When Audrey Phillips was 33, a phone call from her father began a decade long descent into darkness. “Mom hasn’t been home since yesterday,” he said.
A day later, Lola Mae Toombs body was discovered in the woods north of Panama City, Florida. She and an employee in her consignment clothing shop had been abducted and murdered in a robbery. Their 22-year-old killer was later captured in an Atlanta area hotel and is now serving back-to-back life sentences.
Traumatized, Phillips turned to meditation and medication. She tried yoga and multiple forms of therapy in an effort to ease the pain and silence the screams. “No matter what I tried, I was unable to let go and move on. I couldn’t get past the pain and trauma.”
More than 10 years later, in 2000, Phillips visited an artist friend in Santa Fe, New Mexico. “We rented a space and I started drawing for the first time in years,” she recalls. “It blew me wide open.” Almost immediately, horrific images of the killer’s face appeared on the paper. One version after another. The act of artistic creation was finally exorcising the demons that had been haunting Phillips for a decade.
Phillips’ mother understood her deep connection to art before she did. “When I went to my mom’s funeral, I saw her best friend from when I was 2 years old. The first thing she said to me was, ‘Please tell me you’re still an artist. Your mother recognized your talent immediately. She gave you crayons and paper and set you on the floor. You didn’t need a babysitter. You would draw for hours, totally engaged, completely engrossed.’”
At her mother’s encouragement, Audrey earned a BA in fine art from the University of Florida. “But I was drawn to graphic design because it’s a more marketable skill and I wanted to be self-sufficient.” She worked for a decade as creative director at a major daily newspaper before leaving to start her own design business. The pursuit of fine art was a distant memory until tragedy struck.
As Phillips continued drawing and painting, the horrific images began to disappear, and she began to heal. The process of painting reconnected her with herself, her love of nature and most importantly with her mother. She was finally able to remember the love they shared without experiencing the overwhelming pain of her murder.
“Mine is a story of transformation,” she says, “I’ll never forget sitting on a park bench with my dad and making the decision to not let the dark side consume us. We weren’t going to look for revenge. We were going to move forward from a place of love. It’s hard. It took many, many years to get there.”
Phillips discovered abstract art 18 years ago and has never looked back because it’s her pathway to looking inside. “What I immediately loved about abstraction is that there are no boundaries. You’re drawing from an internal source. You’re not looking at something and recreating it or even being inspired by it. When you get into a flow state, you’re painting emotions. It’s not something from the physical world. It’s from a different place. It’s from what’s inside you. Once you get into flow, the process of painting invites you to stay there. I look at my paintings and think, ‘Where did that come from?’ It’s a deep and magnificent mystery.”
For many years, Phillips couldn’t talk about her mother’s murder. It was art that helped her pass from the dark into the light. It was creativity that authored her transformation.
“We’re all going through a transformation,” she says. “We’re at this point in life that we’re looking forward, but the calendar doesn’t keep going. It stops. There’s a finite amount of time left, and we have a choice to make. Are we going to be small and fall into that fear category or are we going to open up and live bigger and bolder?”
“I’m grateful to be a painter because a white canvas is a never-ending invitation to evolve. Just as with life, you make a mistake. You hit a dead end. You get frustrated. You find your way forward. All of the challenges of life present themselves on the canvas. When you look at art, you get a glimpse into someone’s heart, into their soul.”
Audrey Phillips is a fine artist. Her paintings are coveted by galleries, museums and collectors worldwide. They reflect her love of nature and her mastery of composition and color. Their beauty belies the once unspeakable tragedy she suffered and the trauma she endured on her road to discovery and personal transformation. Her pain and suffering, once reflected in her art, have been defeated by her art.
“My mom was my greatest advocate,” she says. “I still feel her around me sometimes. This is what she would have wanted.”