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A Lawyer Finds Stress Relief in Art—and Surprising Success

Living through a divorce and her father’s illness, Phnesha Marchette took a walk on the beach and asked God for peace. The answer she got made her laugh. It also changed her life.

Phnesha with her daughters, Gabby (left) and Gigi

I liked structure, things going according to plan—my plans. But lately there had been so much upheaval that I hardly recognized my life, or myself, anymore. I was going through a divorce. My dad had a terminal illness. I couldn’t focus on my job as a labor and employment lawyer, and hard work was something I prided myself on. (Even in law school I’d worked a side job as a cheerleader in the NBA and NFL.) I put on a smile for my daughters—Gabby, four, and Gigi, two—but I cried in the shower. I woke up in the middle of the night, every night, my mind racing. I didn’t know it was possible to feel this miserable.

When I refused to take sleeping pills—I didn’t want to be out of it if my girls needed me—my doctor ordered me to take a leave of absence from my job. Part of me was relieved to have a break. Another part of me was freaking out. What was I going to do without having a schedule to stick to? How would I fill the hours Gabby and Gigi were at day care?

What I ended up doing was going for walks on the beach. Something I’d been too busy to do before, even though we lived in a townhouse just a few blocks away. As I strolled along the water’s edge, gazing at the cool blue expanse of sky and sea, the chaos inside me seemed to subside. And in the quiet, I talked to God, asking him to help me find peace and joy again.

One morning i took off my shoes and plopped down on the beach. I wiggled my toes in the sand and breathed in the salty air. You should paint. I laughed out loud. It seemed like such a cliché—get divorced, take up painting.

“Lord, you have got to be kidding,” I said. “I’m a lawyer, not an artist!” I wasn’t the free-spirited, artistic type at all. Doodling in my notebooks during law school lectures—that was about the extent of my artistic abilities. I put my shoes back on and went home, shaking my head at the absurdity of the idea.

Yet it wouldn’t go away. You should paint. The thought popped into my head when I was running errands. When I was on the phone with my family back east. When I walked on the beach. When I read to the girls at bedtime.

Fine, I decided one day, I’ll go to an arts and crafts store. I drove to Michaels. I grabbed a shopping cart and headed to the art supplies section. There was an entire aisle just for paint. Acrylic, tempera, gouache, oil, watercolor…I had no idea there were so many kinds of paint, let alone what they were used for. What the heck was I doing? There was no way painting fit into my life plan. I should just lay this silly idea to rest.

I turned my empty cart around. I was four steps from the door when a young man in a red Michaels shirt said, “Do you need help with something, ma’am?”

I wanted to say no and get out of there. Instead I blurted, “I would like to paint, but I don’t know what to buy.” I was so embarrassed, I couldn’t look him in the eye.

“No problem,” the young man said. “My dad’s an artist. I can show you everything you need.”

And that’s exactly what he did. He picked out a set of acrylic paints, explaining that I could use them to paint on anything—paper, cards, canvas. He recommended brushes. A palette, for mixing colors. Canvases in different sizes. An easel.

“Have fun!” he said, after ringing up my purchases. “I expect you to show me a painting the next time you come in here.”

I smiled weakly. Not likely, I thought. That night, after Gabby and Gigi went to sleep, I set up the easel in the dining room and took out the paints, the palette and a brush. I put a canvas on the easel and stared at the blank white surface. What should I paint? I closed my eyes.

Suddenly I could imagine it. The blueness of the sky blending into the deeper, darker shades of the sea. The incredible nearness of God I felt there. I squeezed some blue paint onto the palette, dipped my brush and touched it to the canvas, not sure what I was doing but knowing somehow that I needed to do it.

I kept painting the next few weeks. When I woke in the night and couldn’t go back to sleep, I went to the dining room and painted. When I wanted to cry, I painted. It was healing. I could forget all my troubles and immerse myself in the beauty and colors of God’s world. I used my phone to take pictures of my paintings, so I could carry that feeling of peace with me.

I ran out of canvases and returned to Michaels to get some more. When I did, the young man who’d helped me before recognized me. “You’re back!” he said. “Can I take a look at some of your paintings?”

I showed him the photos on my phone. He studied them, not saying a word. I hoped my humiliation didn’t show on my face. Then he looked up and said, “Wow, are you sure you haven’t taken any classes?”

Maybe painting hadn’t been such a crazy idea after all. My leave ended, and I went back to work. Life still had its challenges—my father’s death, the finalization of my divorce, a schedule that got even busier as the girls took up dance and karate—but I wasn’t overwhelmed by them anymore. I felt strong enough to cope, as long as I was painting.

My paintings grew in number—the walls leading to the second level of my townhouse were covered—and in size. One took up almost an entire wall on its own. It depicted people of different ethnicities, all walking into the water to be baptized, painted as if I’d been standing on a beach watching them, like the beach where God had broken through to me. I filled the bottom half of the canvas with dots, thousands of them to show the variegated hues of the ocean. I titled that painting Take Me to the Water.

Gabby and Gigi would get up in the morning and run to see what I’d created. “We want to paint, Mommy!” Gabby said one day. “We want to do what you do.” I bought them easels and we painted together. Then we started drawing together. Pictures of everyone in our family, pictures of the girls doing their favorite things—ballet, karate, making cupcakes, building sandcastles.

The dining room turned into an art studio; we would sit on the sofa and eat our dinner off TV tray tables. Two years after I first picked up a paintbrush, there was no more free wall space left in our townhouse. What was I going to do with all of my artwork? I couldn’t figure out a plan that made sense.

Finally, I got so frustrated that I threw my arms up and said, “Lord, I surrender! Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it.” I went to a café one day to brainstorm with another artist, but she didn’t show up. On my way back to my car, I passed an art gallery.

Go ask.

Immediately questions crowded my mind. Just walk in there as an unknown artist? Really? Do you think they’re going to take you seriously? Then I caught myself. Hadn’t I promised to listen to the Lord, to trust him to lead me?

I opened the gallery door and went inside. “Can I help you?” a man asked. “I’m a painter,” I said, introducing myself. “Who should I talk to about showing some of my work?”

“You asked the right person,” the man said. “I’m one of the owners of this gallery. Do you have any of your paintings with you?” I showed him the pictures on my phone. The next thing I knew, I was walking out of the gallery with a solo exhibit scheduled. Then another idea came to me. Or I should say, was given to me. Do a children’s book.

Again, my first response was Really? Maybe it’s because I’m a lawyer and trained to question everything. I didn’t realize that I already had the answers. What did I know about children’s books? The girls and I were frequent visitors at the library. I knew there weren’t many books on the shelves that featured children who looked like they did. And I knew my daughters would love to read a book about kids living lives just like their own. What would my book be about? That’s when God reminded me that I had plenty of inspiration for a book: those sketches the girls and I came up with at our dining room table.

My latest work is Meet Gabby and Gigi, a children’s book about two sisters who live by the ocean. It’s filled with illustrations of the girls doing so many of the activities they love— including cheerleading with pom-poms and painting at their easels. I hope you can feel their joy on every page.

It’s the joy I live my life with. I’ve discovered that I thrive on things going according to plan—a plan that’s sometimes surprising and always bigger and brighter than anything I could have imagined on my own.

Living through a divorce and her father’s illness, Phnesha Marchette took a walk on the beach and asked God for peace. The answer she got  made her laugh. It also changed her life.

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A Voice Told Her to Take Up Painting, and She Heeded the Call

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