lecture given by Sandi Toksvig. She coined that phrase, about domestic labour. So clever. I worked out that if one person cooked three meals a day throughout the duration of the First World War that would be 4701 meals. I wanted to display that work using the peppermint creams. I collaborated with  my son Charlie Whittuck who's a designer and maker. He made an extraordinary stainless steel revolving multi- tiered stand - referencing Newcastle's engineering history - which slowly revolved. On it were arranged the 4701 peppermint cream meals. The room smelt of peppermint. I wanted to celebrate all that labour by producing a really stunning tribute.


1973 mould for sugar mince pies.

What is the most interesting thing that sugar does?

Sugar represents something special, it was special, it was expensive, and sugar craft, sugar as I have used it celebrates skill, piping, spinning sugar, it's for a special occasion. I was absolutely obsessed with cake decorating in the 70s. I would spend all my time searching out cake decorating shops which are pretty different to how they are now, it wasn’t fashionable, it was a catering trade. So there was this funny little shop in south London, they almost shut they shop when they saw me coming because I’d trawl through all this special equipment, and I’d got this amazing book called the Modern Baker, which was the second edition written by some famous pastry chef, who was very very skilled. He wrote this book on how you can make art out of sugar. It’s very much about sugar work, but there was this whole thing about how you could go out and “pipe from life”! He actually writes this and he shows all these little examples - he discovered how to paint, but he was doing it out of sugar. He was passionate about it but his pictures would be a deer, or a robin or something but they were on a black japanned tray. And I just loved all the oddness of that, and I loved the oddness of the cake decorating occasion. I suppose I’ve always been interested in food because of what it represents for the people who are involved, eating or making - and I’d come up against people who were making cakes for fancy occasions and as much as I loved it, I wasn’t like that, I was using the sugar as an art material.

Modern Baker

John Krikland. The Modern Baker, Confectioner and Caterer.
Published by Gresham Publishing Company. London 1909.

Does your experience with sugar affect what you eat day-to-day?

It's quite an addictive thing - that's not quite the right word but it’s really hard to resist sugar. I get chronic health problems as a result of past chemo and psychiatric medication, which causes rashes and sometimes sugar cravings. It's a quick fix - I’ve always had a blood sugar issue, I know if I have sugar at the wrong time of day it's disastrous, because I just crash. I’m wary of it. I haven’t got a very sweet tooth but I do like a fruity yoghurt. I love a good pudding. I love afternoon tea. If you look at the history of it, it's become ubiquitous and it's awful the way it was produced. I grew up in the 50s so it was a real treat - part of me knows that it's rare and special. I try to avoid sugar as part of my everyday life now, I like making cakes but only for occasions. If sugar is in your diet for a special occasion it's wonderful.

How do you feel towards sugar?

The biggest impact of all that cake and icing making in the 70s was that I'd completely messed up my teeth, I’d got a habit of licking my fingers, but also I was leading a chaotic life. I missed going the dentists for 3 years, I couldn’t afford to get work done, and eventually I had to suffer the consequences. I stopped working with sugar after that. And I think also I felt I had done sugar by the age of 30. I had children and when I came back to making work, when my daughter Dora was 8 and Charlie 5, at the time of Drawing on a Mother's Experience, the food was much more about everyday life, and it wasn't sugar.
Aila one of my grand-daughters is now 3 - and at her recent birthday party I just couldn't help eating the fondant cake. I was very tired and I'm not meant to have things like cake now, but it was so nice I kept sneaking bits off the knife, but I kept going back, feeling bad. When I had chemotherapy it stripped my gut of its natural bacteria so I’m sensitive to sugar and additives. I remember I had a tiny bit of kinder egg just after the chemo and it was hideous, bitter in my mouth. I managed to stop eating any additives mostly since then.


Drawing on a Mother's Experience. Image © Andrew Whittuck, 1988.
Drawing on a (Grand) Mother's Experience. Image © Belinda Lawley, 2015.

How does sugar relate to power?

It's powerful in terms of its memories and associations. I don't take sugar in my tea - I was told I was thick at school, and it was the saving of me, because my mother thought the school was stupid anyway, so she moved me to the local boarding school as a day girl when I was 9 - but when we went up to senior school at 11 - we used to eat together and we got mixed up with the older girls - we used to have afternoon tea, and I was too nervous to ask them to pass the sugar! I could have sugar in my tea at home, that's what you did - it was the thing, but I’ve never had it since, because I was too shy to ask.  Quite a profound experience at that age. We were allowed to take in pots of jam as extras, so you had your own special pot. We had a really close group of six friends. I remember one tea, we had those synthetic supposed split donuts with the artificial cream, a great delicacy, and we were larking around, and my friend squashed one in my face which I thought was the funniest thing ever and she still feels bad about it. But it was that larking around with food, a really powerful force in terms of childhood associations. My brother and I would save up pocket money for weeks before we'd go to Norfolk, then we'd get a tin, and we'd put all our sweets together, and we'd eat them in one go. Sweets are such a childhood treasure, the only thing we'd spend money on. I don’t remember ever buying toys but sweets... they cost so little you could afford them.

So because sweets were so ubiquitous when we were all kids, why do you think sweetness is a feminine thing as adults?

Oh! sugar and spice and all things nice, I’ve never thought about how far that rhyme goes - it’s a treat, probably goes back to that image of what Victorian men wanted women to be, which was confined in the home and doing the nice delicate domestic things. It’s a symbol of refinement and aspiration too I suppose.


Kitchen Show. Image © Andrew Whittuck, 1991.

I suffered from PMT when my children were small. My GP said you honestly should have chocolate - it really works. My mum wanted to be a doctor because she was really clever, and she was really interesting and interested in what she's grown up with, which was invalid cookery, before there was antibiotics. So my whole life - when we were ill we'd have a particular diet, and it fucking worked! It got thrown out with antibiotics and has come back to a degree, only quite recently. We'd have very light food, and easily digested food, and you would lose your appetite, and you'd have a little bit of sugar on some arrowroot, which is a food that Victorian explorers discovered was good for soothing the stomach. The sugar was to make it palatable so you'd bother to eat it at all, there’s something about caring food that applies to sugar.

When we were ill we used to get a comic and a bottle of Lucozade, with the orange cellophane, because it had glucose in it, which was meant to be good, it was like delicious medicine. When I was in my adolescence we had glucose tablets - they weren’t a very nice taste but I’d get 'em down.

My other absolute delight was pinching the jelly blocks cube by cube. Not just the taste, it feels really good, you have to chew them, and they're naughty.