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.