Why, and How, the Colors of Mental Health Matter




St. Louis’s Cherokee Street district is where you are most likely to find a late-night bowl of vegan chili or a stroll through neighborhoods on the cutting edge of gentrification. What you least expect is an impromptu exploration of mental health through brain scan imaging recast as visual art.

Neuro Blooms, an offshoot of artist Leslie Holt’s initial mixed media series titled Brain Stains, does just that. These poster-size recreations of various states of mental conditions, drawn from PET (positron emission tomography) scans then made lucid through vibrant colors and lines distinguishing the boundaries of mental activity in different parts of the brain, seize attention. You stop. You gaze. Then, if your curiosity is sustained, you ask what “mental health” is, or even means in diagnostic terms.

Mental health, after all, is fraught territory for both our national healthcare system and for our personal, hopes and ambitions. When another mass shooting incident erupts in the headlines, politicians frame the body count as a “mental health” issue. When a health insurance policy denies a claim for clinical therapy with a counselor, we seethe in frustration. And when we catch sight of people talking to themselves out loud on the street, between pleas for spare change, we ask if society will ever find the will and the resources to help.

Plenty of artworks try to capture the horror of certain mental states. Far fewer are the works that ask, in a quiet voice, how we might focus the myriad and tentacular questions of mental health into a single set of images. Neuro Blooms, with its tagline of “Making mental health conditions visible and beautiful,” does that.

The series made its debut October 2022 in installments posted along Cherokee Street storefronts. Many continue to hang along the district’s many storefronts.

“I like them visually, but also they’re a compelling way to start conversations about mental health,” says Holt, in the project’s accompanying online video. “If this said something about ‘Mental Health Conditions’ in big words I don’t think people would be as interested. Art has that capacity to lure people in and get curious.”

Holt, who holds a BFA in painting from Washington University in St. Louis and an MFA in the same from Washington State University in Pullman, notes that mental health issues are rarely visible because they are weighted by stigma and manifested in troubling behaviors. Only since the early twenty-first century, when the PET scanner became a part of some medical practices were brain disorders made visible in the colors of PET scan technology. Those mental states that were feared and hidden, Neuro Blooms reveals them in multi-hued cross-sections of the brain, illuminating depression, anxiety, schizophrenia, addiction, OCD, and PTSD to borderline personality disorder. Blues, yellows, purples, reds, and orange hues migrate across primary cortexes and areas of the brain. They settle and unsettle our moods, thoughts, and mental processes.

The project’s name, invoking the beauty of various flowering states, invites paradox. Unless training for psychiatry, almost all of us approach tenuous mental states with trepidation. Perhaps we should let go of that fear to instead ask what a “normal” state of mind consists of, or whether a uniformly “normal state of mind” in any one of us is even possible. All of us have at one point known anxiety, depression, and, most likely, also addiction, just as surely all of us know and recognize the colors yellow, red, blue, purple, and orange.

Neuro Blooms shows us how mental states might be projected outside our innermost thoughts, out into the physical world, so that they might be drawn back into our consciousness and reinterpreted in new ways. Maybe that sounds improbable or difficult, but it could also offer that rare state we call “peace of mind.”