It would be a mistake to dismiss Don Robert’s artwork as unrefined. At first look at Don’s art one notices his bold colors and a dramatic use of line. But the more you know about Don the more you see deeper into his art – here is an artist who understood the power of his own art as a way of healing himself and others, and the possibility that his art and his life could be agents of change. I am certain he would have bristled at the terms “outsider” and “naïve” artist; Don Roberts was neither.

Don was born in 1962. He was institutionized at the Stockton State Hospital in early adulthood. Don later attended the Alan Short Center in Stockton for many years and also attended Short Center South in Sacramento for a short time. His love of the creative process is evident in his use of varied media including painting, drawing, ceramics, music, and writing.

Don’s tenacity and determination in his life are mirrored in his art. There is nothing tentative in his choice of color or line, or subject matter. His artful use of chalks is well-planned yet has a fluidity resembling watercolors. His memories of his life at the State Hospital are a reoccurring theme in his art and resulted in his most compelling images. Figures are compartmentalized with many shapes and objects that fit together, some of these figures are without faces – some look like tribal masks or like moaning spirits. In his best work there is an eeriness that echoes the feel of the forlorn gothic grounds of the old Stockton hospital where Don once lived, and contradicts the brashness of his dynamic color choices. Owl figures with large scrutinizing eyes, nurses posed with syringes, dispassionate doctor figures and spiraling red devils, and primal hieroglyphic writing twist around these compositions. There is something quietly disturbing about them that goes beyond subject matter.

Don’s activism was legendary; he once ran for Mayor of Stockton and received close to 900 votes. He was very active in the self-advocacy movement; many of his videos are archived on utube. He was an active member Stockton Regional Center Board, and also instrumental in the forming of the California Memorial Project, the mission of which is “to honor and restore dignity to individuals that lived and died in state hospitals and developmental centers”. Don was also happily married in 2004 to a woman whom he met through self-advocacy groups.

Don saved money for his burial and passed away suddenly in 2009 after experiencing ongoing health concerns for some years. Don’s wish was to be buried in the Stockton Rural Cemetery where many remains of institutionalized Hospital patients were relocated.

The following the original text is from Don’s online blog – some of the spelling has been changed. It is a testament to a man that many called a friend, an advocate and an inspiration.

Donald Roberts-Stockton State Hospital Cemetery

Hello everyone: I been wanting to share my story with everyone about my life in a state hospital. First of all let me tell you today my life is much better, just because I am an advocate and I speak up for the right of me and other people. I am not mad at anyone not even my mom who put me in a state hospital to live when I was a young man in my twenties or maybe even younger. I don’t regret my past and the people that took care of me, and the doctors that wanted me to live, and all the medications and treatment and shock therapy that they put me on, and also experimental drugs. I am a lucky man. I am a lucky to be alive because of those people and my mom. I have choices to live my life any way I want to. It is a blessing to even have a name and not just to be known with a number (#). My state hospital had a cremation room, and a morgue and a cemetery in the back. There were about 2,238 * people lost their lives in Stockton California. Their families put them in there just like my family did, because they had a disability and they did not want (them) to be seen in the community. They did not have a choice in their lives, with what they wanted to do. I could have been one of them in a cemetery with no name and that is why I don’t give up the fight, and I cannot rest until all the people have a name and be remembered. Some of the work I have done as advocate for the mentally ill and people with disabilities. I was working on a project called the (California memorial project-sb 1448) to remember all California and people that lost there lives. Well that project went down the drain and people in charge don’t like to hear what I am saying. They have put nice plaques at the Stockton state hospital to remember people, but with no names on the plaque. I am sad because you and I have a name, and even god has a name, but why can’t these people too. I have served on the state on some state department boards of California and no one wants to hear what I got to say. I am still on the grounds of the old state hospital; the difference is I get to go home to my wife. I am also an artist and I am using my art to tell my story. I am making a series of ceramic faces of people who have look at me in the past and told me no. (happy, sad and angry faces) this is something that I deal with in everyday life, and I have learned an important thing in life and that is I have learned to be patient and forgiving, and understanding and I learned to walk away and to accept people…. I have compassion. I never thought that I would be working with kids that have (autism) (sic). I am very happy with my life. I wish I could travel the country or U.S., and tell people my story and tell people that have been in mental health or the state hospital never never never give up your dreams. My hero is Dr. Martin Luther King he said today I have a dream and my saying is I am living in the dream. It cant get any better than this, but we all must be an advocate, we all let state workers know how important it is to continue to get the services that we get and where we live it. We are not asking for raises or just asking for no more cuts for people with disabilities and it is important that you live your dreams too, and your voices be heard, and this my story and my name is Donald Roberts.

*About the old Stockton state mental hospital (development center): it was the first “insane asylum’ (as it was called) in California, active 1851 to 1996 (dates vary). Many of the gothic buildings of the facility still stand, some unoccupied. The DDSO ASC day program, which Don attended is housed on these grounds. There were over 4,400 burials at this facility, many buried anonymously in mass graves. Some bodies were later unearthed and cremated; some were dug up and moved to other sites. Patient records older than 75 years are available on microfilm at the California state archives according to the OAC.

For a historic video about the hospital:

Thanks to Mark Starford of the board resource center for use of the video on Don and Don’s wife Krisi and for contributing art images. Thanks to Magi Garcia, Pat Wood, and Carol Herrmann for contributing information for this bio.

2 thoughts on “Roberts

  1. I haven’t been so deeply moved by a story in a long time. I wept as I read it. This man was a true artist and a fine human being. His life epitomizes the way that art is meant to capture and celebrate the human spirit. Thank you so much for sharing Don’s story.

  2. Donald was born in may of 1961 and Donald was not married, he had a union (not legal) with Kristi franzoni thats why her name is not Roberts but he was married 2 times pror, to -two Dorthy Roberts one in stockton and one in sacremento.but was not legaly married at the time of his death..Don was only an out patient at mental health in stockton.and stayed for observation only a few times, Donald never resided at the the state hospital. Don did not save money for his barial, His mother step father and sister payed for his cremation and the obituary in the paper. Donald had the option of writeing a will but chose not too several months befor he passed.donald was an advocate for people with disabilities and struggled forr years to get the press as well as the city and state to agnolage that there were bodies barried on the old stae hospital grounds, you are more than welcome to check all records to vallidate the information I have shaired with all of you.

Leave a Reply