Taken by cancer, Lisa Semple leaves behind a legacy of beauty in tragedy
Lisa Semple did not attend the opening for her latest artistic endeavor, “Faces of Cancer,” — a series consisting of 20 portraits of those in the community who have been directly affected by the disease — but she was definitely there in spirit, and her own visage looked upon those who gathered in her name and to show support for others involved in the struggle.
Semple passed away after a battle with breast cancer on Dec. 23, less than two weeks before her artwork was to be displayed at Cherry Hill Public Library in a gallery opening celebration on Jan. 5.
The Cherry Hill native and mother of three had served as an educational assistant for 11 years at Sharp Elementary School and was an avid runner, having completed everything from 5K to marathon-level courses. When a recurrence of cancer took away her ability to run, she turned to painting as a way to cope with the struggle and redefine her purpose.
“Lisa was a fine arts major at Moore College of Arts and Design, freshman year she was an illustration major, switched to graphic design, but always wanted to return to do some painting, and some fine art work. It was kind of a bucket list item for her to get back into painting, have gallery shows, then retire, that kind of thing. Unfortunately all of that came much sooner than she, or all of us, anticipated,” said Lisa’s husband George Semple, who attended the opening.
Semple’s cancer returned last summer, and it was Stage 4 — which meant it had spread enough to other parts of the body to cause imminent harm. As a result, according to her husband, that caused a crisis of confidence and shook any notions of who she was to the core. It wasn’t until she paid a visit to George’s sisters in the Washington, D.C., area, that she came back on better footing, then in August, decided to paint a self-portrait.
Completing the painting set in motion the events that ultimately led to the exhibition.
“When you look at it, there’s a lot of angst, a lot of pain, a lot of emotion. She went from originally being diagnosed as Stage 3 in late 2017 and in the spring of 2018, it looked like she was beating things. But then in July, she was having some pain in her arm, and we went back to the doctor to get some biopsies and they said the cancer’s back. That was a real gut punch. She fought so hard for just about a year, did everything right, fought so hard. We thought we were over it, and then, boom, you get Stage 4,” George said.
Yet, Lisa was determined to see the project through. She painted most of the portraits with her one good arm, while the other was wracked with pain from her cancer’s return.
“She was a little frustrated, she needed an outlet, and so she started with her own self-portrait. Then, she said to me and other people, I have this idea to do a ‘Faces of Cancer’ series, and I want to tell those stories,” said Heather Caldwell, Lisa’s friend of 40 years and one of the subjects of the exhibition. “As far as her ability, I am not surprised. Growing up she painted Journey album covers that had planets and all sorts of cool images on them, and she was in art classes all through high school.”
Semple’s portraits range from Cory Baar, who was struck down by cancer in childhood, to elderly couple Ernestine and Benjamin Cutler, who each fell victim, to Erika Parker Hauer and pediatrician Colette Desrochers — both of whom attended in good health, and paused beside their portraits to contemplate how far they’d come in their own battles.
Caldwell admitted to being embarrassed when Lisa asked to paint her portrait. At the time, Semple was dealing with increasingly potent metastatic breast cancer, while Caldwell had been dealing with repeated instances of skin cancer, which was relatively superficial. But Semple insisted, saying to her childhood friend, “You started in your early 30s getting your face cut up and I can’t imagine doing that over and over again.”
Cancer affects the population on many levels, and Semple intended her series to show there are a lot of different kinds of cancer that affect us in very different ways. Everybody whom Semple painted, Caldwell said, shared some kind of connection with her.
Nowhere was the connection deeper and more lasting than with husband George, who was surprised and humbled at the number of people who attended the event.
“It means the world to me. When it comes to having a partner in life, I could not have had a better one. We really meshed very well together,” he said, when asked his feelings on seeing so many in the community come out to support his late wife’s art. “She was somebody who fought like hell, didn’t want to be a quitter and step aside and let the cancer take her. She wanted to give it every ounce of energy she had. And she did.
“I really thought she was going to make it to this show. I think if she were here, she would be so filled with emotion, but very proud of us.”
“Faces of Cancer” will be displayed on the library’s lower level, across from its Veterans Wall of Honor, through Jan. 31. Memorial donations may be made to the Semple Children Scholarship Fund at www.gofundme.com/remembering-lisa-semple.