A Powerful Symbol
One in four Americans has a diagnosed form of mental illness, but two out of three don’t seek help because of a perceived stigma. Since 2009 PeaceLove Studios in Pawtucket has offered help to thousands through expressive art. This month Jim Hummel takes a look what happens when people step inside the studio doors.
Click here for more information about the Peace Love Studios.
``It’s about art. Who likes art?’’
The dozen girls and boys who have gathered around a set of tables for this workshop don’t know it yet, but the masks they create over the next 90 minutes will help many of them work through issues they are facing: maybe problems at home, or school or with friends. And they will share their feelings of frustration, happiness, or worry.
``This is me being kind of sad, with a little bit of happiness there.’’
The kids are candid and the atmosphere at this studio in the heart of Pawtucket’s Hope Artiste Village is one of safety and support. It’s what you might expect at a place called PeaceLove Studios. Peace of mind, and love for yourself.
Sparr: ``Our vision was when you walk in the doors here, we don’t care who you are, what you are, what you got, it doesn’t matter. We’re all people.’’
Jeff Sparr co-founded PeaceLove in 2009 with his cousin Matt Kaplan. Their mission: to help people facing mental health issues through art. The numbers tell the story: one in four Americans has a diagnosed mental illness, but two out of three will not go for help because of a perceived stigma.
Sparr knows it all firsthand: a star tennis player at Ohio State who came back to Rhode Island to run his family’s textile business, he has suffered most of his life from OCD - obsessive compulsive disorder. Desperation pushed him toward expressive art.
Sparr: ``Mental illness robs you of the sense of control and I was immediately attracted to the sense of control. When I painted I was in control. I found that kind of invigorating for my soul.’’
And he thought it could help others.
Hummel: ``Why has mental health, people have always been a little bit on eggshells?’’
Sparr: ``The answer is twofold. Very simple - invisible, and misunderstood. How do you fix something…it’s hard to fix something you can’t see and you can’t understand.’’
PeaceLove runs a variety of workshops for all ages. The mask-making workshop often fills up quickly. An 10-week after-school class has these Providence public school students making transformational collages.
And one night we sat in on a drumming workshop for two dozen adults. Dr. Hank Brightman, a trauma and wellness specialist, took the group through a variety of exercises using drums, transitioning into an art project that focused on purging negative thoughts and issues.
Kaplan: ``Everybody has a story or a connection to mental illness or mental health.’’
Matt Kaplan, who also sat in on Dr. Brightman’s session, focuses primarily on the business side of PeaceLove. The seeds were first planted in 2008 when he urged his cousin, Jeff Sparr, to sell some of his artwork.
Kaplan: ``And in one night we sold about $16,000 worth of art work and at the end of the night I said, `Here you go buddy, $16,000 what do you want to do with it?; And he kind of looked at me, thought about it for a few seconds and he said: ``I paint it makes me feel better, maybe it’ll help other people.’’
They founded PeaceLove, a non-profit with a twist: It also has a for-profit side that generates revenue to help fund the studio through the sale of various Peace Love merchandise. The organization has a partnership with Alex and Ani’s Charity by Design Program, which created a peace of mind bangle. Over the last year they have sold more than 60,000, generating tens of thousands of dollars for PeaceLove.
Kaplan: ``This is a true social venture. It’s a for-purpose business, we have a purpose, we have a mission - to help people create peace of mind and do all the things we want to do in the world, we need to run a profitable business. We always thought if we could control our own destiny and generate our own revenues, that we could self-sustain our give back or our impact, which is our programs.
So like any good businessmen Kaplan and Sparr thought about branding.
Kaplan: ``Could we build a brand, a brand to make mental illness cool. Not cool to have it but cool to support it. There’s nobody wearing a positive symbol for mental health; you know the yellow bracelet, the pink ribbon project you know product red for AIDS, a lot of great causes have great brands people can buy and in buying it show their support, but mental health didn’t have that.’’
Sparr: ``No one’s walking around with a t-shirt that says: I’m mentally ill - but they’ll wear this t-shirt they’ll wear that hat, and they’ll wear that bracelet and they’ll wear that because it’s cool.’’
It began with the PeaceLove symbol that Sparr painted a decade ago and which anchors the studio in Pawtucket. The financial model has allowed Peace Love to reach a broad spectrum of people.
Kaplan: ``The people that could afford our services, the corporations, schools, organizations that have budgets pay for it, and we can subsidize the programming for communities that couldn’t pay for it.’’
``This has been a godsend for me.’’
Shawn Olswold, who retired from the Navy five years ago, is bi-polar and suffers from PTSD. Her therapist recommended PeaceLove 18 months ago. She now volunteers and has begun a fellowship to help her fellow vets suffering from PTSD.
Olswold: ``A lot of people walk in here and they say `I don’t know how to draw.’ Well it’s amazing what they’re able to come up with when they actually sit down and do it. One of the things expressive arts does is a lot of times people that can’t talk to their therapist. So if you come here, you’re able to potentially express things through art that can’t, or are not comfortable with talking with somebody.’’
Amy Kinney became PeaceLove’s program director five years ago. Earlier in her life she experienced a mental breakdown and tried to commit suicide.
Hummel: ``How did your own issues and your breakdown affect what you do now?’’
Kinney: ``They’re really the guiding force for me. I‘ve struggled with anxiety and depression my whole entire life. But it wasn’t until my late 20s that I really acknowledged it. I was actually on an in-patient unit at psychiatric hospital and I saw another patient doodling and I thought well I got nothing else to do.
She is the inspiration behind most of the programs here.
Kinney: ``With the mask making it’s really about being able to identify yourself and express yourself in a different way - show the world a piece of yourself that maybe you keep hidden, or be able to acknowledge how you might feel two different things at the same time. And how do you express that and how do you understand that and the relationship between those two things.’’
The drumming program is amazing to watch….
Kinney: ``It’s another way to sort of become part of a community but also have the opportunity to express yourself. You may be feeling this kind of feeling or maybe the feeling…and being able to convey that is a really amazing process that words don’t always capture.’’
Early every Wednesday morning, you can find Sparr at the basement studio in his house - no exceptions. It’s the result a challenge from his own therapist.
Sparr: ``And he said you’re so busy travelling all over the place telling people all over the world that this is good for them, you have to listen to your own medicine, take care yourself.’’
A common thread among many of Sparr’s art pieces is the lack of a face in his characters. In group sessions the issue sometimes comes up with speculation from the participants about why no faces?
Sparr: ``We go around the circle. I hear a lot of really cool stuff: it’s the face of mental illness, it could by anybody. I always say no, they think I’m much deeper than I really am. The really reason is I can’t draw a face. I use it as an example of using a negative as a positive. That’s become my thing.’’
PeaceLove is expanding and will open a new studio in Las Vegas later this spring with the help of Zappos, the online clothing and shoe stored based in Vegas. The location may be different but the message is the same.
Kaplan: ``We work with kids in private schools, we work with kids in inner-city schools, we work with kids in hospital settings, after-school programs, they’re all facing the same challenge: mental illness and mental health, it doesn’t discriminate.’’
Sparr says dealing with mental health issues is a daily battle for him and millions of others. And his message also remains the same:
Sparr: ``I’m not going to let it stop me. And that’s when I’m winning. I think that’s the key to battling any affliction or illness. Not letting it define you. Not that it’s not difficult. It is.’’
In Pawtucket, Jim Hummel for The Rhode Island Spotlight.