Seeing the Mind in Art

Neuro Blooms: Mixed Media Art by Leslie Holt from February 12th to March 28th at The Stamp Gallery | University of Maryland, College Park | Written by Fiona Yang

A visitor came into the gallery last week and asked, after walking around the gallery, if I was the artist. I replied that I was not. The visitor looked briefly disappointed.

“Did you enjoy the show?” I asked.

He did, he said. What he particularly enjoyed were the pieces hanging in the center of the gallery (Depression Stain, ADHD Stain, and Bipolar Stain) that allowed the viewer to walk around the piece and view it from both sides. “I love how you can’t see the words from the front,” he said, “but then you walk to the back, and it’s like you can see what the brain is thinking.” 

Leslie Holt’s Neuro Blooms provides an unparalleled glimpse into the minds of those afflicted by mental illness through both the medium of art and neuroscience. Her work is meticulously researched andglimmer square objective – viewers who come into the gallery are welcome to take a coloring book, which has information on most of the disorders Holt pictorializes. The actual subject of her art are PET scans, usually seen as clinical, cold, and objective. But she uses that clinical material to create emotional and subjective moments. On the backs of those center pieces, Holt has embroidered text that relates to the pictured disorder. For instance, on Depression Stain, Holt embroiders the word “glimmer” over and over again in bright thread, contrasting sharply against dark blue paint. When the visitor referred to being able to see what “the brain was thinking,” that was what he meant – the text becomes the thoughts of a person with depression. Being able to attribute that text to a mind, to a person, allows us to humanize the disorder.

That literal glimpse into the psyche is a unique experience in art. More often – usually subconsciously – viewers have to search for the mind behind the art. In one psychological experiment, a Harvard researcher showed a group of people pieces of art – some made by professional abstract artists, some by children, and some by animals. People were asked which ones were made by professional artists, and were able to consistently pick out those made by artists. When asked to explain their choices, they said it was “more planned out” and “more intentional.” When looking at art, even unintentionally, we are looking for evidence of thought and substance behind the piece. 


Holt creates a unique psychological perspective for each of the center pieces by weaving text into the sketches of brains. Viewers are confronted with the reality and psychology of those with these disorders. ADHD Stain, for instance, has the word “focus” embroidered over and over around the sketch. Several of the words are unfinished, running into a tangle of thread at the border of the brain. The unfinished text echoes the effects of ADHD – an inability to finish or follow through on projects, and an inability to focus. In addition, the word “focus” over and over sounds like a thought an ADHD person may have. In this way, Holt allows us to attribute thoughts to those with the disorder – to get a glimpse into their psyche. 

When that visitor came to Neuro Blooms and viewed the art, getting an insight to an unfamiliar mind, his first instinct was to ask whether I was the artist – as if to get a look at the person whose mind the work was a window into. The viewers’ ability to empathize through art is especially important for the purpose of this show. Mental illnesses such as depression, ADHD, and bipolar disorder still face serious stigma in today’s society. What is most important is being able to empathize, reach out, and be kind to those who face these conditions. The first step to that is letting ourselves see from their perspective. Holt’s show does just that.

Leslie Holt’s work is included in Neuro Blooms: Mixed Media Art by Leslie Holt at The Stamp Gallery of the University of Maryland, College Park, from February 12th to March 28th. 

For more information on Leslie Holt, visit

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