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Amy Oestreicher, artist and detourist.
Curensea Interview Series
Amy Oestreicher always loved musical theater and her dream was to perform on Broadway, but when she was 18 years old her stomach exploded. For 7 years, she couldn’t eat or drink, but she found an amazing well of creative energy within her and turned to art. Amy shares the lessons she learned from trauma through her writing, mixed media art, performance, and inspirational speaking. As the creator of “Gutless & Grateful,” her BroadwayWorld-nominated one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, and also created a program that combines mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness, and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. You can learn more on her website: amyoes.com.
What is your “beautiful detour”?
Amy Oestreicher: Short answer: still going! But here’s the road so far:
growing up, theatre was my passion and identity, and that’s where I figured my life would go – Broadway or bust! I’d always possessed a tremendous curiosity and gratitude for the world around me, and saw creativity as a way of mindset, way of life, and means of finding joy wherever you are – including OFF stage!
That creativity saved my life. At 18, a week before my senior prom, having just received my college acceptance letters, I awoke from a coma. Although surgeons were more concerned about keeping my organs alive, I was still trying to not feel like a has been at 18. With a ventilator and a tracheotomy, I couldn’t even talk. I had “just been” in my tap classes, and instantly, after months of bed rest, I couldn’t sit or stand, and was horrified that every muscle had turned Jell-O.
I then was told that my stomach exploded due to an unforeseen blood clot. So much pressure had built up inside of me that in the operating room, my stomach actually burst to the ceiling. Both my lungs collapsed, I needed 122 units of blood, and now without a digestive system, I couldn’t eat or drink, and nobody knew if I would ever be able to again. What do you say to that? I remember asking every person I could find in the hospital if they thought I would ever be able to sing and dance again. I was faced with many apologetic “I don’t knows.”
So 27+ surgeries later, and countless setbacks and frustrations, there were more detours. I had to wait a good seven years before surgeons could figure out how to “craft” me up a digestive system. That’s the first time I could even suck on an ice cube or eat a crumb. The “dark turns” of the Detour were surgical explosions (more – called fistulas) transplant evaluations, a divorce, an extra surgery from a car accident, more unplanned time where I needed to be back in the hospital for surgery gone wrong, or more time not able to eat, and other “plans” pushed aside because my body and mind were racing on different tracks.
But in the shadows, you find light – beauty in the detours.
You’re on a road, and you have to make an unexpected turn.
Nobody expects a detour to happen in life. It’s what happens when we think we have things planned and all figured out, and then we’re thrown a curveball.
But the great part about a “detour?” You get to travel a route you never would have expected. The road may be tough, long, winding and seemingly out of the way, but what I finally realized is that it’s the twists and turns in life that ultimately make us who we are.
So many gifts came out of this. I also discovered painting in hospitals and flourished as a mixed media artist with art shows and creativity workshops. I was not able to fully appreciate the beauty of my detours until I was able to share them. As a performer, all I’ve wanted to do was give back to the world. But now I have an even greater gift to give: a story to tell.
Other beautiful landscapes I found: going to College finally! And graduating in 2017 when I turned 30! Finding love, even if ending in divorce, discovering art, writing a one woman musical, meeting new people, learning new things, and crafting a bit more resilience with every twist and turn!
Medically, my life is far from perfect, but now when a surgery goes wrong, I use it as more material for my one woman show, Gutless and Grateful – if we can’t learn to laugh from hardship, we can’t learn anything. And for me, when I learn, I feel alive.
When did you first start expressing yourself creatively? How did this evolve after your detour?
AO: First? Theatre! And, as a kid, making my dad film me making up musicals in my kitchen!
Art came after my coma.
I had never picked up a paintbrush in my life until after my 13th surgery, and still have no formal art training. I was stuck in the hospital after a wound ruptured. 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. Now, I paint how I feel, when I feel it and never question one brush stroke. It’s gotten me through the most recent years, which were especially difficult for me. Plus I learned a new skill! I put up three successful art shows in 2011, and still actively sell my work to this day.
In terms of resourcefulness, my art got me through months stuck in the hospital. My mother would bring me paints, felt, glue gun, canvas, etc., and I’d just have to be creative about everything else – even using the hospital toilet paper for texture on my mixed media paintings.
So I did art for a while to get through surgeries, and still do! But without theatre, I felt disconnected, purposeless, a has-been. I missed the vibrant girl I remembered being the first to sign up for auditions, now condemned to a realm of medical isolation.
I had always had a dream of combining song and dialogue in a show of my own design. I love the idea of storytelling through theatre, but as a teen, I didn’t really have much of a story to tell. But sometimes, a setback is an opportunity in disguise. Suddenly, I had a tale of hurdles, triumph, and heart.
Eight years after my coma, I was finally headed towards a life of medical stability. I learned through experience that things can heal with time, and that’s not always the prettiest or easiest way.
My one-woman musical autobiography, Gutless & Grateful, started out as stapled pages of my journal – a few pages from the thousands of journal entries I had completed when unable to eat or drink for years. I selected 16 songs—some of which I had written – that had always resonated with my journey and me, and loosely strung them together to sing for my own therapy. I’d perform Gutless & Grateful for my parents, my dogs, but mostly for myself. Through the songs, I could allow myself a safe place to feel the charged emotions I was still trying to process from years of medical trauma.
What is your artistic process?
AO: I discovered a paintbrush for the very first time in the surgical ICU. Before that, the only art I knew and missed was theatre. Now, I consider it a blessing that I have no formal art training. Not being savvy with technical art terms is an advantage when my lines aren’t perfectly shaped or my colors aren’t seamlessly blended. My oblivion and passion help to silence my inner critic. Whatever I paint, I create from the heart. I try to focus on the physical sensations of feelings my brush glide across the canvas, drenched in a juicy glob of heavy-bodied paint. I feel the bristles press against the stretched linen; I see each fiber drag across a mound of cherry-apple red. As I guide my brush up and down my canvas, the repetitive gestures become meditative. I stop thinking, as I press down on my brush harder. The canvas then becomes an open channel to my soul, a clear-as-day lens into what can be sensed, but not seen. And now – here it is: in iridescent hues, glistening in silky splotches of wet paint.
You’ve written that creativity saved your life. How did art help you, and how does art help people heal?
AO: Creativity is a way to see the world – a mindset. So even with the IV poles beeping, I still heard the music. In my bleak ICU cubicle, I could still see me dancing someday. Creativity gave me hope.
If I didn’t think like an artist, I would have never been able to re-imagine my identity and maintain an inner fire that kept my spirit alive. And we are ALL artists with the mindset that we can reimagine life however we’d like it to be – just create it! I am an artist because I couldn’t imagine any other way of connecting with my world, myself, and my passion. I wake up every morning with a drive to create. Every sensation I touch, every breath I inhale brings an image to my mind that fills me with giddy excitement. I find inspiration in each everyday miracle, and my first impulse is to create something with it. When I do, I feel aligned with the universe—like something larger is moving through me. I feel the big, limitless expanse of sky above me, my feet grounded in the earth, and my heart pulled between the two extremes.
I am an artist because that is how I feel like I belong. It’s my role in the world, and it’s how I can share my passion with others, and receive inspiration from everything around me.
I am an artist because I’m a busy-body—I’ve always felt a need to do, to make, to document what I feel in some kind of artistic way. Experiencing beauty all around me is only the first part of the process. Making something of the beauty is just taking a step further. For me, seeing the role of an artist truly be fulfilled is being able to give back what I create, to share my work.
And last—I am an artist because I will forever be happily reveling in why I am an artist.
My question is—for anyone—why not?
You’ve experienced a lot of pain in your life. What is your message to people currently experiencing pain?
AO: Every road leads somewhere, and the more we share, the more we realize we’re not alone. Just talk. Share. Sing a song, do a dance — or if you’re not a theatre ham like me, draw a picture, journal, or tell a friend. You never know if someone else is feeling the same kind of uncertainty when a path doesn’t go as you expect.
My detour took me has taken me everywhere from wound-care conferences to humor academies. From there, well, the beauty of a detour is I don’t know where it might lead.
My advice is to:
- Show up.
- Trust that you are capable.
- Be curious to see where the detour may lead.
Detours can lead to new, unexpected and amazing opportunities. Just keep going.
What was it like touring the U.S. for your one-woman musical “Gutless and Grateful”?
AO: I performed Gutless & Grateful for the first time in NYC in October 2012. It was a frightening, bold, vulnerable, and breathtaking experience. I told everything – the pain, the joy, – with music, drama, and humor, most importantly. I had played “roles” before, but for the first time, I was honestly revealing my own medical and emotional struggles for strangers – a risk with reward. My own vulnerability finally made my story relatable. I could rejoin the world now.
Now, it’s such a joy! I’ve always missed being on stage, and to travel around theatres from Hawaii to California, DC, Arizona, and so many other places I get to dance around on stages I used to dream of being on as a teen!
Through Gutless & Grateful, I realized that sharing the gifts of the arts with others makes those lessons all the more potent. This detour transformed to touring my show around the country, touring it to colleges, to TEDx Talks, the “teaching artist” path, where my lesson plans are driven by the power of stories. Through creativity, we can turn anything into a “beautiful detour.”
Graduating college myself, while both performing for colleges and being a teaching artist has shown me that we all need to learn how to cope when life doesn’t go like we expect it to.
When I realized how combining powerful firsthand experience could transform lives, I developed my little-show-that-could into a mental health advocacy and sexual assault prevention program for students. Nearly losing my life at 18 years old, I’m now reaching out to students at that same pivotal point in their own lives. Through Gutless & Grateful, I’m sharing my story and helping others find the the gratitude in hardships. As a performer, all I want to do is give back to the world. Being up on stage and singing is one part of the joy, but what brings the process full circle is knowing that somewhere in the audience, I am affecting someone and making them think in a different way. Theatre stirs you to see differently.
You express yourself in many different ways – writing, visual art, music, public speaking, etc. Do you have a favorite? What do you appreciate about each?
AO: I think creativity is like water energy – it’s all in us, and just comes out in whatever medium we feel fearless enough to try out. I will never forget how I was literally given a voice by the arts, after this decade of trauma threatened to permanently claim my voice and write my story. I had experienced years of setbacks, triumphs and frustrations in isolation, stifled by circumstances that appeared so much larger than myself. Playwriting, art-making, singing, dancing, and every possible form of expression granted me creative ownership, launching me back into society as a storyteller, rather than a victim.
Theatre is probably my favorite – writing a musical transformed my traumas into a universal narrative, and seeing my struggles through the lens of the archetypal hero’s journey revealed the gifts of adversity. The even greater surprise was witnessing how this theatrical arc I had constructed from chaos was universally relatable. I realized that creativity could facilitate healing for both the artist and audience, as they engage with the story. Theatre was “great equalizer” which created a common language between marginalized voices and an audience ready to listen. I’ve learned that, just as healing cannot take place in a vacuum, neither does art.
But visual art is a close second! I found art accidentally on my way to healing, and have learned that it is one of the most rewarding, forgiving, beautiful ways to find my way through the darkness and into the light.
My music, singing, composing – I love singing so I write and perform any time I can! As artists we tell stories constantly. Every time I “perform” or “create” what happened to me, I find myself somehow transformed in the process. The arts teach us we’re capable of anything, and usually tells us this at times we need it most.
And speaking is another way to share – but I always supplement it with some kind of creation further than a speech – whether it be poetry, monologue, song, dance, art….
In many of your visual pieces, you feature paintings of trees. What do you love about trees, and why do you use them as a recurring symbol in your work?
AO: Trees have always grounded me. What about them doesn’t say everything you need to know about life? And I’ve always been a nature-lover.
Who are some of your favorite creators that you turn to for inspiration?
AO: When I first taught myself to paint in the hospital, my new “self-help” reads were artist biographies—I learned many artists had healed themselves by transforming their own difficulties into what they formed on a canvas. I’m inspired by the romance and whimsy of Chagall, poignant cut-outs of Matisse, personal narratives so imminent in Frida Kahlo’s work, crazy-beautiful abstractions by Kandinsky, vibrancy in nature by Van Gogh, boldness of Warhol – everything I can take in and later into a collage works for me!
Having to wait years to go to college, I had never lost my quest for knowledge, and learning everything I could about the history of art and all the artists I loved was my way of resuming my education.
What is the meaning of life?
AO: Find what matters to you. Whatever makes you feel Here Now. It could be taking a breath, hugging someone you love, or picking up a paintbrush for the first time.
The meaning of life is starting wherever you are. Again and again.
How do YOU express yourself?