Jeff Sparr is a man on an audacious mission — a mission to make mental illness cool to support.
PeaceLove co-founder Jeff Sparr is a man on an audacious mission – a mission to make mental illness cool. Not cool to have, but cool to support. A family man, mental health advocate, teacher and self-taught artist, Jeff is above all a survivor, battling Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) much of his life.
Diagnosed in college, Jeff spent decades waging a daily war against his illness. While launching a textile company, getting married and starting a family, he remained desperate for an outlet to relieve his mental anguish. On a whim, and with no background or training, Sparr decided to try his hand at painting. Like discovering a superpower, he found painting dramatically subdued the symptoms of his OCD, providing a creative outlet and sense of control. This discovery changed the course of Jeff’s life, and he hasn’t stopped painting since.
Jeff paints with passion and purpose, using foam brushes, brash strokes and bold colors. He works quickly, pouring his energies onto the canvas. Brush in hand, he is in a zone, experiencing the quietude of his own mind.
“I’m the peace man,” he says, “it’s like a Superman thing.” While re-watching a 2009 Discovery Health Channel documentary featuring his story, Jeff had his Aha! moment and knew he needed to do something with his newfound superpower. Inspired by a simple, powerful image signifying peace of mind and love in your heart, Sparr set out to build the first symbol and movement for the mental health community to rally behind.
Enter in PeaceLove Studios which now tirelessly and passionately works at reaching out across the nation through three central pillars: wearables that share the peacelove brand, a peace of mind speaking series, and corporate/group programs that encourage expression and peace of mind. With a growing number of partners and alliances nationwide, PeaceLove is truly building an army of soldiers in support of mental health awareness.
I was inspired by the tireless work and amazing vision that PeaceLove embraces. But what piqued me even more so was understanding how Jeff realized that slowing down in order to express himself was and is vital to his mental wellness:
SlowStruck: Jeff, when you started painting, what did you notice in terms of how this made you feel?
On a more immediate level, I felt I had gained a sense of control. And this is important since mental illness essentially robs you of control. I also felt a peace of mind, which is of course the basis of half of our symbol (peacelove). Through my painting, I could convey what I couldn’t put into words. I’m a creative guy, so when I have the blank canvas in front of me, I am the boss—and that is invigorating to my soul.
SlowStruck: Not everyone will be the painter. But what do you think happens in the act of creative expression?
Jeff: I think that during any type of creative activity, we tend to become more relaxed. And when we’re relaxed, we’re slowing down and not ‘thinking’ as much – this all allows us to clear the brain. At least in my experience, this is how creativity resonated with me. I started painting 20 years ago and I of course am still at it today.
SlowStruck: As a society, we are definitely starting to talk about mental illness more. But do you think we’re sustaining mental wellness proactively in our lives even if we don’t suffer from a diagnosable or more devastating ‘condition’?
Jeff: Yes, I absolutely do think that. There is a gym on almost every corner, but there is no YMCA for mental health. Every day of my life, I focus on proactive things to improve my quality of life—like a strategic plan. I exercise in the morning, I follow that up with meditation. Sometimes I might read, watch a film, or simply engage in a conversation. I have developed a toolkit to help and I think it’s important for all of us to have a menu of options we can turn to as strategies in maintaining our mental health.
I attempt to take a shot at it (the mental ‘intruder’) before it takes a shot at me.
SlowStruck: I realize you haven’t done studies and don’t claim to be a neurologist. But given your own experiences, do you think our lifestyle contributes at all to mental health issues?
Jeff: Yes, for sure. Everything is moving so quickly and we don’t stop very often. We don’t stop to consider what peace of mind really means for us individually. And often, it may not be we think it is. You have to truly stop in order to think about it and realize what that signifies to you.
SlowStruck: The word ‘hobby’ sometimes conjures up something more trivial than what it could actually be in terms of service to our minds and souls. What do you think?
Jeff: You know, I haven’t really thought about that. But come to think of it, yes, I believe that the concept of ‘hobby’ could undermine the essence of what various forms of creative expression can do for us mentally and emotionally.
I literally made this promise to my doctor. I vowed that every Wednesday, at 6:00 a.m., I would paint. It is easy to become busy and put our own needs to the side. My commitment to paint every week is a reminder that I have an illness and that I need to tend to myself and take that time.
Jeff’s vision clearly illustrates the importance of taking mental health seriously before the serious wake up call. More can be learned about the PeaceLove vision by visiting: www.peacelovestudios.com.