Leslie Holt | Interview

Tell me about some of your recent work from your studio. I’m thinking of Atom, Atom Scattering and Skip to my Lou. They seem to be more abstract, a shift from your Unspeakable series. Even though the stains are similar in that they have their own kinetic properties and flow into an organic shape, the embroidery in that series was specific and a recreation of an image already produced. Is there a reason you’ve transitioned into complete abstraction?

I think the main reason I started these is that I am interested in the expressive properties of the stitched mark separate from the subject matter. The Unspeakable work has rawness based on the content of the images, but not by virtue of the way they are sewn. They are quite meticulous lines, carefully and slowly stitched. There is a meditative quality to them, and certainly making them is a very quiet and contemplative experience.  I became curious to see how I might be able to express emotion, movement, rhythm, etc., by removing the subject matter. The stains of the Unspeakable work refer to “pure” abstraction. I am pulling that and taking it to the next level with these, very much focusing on pure formal relationships, but also looking at what content might emerge when I am not deliberately choosing literal subject matter. But like abstract painting, subject matter can emerge, it can suggest itself, without me exerting as much control over it. I call them “gestural embroidery”—kind of tongue in cheek because obviously there’s no real way to make stitches like you could fling a quick line in paint. But the spirit of that raw mark is what I am trying to channel. And I am trying to inject a bit more spontaneity into the work to see what shakes out. My idea is that I can take some of what I develop here and bring it back into the more representational work. Either mix it in with the figures, or portray the figures in this more abstract, less literal fashion. I am still working on Unspeakable pieces and hope that these abstract ones will form a dialogue with them, and they will inform each other…


So you’re not really thinking about this as abstract versus representational, but more of an emotive response or action to take when adding dimension to a painting? I can see this being very cathartic after planning, drawing, and executing the embroidery in Unspeakable.

I certainly can’t avoid that these are abstract, and that is fascinating to me because I have never worked in pure abstraction. In some I am incorporating words now, so there’s a bit of direction of how to respond. The titles also offer a bit of content or direction for the viewer. But yes, they are more about testing the limits of the medium for expressive purposes, and formal ones.

For a long time you focused on master paintings and your rich series Hello Masterpiece. When did you feel you needed or wanted to make a change and transition into abstraction, staining and embroidering?

While I focused on Hello Masterpiece for many years, like a lot of artists, I have always had many other ideas on the back burner and have developed a couple bodies of work simultaneously. The Unspeakable series actually began in 2013 as I was processing a major move to the DC area where I grew up. The transition was challenging for a few reasons, but mainly because I was in a new position care taking for my aging parents. And in practical terms, I had a lot more time to make work, as I could spend almost full time in the studio. That was pretty key. While I was working on Hello Masterpiece I always felt a tug toward making more personal work that addresses more serious content. It’s about honoring multiple aspects of my personality. I love creating sardonic commentary on pop culture versus high art, social critique, and the just plain fun of the Hello Kitty work. I loved studying the old masters and all the technical challenges that presented. But I worked the series for about 10 years and took it as far as I needed to… for now … I never say I am totally done with it!


But you’ve still maintained your use of iconic and thought-provoking works, or selections of works, from art history. Any particular reason?

I guess I’m just an art geek at heart! In all seriousness, I am just incredibly connected to and steeped in some art historical imagery. I grew up exposed to lots of art. In DC we had access to incredible resources of the Smithsonian, so I feel like I literally grew up with some of the best art in the world – certainly some of the most famous. In Hello Masterpiece it was more about highlighting icons of art history in contrast to the pop culture icon Hello Kitty. In Unspeakable it is more about the emotional connection. personal connection and the obvious content that these images of despair and horror bring with them. So while the preparatory sketches for Guernica may not be as recognizable as the Mona Lisa, the universal emotion expressed in them (and Picasso’s style) have a different kind of universality. Kollwitz is another artist with whom I have an intense affinity and whose drawings just fit the content of the series. So in Unspeakable it becomes a bit less about immediate recognizability and more about the universality of the expressive qualities of the images and my personal connection to them. Going back to my answer about the abstract work, I am looking at both how the figures and their expressions communicate but also how the marks themselves express – both the marks of the original drawings as well as their translation into stitched marks.


You’re also working on an embroidered series of brain scans. How are you identifying with them?

This work is personal in another way. My mother had severe mental illness. My sister is a neuroscientist who studies mental illness through brain imaging. I have struggled with depression. I am interested in how these images communicate mental illness (or don’t) or the structure of the brain (in the case of the neuron diagrams), but I also just love the formal qualities of these scans.


I think they are strong visual representations and communicators of feelings individuals have when they struggle with any type or severity of mental illness. There seems to be a special kind of relationship developing between the embroidered brain scan and the personal thought and action behind this embroidery. You’re using your brain to create a depiction of another brain! That seems too simple of a description to really capture what is happening though. What do you think?

I never thought of it quite that way. Yes, this scientific data is being mediated by both the properties (and limitations) of handmade materials, as well as by my own subjective brain. I interpret the colors and maximize the effect I want. I choose the marks as descriptors. Interesting enough, I have been researching PET scans and their interpretations and have learned that scientists do a fair amount of color adjustments to illustrate their research findings. For example, if they are wanting to illustrate the deactivated portions of the brain in depression, they may darken those blues significantly, in contrast to the lighter, activated areas. Much like an artist exploits color relationships to make their visual “argument.”


Where did the PET scans and the inspiration come from?

My artist statement may be the clearest answer to this question:

My series Brain Stains exploits the aesthetic qualities of scientific data with source imagery of Positron Emission Tomography (PET) scans of brains experiencing different mental illnesses and drawings and diagrams of neurons. PET scans are clinical diagnostic tools, yet they create kaleidoscopic arrays of color and patterns similar to mandalas. These images also refer to universal emotions of shame, pain, and grief cloaked in the language of clinical technology. In contrast, the hand drawn neurons based on direct microscopic observation adopt a decidedly analog language of marks to describe the inner workings of the brain.



It sounds like you’re applying ritual, meditation, and maybe even symbolism to draw emotional qualities out of these very technical representations. With that, you’re removing the scientific properties from these images and elevating them to true works of art. And even though that is occurring well, these are still accessible because they are so relatable to individuals and a current conversation that is happening about mental illness and brain disorders.

Yes, I love the conversation between the scientific, more objective analysis of these illnesses with the way most humans (non-scientists) experience and interpret mental illness. While the scientific data is extremely useful in research and in de-stigmatizing mental illness, without explanation and somewhat technical knowledge, it may not mean a lot to the average person. They are also not really used for public consumption for the most part (although you see them more and more). I like the idea of pushing them out into the public.


I’ve seen two in person and there are more on your website. Neuron Stain and Neuron Stain (after Cajal) have a lighter feel to them compared to Schizophrenia Stain and Bipolar Stain 2. Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s brain cell drawings are really quite striking; as dense as the brain is his drawings are so light and detailed. Have you thought much about the contrast between the two types of depictions, a drawing and a PET scan? How has that influenced an individual piece overall?

Yes, the line in the drawings of neurons is much more similar to the line of Picasso drawings, which I love.  Calligraphic, delicate, raw, but carefully observed. The pet scan imagery is dense with chunks of color, more painterly in a way. My current show at NIH contains both, and I think they are in interesting dialogue with each other. In obvious ways, they both depict the brain. One in the most direct way possible – looking at neurons under a microscope and drawing them. What I like is that the images I chose are scientists drawing the neurons, not artists. So the interest is very much collecting data, not aesthetics. But they are gorgeous and I get to expose their aesthetic qualities. So even if you have no idea what the subject matter is or what concepts I am interested in, you can enjoy them on a purely visual level. The PET scans are the contemporary version of looking in a microscope in a way. Scientists are looking at visual clues to support their research. But the images themselves are amazingly beautiful and aesthetic. I don’t think researchers think about that aspect of those images much, if at all, and that is interesting to me as well. They certainly use the imagery to illustrate their findings, and color plays an important role in that. What I have learned is that color choice – it’s hue, intensity, value – is pretty subjective in PET scans, depending on what finding the researcher wants to highlight. So while red and other warm tones generally indicate increased activation in the brain, and the cooler colors indicate decreased activity, the amount of contrast and the nuances of the color shifts can be manipulated.

I have a side project I am cooking to use this brain imagery to do some public awareness about mental illness. If folks can see that the illness is about major differences in brain functioning, I think it can do a lot to decrease stigma. If we called mental illness what it is – a brain disorder – I think many more people would get treatment and relief from devastating illnesses. I am thinking that making that concept visible in an accessible and aesthetically pleasing way could make people stop and rethink some of the stigma and stereotypes surrounding mental illness.


Tell me more! Going back to your statement, these images depict common emotions but fall under a scientific umbrella. That makes them somewhat inaccessible to people who are not science-minded. Do you think that because people are looking at brain disorders from a scientific standpoint it makes it more difficult to have conversations about it in social contexts? That it could be easier, or more comfortable, to discuss if we examined them from an emotional and visual angle?

Yes, I’m excited about it, although it has been sitting on the back burner for about a year. My sister Daphne is actually a neuroscientist at Harvard who does research on schizophrenia using brain imaging. She uses FMRI technology, not PET, which I have not used in my art yet.

But we are talking about collaborating in creating some translational materials for the purpose of public education about mental illness. It would serve the purpose of mental illness education as well as sort of advocating for the value of scientific research. The scan images themselves are quite beautiful, and I’ve always thought they could be an entry way into people getting more information as well as valuing science in general. De-stigmatizing science in a way – Ha! There’s that intimidation aspect, like we regular people are not smart enough to understand scientific data. We can shut down in the face of it, rather than getting curious and asking questions. Art can do the same thing. Many people think they don’t know enough about art to look at it or enjoy it.  So let’s break through that. My Hello Masterpiece series touched on that – making this “high art” accessible, bringing it down a notch and poking fun of the lofty academic associations we associate with these images.

We don’t know what the end result of this collaboration will look like yet, an exhibit with a mix of artistic and scientific renderings of this brain imagery? Public education materials that can be distributed? Daphne is particularly interested in prevention and early intervention of schizophrenia– encouraging people to get early diagnosis and treatment. Early intervention can make a huge difference in the outcomes for people with Schizophrenia. While there’s no cure per say, early treatment can lead to well controlled symptoms. The longer the disease progresses without treatment, the harder it is to treat. This is one of the most devastating illnesses, for the affected as well as their families. Successful treatment makes a huge difference. The onset of mental illness is often during college years, late teens and early twenties. So we are thinking about targeting college galleries, classrooms, counseling departments for whatever this project turns out to be.

One fun tangible thing I have done in this effort is have an iron on patch of a depressed brain manufactured. What if we wore PET scan images like we wore pop culture imagery? A depressed brain next to your Hello Kitty patch?  Can these images be overtly and covertly infiltrated into our consciousness? Or just feed into the popular “counter culture” aesthetic of patches…


I’m into that. Something small, yet significant, and common, yet impactful. And accessible! How did you decide to become an artist?

I started making art pretty intensely after a mishap with a lawn mower in the summer before 9th grade. I won’t go into gory details, but a toe injury prevented me from doing tennis camp. So I opted for an intensive landscape painting class. 4 hours of painting out in the landscape “en plein air” every morning at various sites in DC – Georgetown, the mall, the cathedral, the canal. It was as romantic as it sounds – I often rode my bike with a wet canvas strapped to the back, the whole nine yards! I had a very passionate and dynamic teacher. I got hooked and never looked back really. I took that course every summer, I painted in all my free time, in my bedroom, sometimes had paintings on the end of my bed. I was a true art geek – my friends and I would paint each other’s portraits, go out and paint at night or take trips to go painting. It was an amazing time, and a great way to get through a tumultuous time of life!!

What environment allows you to produce your best work? What is your studio like?

My studio is amazing. I was reluctant to move in because we bought a house with a daylight basement for my studio. It felt decadent to go rent space outside the house, but I was super isolated after we moved and happened upon this awesome space – Red Dirt Studios, founded by Margaret Boozer. It is housed in an old firehouse with 30 artists, but we are more than a building – we also mentor our artists and focus on professional development. We meet every Saturday to talk about professional issues, critique work, help folks with grad school applications, artists statements, take field trips to galleries, etc. We call it grad school without grades. For most folks it is not meant to be their permanent space, but a 3-year time period in which they push their practice to the next level, whatever that might be. So there is a constant influx of new voices. Everyone there is serious about their practice, whether they are right out of undergrad or an established exhibiting artist. We have artists working in all media – painting sculpture, ceramics, digital, video, performance, installation, letterpress… Our weekly meetings create a spirit of dialogue and exchange that is quite unique in the art world. We are driven, and even competitive sometimes, as a lot of ambitious artists are, but not in a cut throat way. In a way that honors everyone’s process and individual trajectories. The dialogue in our weekly meeting is almost always interesting and rich.  So while I have been a reclusive, solitary artist most of my adult life, this community environment has been amazing for my development as an artist over the last 4 years It keeps me challenging myself and getting exposed to lots of different artists. I am extremely lucky to be there, and I am now one of the Co-directors.

Physically my studio is about 10×20’, has its own garage door and is filled with light. Because I was involved with Red Dirt as we moved into the firehouse 2 years ago, we designed the space to suit my needs.  It has a moveable wall so that I can fold it out and expand my space or open it up for collectors to view my work better.


How do you feel the embroidery makes a painting stronger? Rather than discussing embroidery as a domestic, female-centric pastime, how do you feel it affects your works that are already loaded with emotion?

Firstly, I am in love with the physical contrasts of stitching versus painting. It’s the visual qualities that draw me in first. There is something about the slowness of stitching, and the meditative quality of the experience of making it that translates very differently from the painted mark. Especially the stains that are, by virtue of the way they are made, quite loose and out of control.  I love the contrast of the tiny meticulous marks with the blobs of stained paint. As far as how stitches convey emotion – for me their delicacy is almost automatically tender because they require such careful attention. Their tiny scale invokes intimacy.  More than paint, you know that the artist touched every square inch of that thread – the evidence of its handmade-ness is so much more overt than the paint stains which obviously oozed into a life of their own once I poured the paint on the canvas. NOT touching the paint has a lot to do with how those images are made. Sometimes I have to practically tie my hands behind my back not to manipulate them and let them just evolve as the paint soaks in.


Is that as romantic of a process as you just described it? To care for each stitch by guiding it but then to care for the paint in a different way by letting it move on its own?

Yeah, I guess it is! I do have an intimate relationship with these materials and I hope that comes across to the viewer.

It absolutely does. Thank you, Leslie!



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