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Don Jones: Make Art (Therapy), Not War

An art therapy icon is deeply missed.

Many of my art therapy colleagues were sad to learn today that Don Jones, one of the founders of the profession, has died. Don’s life and work as an artist and art therapist have had a deep and significant impact so many of us that it is difficult to articulate just how much he has influenced modern day practice. Most importantly, he was part of a unique generation of individuals who simultaneously arrived at the idea of “art therapy,” yet practiced in isolation for many years until making contact with each other in the 1950s and 60s.

Don Jones Flashcard | Collage
© 2010 C. Malchiodi | Don Jones Flashcard, mixed media collage on vintage flashcard.

What I have always found most fascinating about Don Jones is how he arrived at the notion of art as a form of therapy. It all began as a conscientious objector during the Second World War, during the period of approximately 1943 to 1947, summed up by Don as follows:

“It was at this time and under these circumstances that some 3000 conscientious objectors, drafted by the Selective Service, volunteered to staff many state hospitals. Under the Selective Training and Service Act of 1940, the US Congress had made provisions for conscientious objectors to perform work of national importance under the auspices of a Civilian Public Service program” (Jones, 1983, p. 22).

So after being drafted and, as Don noted, serving a 6-month stint as a human guinea pig for the Army Medical Corps, he volunteered at the age of 19 years and ended up as an artist in the world of psychiatry. He was assigned to Marlboro State Hospital in New Jersey, a facility that housed 2,800 individuals in various buildings with about 150 patients each. Essentially, Don was a “jack-of-all-trades.” serving meals and providing general assistance to patients. As Don said, “we didn’t have psychotropic medicines [that] are available now” and there were no specialized programs like art therapy or other treatments. In those moments at Marlboro, he had an epiphany--that art making was, in fact, his own asylum and means of survival as he witnessed daily human misery, first hand.

Don Jones Photo 87 years old
Don Jones | courtesy of C. Malchiodi Collection

Don also collected the artworks of patients who produced creative images not only out of boredom, but also out of the inner need to find their own reparation and emotional homeostasis. He noted, “The walls, the halls and even the tunnels and passageways beneath buildings were covered with elaborate, spontaneous scribblings, depicting pain, tumultuous anxiety, and abandoned hope. It was more than graffiti—it was soul language!” And, in my estimation, then and there emerged one of the first “art therapists” in the US, because at that point Don began his journey to understand what these individuals were trying to communicate and how he could perhaps help them find healing through art expression.

Don’s work and a series of cathartic paintings of hospitalized individuals eventually came to the attention Dr. Karl Menninger and was invited to exhibit his paintings in the Menninger Foundation museum. He was also asked to initiate an art therapy program at the Menninger Foundation Hospital, one of the largest hospitals at the time in the US; he was later joined by art therapist, Robert Ault and they established a formal Creative Activities Program at Menninger. Don and Bob went on to help establish the American Art Therapy Association in the late 1960s with colleague Myra Levick and others. At around that time, he also became the Director of Adjunctive Therapy at Harding Hospital in Worthington, OH and mentored and supervised art therapists-in-training for many years.

I am one of many who will deeply miss Don Jones because he was not only a friend and colleague, but also a mentor and guide whose wisdom and vision for the field of art therapy inspired several generations of professionals. Don’s induction speech and presentation of an art therapy Honorary Life Member award to me in 2002 is one of life’s unforgettable moments; his words and well-wishes have sustained me as a helping professional and visual artist for every year since. But most of all, I feel fortunate to have crossed paths with this unforgettable character whose own unlikely and remarkable journey changed so many lives in so many ways.

With gratitude,

Cathy A. Malchiodi, PhD, LPCC, LPAT, ATR-BC, REAT

© 2015 Cathy Malchiodi


Jones, D. (1983). An art therapist’s personal record. Art Therapy, 1(1), 22-25.

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