Q & A - Les­lie Holt (Neuro Blooms)

Tell us about your back­ground in paint­ing and com­mu­nity work. How did Neuro Blooms start?


I am a visual artist and ed­u­ca­tor who has worked ex­ten­sively with peo­ple with dis­abil­i­ties, in­clud­ing de­vel­op­men­tal and men­tal health con­di­tions. The Neuro Blooms project be­gan with my mixed media paint­ings called Brain Stains. I am com­pelled by the visual beauty of PET scans, as well as their power to con­vey the brain’s role in men­tal ill­ness. This project has per­sonal roots in my own ex­pe­ri­ence with ma­jor de­pres­sion as well as my mother ’s strug­gle with bipo­lar dis­or­der.

In 2018 I part­nered with Shiny Ap­ple Stu­dio to de­sign a se­ries of enamel pins based on my orig­i­nal art. Ini­tially I en­vi­sioned us­ing them to ac­com­pany ex­hibits of my paint­ings. But when we re­leased them on social media, Neuro Blooms proved to be very pop­u­lar, par­tic­u­larly among young adults, the age at which men­tal ill­ness of­ten be­gins. Peo­ple post pic­tures wear­ing the pins in sup­port of loved ones or tell sto­ries of their own men­tal health con­di­tions. Social work­ers, doc­tors, ther­a­pists, ed­u­ca­tors, sci­en­tists, and peo­ple with di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence with men­tal ill­ness all have points of con­nec­tion to the im­agery.

Please ex­plain how brain positron emis­sion to­mog­ra­phy (PET) scans work and where you gained your PET scan ref­er­ences and re­search for your art­work?

“Social work­ers, doc­tors, ther­a­pists, ed­u­ca­tors, sci­en­tists and peo­ple with di­rect ex­pe­ri­ence with men­tal ill­ness all have points of con­nec­tion to the im­agery.”

I am not a sci­en­tist, so I have a very ba­sic un­der­stand­ing of how PET scans work based on my lay re­search. A pa­tient in­gests a small amount of ra­dioac­tive glu­cose.

The scan then de­tects where blood is flow­ing by track­ing the ac­tiv­ity of the glu­cose. The scans pro­vide ev­i­dence that each di­ag­no­sis causes unique pat­terns of brain ac­tiv­ity. The im­agery is not yet ex­act enough to be used for di­ag­nos­tic pur­poses. There are too many in­di­vid­ual vari­a­tions in our brains, as well as a lot of co-oc­cur­ring men­tal health con­di­tions that make it hard to get data be­yond gen­eral trends.

My im­ages come pri­mar­ily from ed­u­ca­tional and re­search in­sti­tu­tion web­sites such as NIH. The scans I find are rep­re­sen­ta­tive of a set of scans, rather than a scan of an in­di­vid­ual. They rep­re­sent trends in these di­ag­noses which is what makes the re­search so in­ter­est­ing. While PET scan tech­nol­ogy is still in early stages of de­vel­op­ment and not used for di­ag­nos­tic pur­poses, the trends give a lot of cre­dence

to men­tal ill­ness be­ing a dis­or­der largely based in the brain. My de­signs are not a di­rect copy but are in­spired by the orig­i­nals with a lot of sim­pli­fi­ca­tion in­volved for aes­thetic rea­sons and to re­spect the own­ers of the orig­i­nals. But I try to stay true to the ba­sic pat­tern­ing and color schemes of the orig­i­nal image. As far as re­search, I am also for­tu­nate to have a sis­ter who stud­ies schizophre­nia through brain imag­ing. She fo­cuses on fMRI, but has shared help­ful knowl­edge about PET scans as I de­velop this project.

What do the dif­fer­ent PET scan col­ors rep­re­sent and why are these im­por­tant to high­light? How do you think rep­re­sent­ing these ar­tis­ti­cally raises aware­ness about men­tal health in so­ci­ety?

The warmer col­ors rep­re­sent more ac­tiv­ity and the cooler rep­re­sent less ac­tiv­ity. It is clear in the de­pres­sion scan, for ex­am­ple, that there is lit­tle ac­tiv­ity in the brain with a pre­pon­der­ance of cool blues and pur­ples and just a few small patches of yel­low and orange. Com­pare this to a scan rep­re­sent­ing bipo­lar dis­or­der (the manic state) and you see a lot of warm reds and yel­lows which sug­gest a very ac­ti­vated brain.

The Neuro Blooms project is de­signed to spark cu­rios­ity and con­ver­sa­tions about the causes and stig­ma­tiz­ing myths of men­tal health con­di­tions. Stigma against these con­di­tions per­sists and causes iso­la­tion, dis­crim­i­na­tion, and worse – peo­ple not seek­ing help for treat­able con­di­tions. Bring­ing these con­ver­sa­tions out into the open can help com­bat stigma and pro­mote un­der­stand­ing of the strug­gles and unique of­fer­ings of neu­ro­di­verse peo­ple.

Peo­ple are hun­gry to ex­plore and be hon­est about men­tal health. A small, eye-catch­ing pin can in­spire a brave con­ver­sa­tion in which peo­ple cre­ate their own message about men­tal health con­di­tions.

The power of art to pro­mote vis­i­bil­ity and dis­cus­sion are at the heart of the Neuro Blooms project.

The tagline of Neuro Blooms is: mak­ing men­tal

If you’d like to grab a Neuro Blooms pin badge to help the project raise aware­ness of men­tal health, click here to go to Les­lie’s shop.

health con­di­tions vis­i­ble and beau­ti­ful. The vis­i­bil­ity is key to get the con­ver­sa­tions out in the open, be­cause men­tal ill­ness is by its na­ture in­vis­i­ble. The beauty is rec­og­niz­ing the unique con­tri­bu­tions peo­ple with men­tal health con­di­tions have to of­fer. Some of the most in­ter­est­ing and re­silient peo­ple I know have some sort of men­tal health con­di­tion.

Your enamel pins show strik­ing dif­fer­ences in brain ac­tiv­ity be­tween var­i­ous con­di­tions. Which of these pins are most mean­ing­ful to you in what they rep­re­sent and why?

I have strug­gled with de­pres­sion on and off for over 20 years. Luck­ily it is mostly well con­trolled, al­though the pan­demic and con­tem­po­rary pol­i­tics are putting that to the test! The PET scan rep­re­sent­ing de­pres­sion is my fa­vorite vis­ually, and I think por­trays the ex­pe­ri­ence of de­pres­sion in quite a lovely way. Lots of dark­ness in the blues and pur­ples and then lit­tle patches of yel­lows and or­anges that for me rep­re­sent glim­mers of hope.

The Bipo­lar de­sign is also very per­sonal to me, as that is the ill­ness my mother strug­gled with most of her adult life. I would say my ex­pe­ri­ence grow­ing up with her is what re­ally com­pelled me to start this work in the first place. She strug­gled and per­se­vered so much through a re­ally de­bil­i­tat­ing con­di­tion. It was both heart­break­ing and in­spir­ing to wit­ness.

“The PET scan rep­re­sent­ing de­pres­sion is my fa­vorite vis­ually... I think it por­trays the ex­pere­ince in quite a lovely way.”

Fi­nally, de­men­tia is also per­sonal to me as my fa­ther suf­fered with it in the last years of his life. It is such an un­for­giv­ing ill­ness that only gets worse with time with no hope in sight. It is so wrench­ing to see your loved one kind of dis­ap­pear in front of you. When I first saw the scans for de­men­tia it took my breath away.

The big ex­panse of black in the cen­ter is so jar­ring and il­lus­tra­tive of what seems to be hap­pen­ing dur­ing the course of the ill­ness.

 ?? Both im­ages: © Les­lie Holt. All Rights Re­served. ?? Be­low, left: Neuro Blooms set of 3.
Both im­ages: © Les­lie Holt. All Rights Re­served. Be­low, left: Neuro Blooms set of 3.
 ??  ?? Above: De­pres­sion pin in hand.
Above: De­pres­sion pin in hand.
 ?? © Les­lie Holt. All rights re­served. ?? Above: Neuro Blooms com­plete set.
© Les­lie Holt. All rights re­served. Above: Neuro Blooms com­plete set.
 ??  ??

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