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June 18, 2019

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‘YMCA for mental health’: New downtown studio draws on creative arts for therapy

PeaceLove Studios Zappos Test Run

L.E. Baskow

Zappos employees work on paintings at the PeaceLove Studios in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, Jan. 12, 2016, in a class designed to help those with mental health challenges.

PeaceLove Studios Test Run With Zappos

A Zappos employee appreciates another's painting at the PeaceLove Studios while engaging in a class designed to help people with their mental health, the art studio officially opening the end of next week in downtown Las Vegas on Tuesday, January 12, 2016. Launch slideshow »

Clarity. Connections. Goals. Love. Health. Moment. Break.

Printed or scrawled, these words graced brightly colored, paint-smeared canvases inside PeaceLove Studios, an art space opening downtown today. They represented the desires of Zappos employees seated around a table cluttered with paints and brushes Wednesday afternoon.

“I’d like to have a day where my mind isn’t racing,” said the man who wrote “break.”

“I like to help others, but I don’t often put myself first,” said the woman who wrote “goals.”

As each person explained his or her word, others nodded in agreement — reflecting on their own lives. This isn’t an art studio focused on structured art or technique for aspiring Picassos or Rembrandts. It’s a space for the masses, promoting personal wellness through expressive arts and storytelling.

“There is a YMCA on every corner for physical health,” said Matt Kaplan, who co-founded PeaceLove Studios with his cousin in Rhode Island. “So how about our place is the YMCA for mental health where people could be creative?”

The studio, which sits next to Nacho Daddy at 117 N. 4th St., is celebrating its grand opening with community workshops today, Friday and Saturday. It’s the second location for PeaceLove Studios, which started in Rhode Island after Kaplan’s cousin, Jeffrey Sparr, found that painting helped with his anxiety linked to obsessive compulsive disorder.

The mental disorder surfaced when Sparr was in college and became a daily battle. For him, it manifested in recurring fears of failing — being a bad husband, bad father, bad friend — and an obsession trying to remember mundane details, such as the name of a song.

“It’s exhausting,” said Sparr, who also does marketing work for a textile business. “It’s a hard thing to explain.”

About 20 years ago, a friend suggested Sparr give painting a shot to deal with his symptoms. Willing to try anything at that point, Sparr — who never considered himself an artist — picked up some art supplies and set to work on a landscape painting. The creative process and soothing movements of the paintbrush gave him an unexpected sense of control: Sparr could paint what he couldn’t vocalize.

Years later, in 2008, Kaplan organized an art show with Sparr’s work, which netted $16,000. That’s when the lightbulb went off. He decided to put the money toward bringing expressive art to others battling mental health problems, starting with the children’s intensive treatment unit at Butler Hospital, a psychiatric hospital in Providence, R.I., where he was both a patient and board member.

Building on its success, Sparr and Kaplan founded PeaceLove Studios in 2009 and opened their first art studio a year later. Eventually, Sparr found himself sharing his story and art program in communities across the country.

Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh happened to be at one of those speaking engagements.

Hsieh approached Sparr immediately after his speech, setting in motion a three-year process to bring PeaceLove Studios to Las Vegas. The Downtown Project, Hsieh’s $350 million investment in downtown, has partnered with the mental health-centric art studio.

“We are incredibly excited to bring this to Las Vegas,” he said. “The world is ready for this experience.”

Nevada appears to be a natural fit, given the state’s struggles to help adults and children who have mental health problems because of limited resources and too few psychiatrists, psychologists and other health professionals. Mental Health America, a nonprofit and advocacy organization, ranked Nevada 49th last year among states and the District of Columbia in its effectiveness addressing residents’ mental health.

The founders hope PeaceLove Studios’ logo — a heart merged with a peace sign — becomes the mental wellness symbol urging people to find peace of mind.

The studio offers people multiple ways to participate, whether it’s buying a canvas and creating art in the studio, purchasing a canvas to donate to someone in need or buying art created by community members.

“Our elevator pitch is we’re trying to change the way people think about mental health,” Kaplan said, “and expressive arts is one way to do that.”

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