The Painting I Made After Surgery Gave Back in an Unexpected Way
I fell into art accidentally. For me, all it was was a way to get my thoughts sorted out before I was actually able to speak them. After my 13th surgery (intended to reconnect my digestive system so I could finally eat!) 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.
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.
I’ve always found gratitude in how I discovered art when I was stuck at Yale Hospital after that disastrous 13th surgery. At one of the worst parts of my life, I was saved by a creative marathon. When we feel like we’re running for our lives, art is the healthiest kind of marathon there is.
Dancing Girl was the third painting I had ever created. 32 x 32 inches of mixed media tears, desperation, hope, gratitude, and the fervent desire to keep my spirit alive at a time when I didn’t want to go on.
I created it based on need, not aesthetics. I needed to do something with my hands. The anger and despair I felt needed to be expressed, and I didn’t have the vocabulary or to articulate it.
I cut up dishrags my mother brought from home, ripped apart paper towels from the hospital sink, and snipped through layers of adds and ends, and old clothes. I glued them on the canvas to somehow represent the disassembled fragments of my tattered heart and worn trust.
At this disastrous point after surgery, doctors had stuck wires and tubes into every possible orifice of my body trying to dry up leakages that defied their own explanations. There was no practical way of wearing “real-people” clothes as one frustrated, dirty, leaking, angry mess of a body and bitter heart. I didn’t feel real at all.
When life felt shaky, I deferred to my rock – my paint brush and my creativity. I layered dozens and dozens of napkins, laces, fringes, and cut apart whatever clothes my mother had brought from home. If my pre-coma clothes weren’t going to be worn, they were going to be reimagined. Just as I hadreimagined my own identity so many times before.
I closed my eyes and thought about how I wanted to feel in that very moment.
I felt my heavy, dragging and tired feet barely making it off the floor. Chained to IV poles yet again, Would I ever get out of this mess, 13 surgeries later? This surgery was supposed to be my grand finale! The End! Tada!
But it was only the beginning of a surgical disaster.
I had put my trust in doctors, who seemed to have all of the answers. Now, I was stuck at Yale for months where every day a new experimental procedure was on the menu. Did anyone have any clue at all what would become of me?
But my paintbrush and scissors knew.
And in my surgical cubicle, I created Dancing Girl.
From layers and layers of napkins, fabrics, old clothes, memories, refashioned, taken apart, put together and reimagined.
And on top of all of that layering, I painted how I wanted to feel. Free. Alive. Dancing.
Dancing Girl was one of the many paintings I churned out over that time, while also being surrounded in a gorgeous art mecca – the hospital itself.
Smilow Cancer Hospital at Yale New Haven has established an “evidence-based art program expressly for the emotional and physical well being of patients and their families.” Their belief that emotional healing contributes significantly to physical healing was completely apparent in the beautiful art that lined every hallway – which I had come to know very well as a hospital patient by the end of three months I spent there!
Those very paintings hanging at Yale Hospital were what had given my father and I things to talk about as we pushed my IV pole up and down the marble hallways and stained tiles. The art was the one marker of sanity as we passed the days arbitrarily marking time in laps, rounds and shifts. The art was our humanity, and it made me feel in connect in the little ways that I could.
Dancing Girl was one of the first paintings I ever made- another creation inspired from needing to pass the time at Yale hospital. When I was discharged, I put up my first art show, Journey Into Daylight, with over 70 mixed media paintings I had created in the hospital.
From my very first art show, Journey Into Daylight
I always had a hard time selling my paintings because of stories like this. Behind every painting is such a powerful memory. There are so many emotions and sentiments embedded within every layer, and as someone who has struggled with feeling her emotions after years of trauma constantly threatening to shut all feeling off, I look to these paintings as signs of life – signs that I still can still feel.
This year, Yale opened a brand new Oncology center – which was the floor I was stuck at for months. I couldn’t think of any place else I’d rather sell my artwork to then Yale itself. A committee of art consultants, patient advisors, care givers and administrators selected over 700 pieces of original art created by artists throughout New England and the Mid-Atlantic, and is apparently third largest permanent art display in Connecticut. This collection of works makes up the third largest permanent art display in Connecticut.
When I heard Yale was looking for art, I submitted my work, not expecting to hear anything. By now, I was used to people truly admiring my work, but being rejected from fine art galleries because it wasn’t “their thing.” (Perhaps they weren’t so keen on the glue gun strands hanging off the ends?) I was overjoyed when I received the call from the Yale curator.
“We love your piece, and we’d love to buy it from you, but our curatorial team has asked that you remove the tear.”
“You know. The tear. We feel that for an oncology ward, we need something lighter.”
“Oh okay. Because for me, it was because life is about the joy and the pain – “
“Right, but we just want to keep the mood more uplifting. So you would be okay with that?”
I thought about it a bit. No, I really wanted to keep the tear.
“Yeah, I guess it’s okay.”
But it was more important that Dancing Girl be in the hospital for others. Tear or not.
A few weeks later, they called me again.
“Hi Amy, I have good news. We decided to keep the tear.”
The bittersweet truth of life prevails. I can never leave any painting – no matter how happy – without a tear. It’s like an itch I can’t scratch if I leave it out. And perhaps because no matter how joyous things seem, I will always carry that tear with me. it is my scar; it is my sadness. And I think the most beautiful thing of all is that I can feel those years now. A deep, watery blue is so much pretty than a haze of gray numbness. Feeling my sadness is the greatest discovery within me. With every tear comes a newfound revelation that yes, I am alive.
I went with my mother and father to the grand opening reception at the new hospital. How strange it was to walk down aisles so similar, but now as an artist, and not a patient at all. I was literally unattached to everything and had everything to move forward to.
With my parents at my side, we were led down all of the beautiful sparkling new hallways to see a breathtaking display of art. I trembled with nervous excitement, wondering what corner my Dancing Girl would be jumping mid air, with her single tear.
And she was where I’d hope she’d be. On the wall of a unit, where staff, patients and family members could see.
After the tour was over, my parents and I strolled around the Yale healing garden – which was a replica of the healing garden at the Yale Hospital I had been stuck in. We strolled in the pitch dark, with plates of food in our hands from the reception instead of IV wires. There were no ties anywhere, and nothing weighing down on us. And my parents were so proud. We had all come so far.
I had never loved my parents as much as I did in that moment. We had all survived together. And now we were here to celebrate it.
As our tour group circled around the new medical center, and my parents and I circled around the healing garden, it was the epitome of a full circle moment.
Never doubt that you can bounce back eventually. You can bounce back, boomerang around, dance, fly and come full circle – all of this is real, possible, and happens around us every day.
I didn’t believe it until it happened. But art gave me that hope. And now I’m leaving that hope on the walls there.
I hope that just as art has healed me, my art can help to heal someone who just may need that extra dose of pink, dance and whimsy.
Goodbye, Dancing Girl.
Amy Oestreicher is a PTSD peer-to-peer specialist, artist, author, writer for Huffington Post, speaker for TEDx and RAINN, health advocate, survivor, award-winning actress, and playwright. As the creator of the Gutless & Grateful, her one-woman autobiographical musical, she’s toured theatres nationwide, along with a program combining mental health advocacy, sexual assault awareness and Broadway Theatre for college campuses and international conferences. To celebrate her own “beautiful detour”, Amy created the #LoveMyDetour campaign, to help others cope in the face of unexpected events. “Detourism” is also the subject of her TEDx Talk and upcoming book, My Beautiful Detour, available December 2017.