Art Therapy and My Journey
By Amy Oestreicher
I continue to celebrate life each day through my art. I celebrate life, thriving, and overcoming obstacles through creative expression. Art has been my lifeline. It has given me hope when there was none readily available. Art has been my anchor that I have been able to rely on when my fate seemed uncertain. And art is now where I can safely find my blissful place, and find myself over and over again.
I was an audacious, ambitious teenager when a week before my senior prom, I abruptly developed a blood clot. I was rushed to the ER and after both lungs collapsed I almost died. My stomach literally burst to the top of the OR and I was in a coma for months. When I awoke, I was told that I had no stomach anymore and could not eat or drink – it was not known if or when this would ever be possible again.
To survive, I never let myself feel like a “patient” or “victim.” Rather than mourn my hunger, I started a chocolate business, a food blog, learned karate, starred in musicals, put up three art shows, and taught nursery school. One day I innocently picked up a cheap paintbrush and suddenly my world expanded. After three years of not even being allowed an ice cube, and 27 surgeries, my digestive system was miraculously reconstructed and I was able to eat and drink. It has been a long road, but I wouldn’t be here if it was not for my art to provide me with hope, faith, courage, and an inner knowing that in the end, everything would be okay.
This is a piece that I created when stuck in the hospital for two months – everything seemed to be fine after a surgery, I went to California on vacation, and after my wound ruptured, I was immediately air-vacced to Yale Medical Center. Once again, I was told that I could not eat or drink so the wound could heal. When life felt shaky, I deferred to my rock – my paint brush and my creativity. My mother went home and gathered every scrap of fabric she could find, an old set of acrylics, and a glue gun. Every day, I worked feverishly in my hospital bed, gluing, painting, and letting my imagination set me free. Every day I would create a new work of art, a new source of hope, and display it outside my hospital room. Soon, nurses and even mobile patients would stroll by my room to see what I had created.
When I got home, I put up my first art show – “Journey Into Daylight” – a collection of 60 mixed media and acrylic paintings – 30 of them I had done at Yale. The biggest reward was being able to inspire others by sharing my message of hope and strength. My gratitude and appreciation of life – the good and the bad – motivated others to find the same positivity that I had tapped into through my paint brush and glue gun. This is why I create. I create to live, and to remind myself that I live.
My working process is intuitive and instinctive. Visual art comes naturally to me, as an effective way to express myself after surviving a coma and almost 30 surgeries. I tend to work with a lot of layering and mixed media materials – anything from tissue paper to fabric, buttons, papers, or toilet paper (I created much art in hospitals and was very limited with materials!). The process really depends on what I am sensing within. I love playing with textures, colors and shapes and allowing them to form the sadness, frustration, joy, or whatever inspiration I am feeling at that moment.
As an artist, I love being a scavenger. I really don’t care what ends up sticking on my collages – cardboard, old lids, plastic wrap, napkins – once it’s covered with paint, it can all look beautiful! For me, it’s about the process. Painting is my way to pinpoint exactly what I’m feeling when I might be too overwhelmed with emotions or memories to have the right words to express it. Art can take me to deep, dark places where I uncover sadness from my past, or it can elevate me to amazing heights when I realize the joy and gratitude I feel – whatever the emotion, art is my lifeline to it – and I’m rather feel anything – good OR bad, then nothing at all!
For many of my mixed media collages, I start by covering the entire canvas with magazine pictures. I don’t mind if certain layers are not seen in the final picture. It’s the journey of creating that matters to me. Then I cover the canvas with clear gesso or matte medium, and after that, it’s a free-for-all – anything goes, such as tissue paper, decoupage napkins, doilies and anything I can get my hands on.
When I feel like I’ve done enough layering, the meaning behind the piece usually emerges. Then I paint whimsical shapes with a paintbrush and acrylics. Sometimes I use a brayer for added background colors. I may embellish the finished piece with anything from buttons, charms, lace, old scraps of clothes, my mother’s vintage jewelry, clay, letters cut out from magazines, and puff-paint. My working process has been described as “obsessive in a good way.” When I work, I am under its spell, working for hours and feeling such a warm feeling in my whole body when it is completed.
Most importantly, I paint whatever I feel from the heart. I love experimenting with acrylics, painting my world of trees, birds, flight, girls dancing, and tear drops. These are symbols that have appeared over time to me – my “markers” to let me know how “Amy’s” really doing. The minute I start seeing a tear emerge on the canvas, I can tell I’m harboring up some feeling about an old memory. That red knot I’m scribbling away at? Oh, I must be anxious. And when my flowers start to sing…I’m happy.