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Painting for peace with Jeff Sparr

By Emily Rosenberg

When Jeff Sparr combined the peace sign with a heart, he wanted to represent peace of mind and a hope that one day, it would be a pathway toward the difficult conversations concerning mental health.

Arts & Ideas hosted Sparr via Zoom to lead a workshop and discuss his success with his organization, PeaceLove, April 25.

PeaceLove is based in Providence, Rhode Island. Its mission is to promote mental wellness through creative expression without judgement or fear.

Growing up in Rhode Island, Sparr “lived out his dream” on a scholarship to Ohio State University, a Division I university, all while experiencing intrusive, “terrible” thoughts.

“I did what any good athlete would do – I sucked it up and I got worse,” he added.

Around the time Sparr was 22, he was admitted into a mental institution and diagnosed with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD).

Despite his mental illness, he said he considers himself “one of the lucky ones,” as the father of three children and a husband to his wife.

Sparr said he often gets asked why little progress has been made on the issue of mental health.

“My answer has never changed,” he said. “Invisible. Misunderstood. And hard to talk about. And that’s a very difficult combination to go after.”

He added after his friend suggested he start painting, he never stopped.

Sparr called himself “The Forrest Gump of painting.”

He added the creativity changed the course of his life.

“It gave me a sense of control that all types of mental illnesses rob you of. It provided me with a blank canvas for my creativity,” he added. “That was invigorating to my soul.”

One of his Zrst pieces included a painting titled “Half Daddy,” a black-and-white piece that represented how his mental illness made him feel sometimes as a father.

In other pieces, such as “Getting Better,” which Sparr said is important to the work of the PeaceLove organization, he uses “a whimsical style” with bright colors. In the painting, there are squares and people who get brighter from right to left as a metaphor for recovery.

“It is a process, but it can be done,” Sparr added.

He also shared a painting he calls “Madly in Love,” a piece he worked on with his daughter and which he said has been bid on the most throughout his career.

“It hangs in my room as a reminder that maybe I don’t have to be that ‘half daddy,’” he said.

After earning $16,000 at a one-man art show, he realized that if art makes him feel good, then it could also help other people. He started by bringing art supplies to a children’s mental health unit.

He said that when he was able to see how he had such a significant impact on the children, the idea for the organization kicked off. “That’s what Paint4Peace is all about.”

Sparr added that just as there is the rainbow flag and pink ribbons, he hopes that the PeaceLove sign can be a catalyst for change.

“Creativity can be life changing, but we need to get it to people,” Sparr added.

Sparr said he was living proof creativity can be life changing and it’s a shame that the arts are “the first thing” to be taken out of every community. He added that mental health has never been “more pertinent” in our society.

“I like to say that it is a shame it took a pandemic to shed light on the epidemic that is mental health,” Sparr said. “A silver lining – [it is] an opportunity to advance our work and try to make creativity and the arts more accessible to more and more people.”

During the workshop, he encouraged people to make mistakes and have fun. “There are no rules,” he said. Sparr challenged participants to stop and think about what gives them peace of mind.

He encouraged participants to make time for creativity in their lives, whether it be yoga, painting, poetry, or other relaxing activities. Throughout the workshop, he painted a man playing golf which he titled “The Driver.”

Sparr highlighted how one of the most famous artists he’s painted with said they were scared to start.

“A lot of people can’t do what they want to do in life – what they aspire to do, what they dream to do – because they’re scared to try,” Sparr said. “The attempt is the victory.”

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