With help from big names, Sparr spreads message of PeaceLove

With help from big names, Sparr spreads message of PeaceLove

Jeff Sparr, founder of PeaceLove Studios in Pawtucket, says his organization is on the verge of spreading its message of creating peace for the mentally ill to millions of people, thanks to partnerships with nationally known companies. Behind Sparr are the name tags for thousands of people who have come through the doors of his space at the Hope Artiste Village. (Breeze photo by Ethan Shorey)
Aims to erase stigma for those with mental illnesses

PAWTUCKET – What started seven years ago as a little art studio with a dream has blossomed into an international movement supporting people with mental illness.

Jeff Sparr, the founder of PeaceLove Studios at the Hope Artiste Village on Main Street, says big-time companies are helping his team toward their goal of “making it cool” to support people with mental illnesses. The PeaceLove symbol is becoming known around the world as a sign of hope, he says.

There’s a reason the popular term is an “eight-year overnight success,” said Sparr. “We’re right at that tipping point,” he said.

Sparr, who struggles with obsessive compulsive disorder, said there’s still a long way to go in “developing programming that will help millions of people,” but new partnerships with companies such as Jockey, Zappos and Alex and Ani are making the task so much easier.

Zappos alone was a “godsend,” said Sparr, as the company has dozens of brands. Each company that partners with PeaceLove is agreeing to sell lines of PeaceLove merchandise, with a portion of the proceeds going back to the movement.

Sparr said he has discovered that getting out the PeaceLove message of creating peace of mind for the mentally ill through art is much easier on the national stage. Many people locally don’t understand just what the organization is about and how big it has gotten.

PeaceLove gets hundreds of requests each month to bring “life-changing programs and experiences” to schools and groups across the country, but the organization will never be able to hire hundreds of workers to get the message out, said Sparr. The strategy is to acquire the resources to train others to bring programming to the masses. Strategic partnerships help bring in those resources.

With funding help from companies like CVS, one of PeaceLove’s original supporters, the “Creators” program now equips front-line professionals to deliver the organization’s expressive arts curriculum to communities impacted by mental health disorders. The goal, Sparr said, is to have about 120 “creators” in 30 states by the end of 2016.

The PeaceLove movement is an organic one that Sparr says will make mental illness cool, “not cool to have it, cool to support it.”

Sparr says he is “a recipient of how art can impact someone’s life,” and his motivation has always been to pass that along to others. In many ways, art saved him. Whether the chosen art form is painting, theater, photography or singing, “art can be life changing,” said Sparr, but the arts are often first to go when there are budget cuts.

The original idea for the PeaceLove symbol was to create something recognizable that everyone can rally around, said Sparr.

“I hope that someday it’s synonymous with mental health in this country and world,” he said.

It’s never a good idea to “jam mental illness down people’s throats,” said Sparr, but promoting awareness through an Alex and Ani PeaceLove Bangle or Jockey’s new “Comfort with a Cause” medical scrubs creates awareness in everyday ways. In this case, it’s OK to be trendy, said Sparr.

Erasing the stigmas associated with mental illness will take time, said Sparr, but the items being sold by companies in the PeaceLove family “are vehicles to start that conversation.”

Sparr is convinced that the treatment of the mentally ill in society is the “greatest lasting social injustice” that exists. PeaceLove has taken a nontraditional approach since the beginning, he said, the only approach that will work to change the dynamics.

“We’re not going to do it through the traditional means,” he said.

Sparr and co-owner Matt Kaplan are in the process of opening a different kind of studio in Las Vegas, said Sparr. As with partnerships with companies like Zappos, the opening of that retail/expressive arts/community space will help raise PeaceLove’s profile on the national and international stage, he said.

The Vegas branch will be a cross between a “YMCA for mental health” and “Build a Bear” with meaning, if that makes sense, said Sparr. He and his team are taking everything they’ve learned with their studio in Pawtucket and incorporating it into the Vegas studio, he said.

It’s hard to believe just how much PeaceLove has grown and developed a name in the business community, said Sparr. Just this month, Michaels craft stores delivered $250,000 in art supplies. That partnership is a natural one, he said, with Michaels having the slogan “creativity matters” and PeaceLove going with “create peace of mind.”

Sparr said he was at a point seven years ago where he realized that selling textiles “wasn’t exactly changing the world,” and he wanted to start something that would make a lasting impact. He’s still an owner of his family’s textile business, he said, but PeaceLove is where his true passion lies.

Sparr said the effects of mental illness never go away. Many of the triggers for issues with OCD, including anxiety, pressure, ambiguity, and lack of sleep, are everywhere as “I’m following my dream,” he said. Every morning, he has to come up with a game plan for how he’s going to handle the day.

“It’s become part of my life,” he said.

For more on PeaceLove Studios, visit www.peacelovestudios.com .

PeaceLove owners Jeff Sparr, right, and Matt Kaplan, next to him, are joined by members of the team, including, from left, Allie Johnston, Alli Leson, Jennifer Sparr, Jeff's wife, and Joy Lugo.
New "PeaceLove" scrubs from Jockey, above, will soon be worn by medical professionals across the country, helping raise awareness for the PeaceLove Studios mission to create greater understanding of people with mental illness.
Jeff Sparr, left, paints a quick version of his "PeaceLove Man" during a session at his Pawtucket studio last week.