Smithfield Herald

Cancer – and chemo – inspire art project

Clayton artist Gail O'Neil, left, and her granddaughter, Reghan Mayo, painted ceiling tiles for the Cancer Centers of North Carolina on Macon Pond Road in Raleigh.
Clayton artist Gail O'Neil, left, and her granddaughter, Reghan Mayo, painted ceiling tiles for the Cancer Centers of North Carolina on Macon Pond Road in Raleigh.

A Johnston County artist has combined her talent and personal battle with cancer to paint ceiling tiles that will brighten the rooms of the Cancer Centers of North Carolina in Raleigh. Along the way, Gail O’Neil has gotten to spend more time with her granddaughter.

O’Neil, 67, is a well-known artist in Clayton. She has displayed her work at The Clayton Center and at one time owned a studio on Main Street called G&O Designs, where she sold her brightly colored paintings, including landscapes, floral pieces and portraits.

Last September, O’Neil was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. “It came on with no warning,” she said. “I just got a small pain in my side, and it turns out that’s what it was.”

O’Neil received her chemotherapy treatments at the Cancer Centers of North Carolina on Macon Pond Road in Raleigh, where nurses quickly noticed her love of art. “I’d bring them pieces of art when I visited there; they all treated me so well,” she said.

O’Neil decided to share her artistic talent with others going through the stressful and emotional process of chemotherapy. She and her 10-year-old granddaughter, Reghan Mayo, have painted ceiling tiles that will go in the rooms at the center. The tiles are part of a project called Healing Ceilings, which invites artists, both professional and amateur, to paint tiles and donate them to the center.

Amy Jo Edwards of Raleigh launched Healing Ceilings after her husband, Bill McConley, began chemotherapy at CCNC. “It’s so hard sitting in there because it’s a very sterile place and you’ve got this white dropped ceiling you’re looking at,” Edwards said.

Edwards’ husband is an artist, and an artist friend inspired her to paint tiles to brighten the rooms.

CCNC installed the first set of 24 tiles in late June. Since then, the number has grown to more than 200, with tiles donated by artists from across North Carolina and as far away as Florida.

“You can meditate on it and know someone cared enough about you to do that for you,” Edwards said.

CCNC is building a treatment center in Clayton and already has two painted ceiling tiles for that building.

O’Neil painted an underwater scene across four tiles. In the scene, large sea turtles swim in soothing cerulean and dark blue.

“I thought they were so peaceful,” O’Neil said. “Also, turtles live a very long life.”

Her tiles will go in one of the rooms where she received her months of chemotherapy, and O’Neil will likely see them again. She learned earlier this month that her battle with cancer isn’t over, and she’ll be returning to the CCNC for treatment.

Ten-year-old Reghan painted one tile with orange and purple cats playing with a ball of yarn.

“I’ve always had a love for cats,” she said. “I feel really at home when I see cats, and they make me feel really warm and good.”

She hopes her ceiling tile will bring similar comfort to cancer patients.

The pair worked on their tiles for three days, with Reghan taking hands-on arts lessons from her grandmother. Grandmother and granddaughter say the project brought them closer.

“We haven’t painted together this much before,” Reghan said. “It’s one of my favorite things to do.”

Reghan, who has ambitions of being a dancer or an artist, said her grandmother has been a role model to her.

“I encourage her to express herself however she wants, and I want her to be creative,” O’Neil said. “When she comes over to paint, we go down to my studio and get paint all over the floor and all over ourselves, and that’s just fine.”

“Painting has helped me get through this,” O’Neil added.

To learn more about the project, visit the “Healing Ceilings” page on Facebook.