The first person Sheryl Greene met after she moved from Tidewater back to Roanoke was artist Margaret Sue Turner Wright.
That happened the year after Greene underwent treatment for breast cancer.
“I actually got diagnosed on Valentine’s Day 2012,” Greene said, adding with a laugh, “I much would have preferred, you know, a dozen roses.”
Wright, who manages Gallery 202 in downtown Roanoke — and whose father was the pioneering NASCAR driver Curtis Turner — herself survived a bout with thyroid and parathyroid cancer 48 years ago.
Greene, 52, who works in landline phone sales, began modelling for Gallery 202’s life drawing class. She wryly observed that the experiences she had undergoing cancer treatment — such has having students brought in to observe procedures — helped prepare her psychologically for posing nude.
She, Wright and others involved with the figure painting class have begun a project that takes inspiration from the 2003 Helen Mirren movie “Calendar Girls,” in which a group of middle-aged women produced a nude calendar to benefit cancer research. The art in the Gallery 202 project would be made up of tasteful paintings. A few of the paintings are done, but the project needs more models to volunteer before it can be finished.
While Greene was undergoing treatment, she found essential community support through Williamsburg-based nonprofit Beyond Boobs, an organization devoted to strengthening the emotional well-being of young women coping with breast cancer. Beyond Boobs (also known as Here for the Girls) also puts out an inspirational calendar, sharing the stories of survivors.
In 2012, Greene’s mother, who lives in Roanoke, was diagnosed with ovarian cancer. She encouraged Greene to get a mammogram done, resulting in her own diagnosis. “We had cancer at the same time.” Greene moved to Roanoke to live nearer her mother, who also successfully completed treatment.
As Greene underwent a lumpectomy, a hysterectomy as a preventative measure against ovarian cancer, and then chemotherapy and radiation therapy, she began an inspirational project of her own. A friend who had also undergone breast cancer treatment received a quirky gift, a Toys R Us brand plush “Mojo” frog, covered with rainbow colored hearts. That friend gave her “Mojo” to Greene, saying, “Here, take him, you are gonna need him now.”
Greene brought the doll with her to doctor and hospital appointments. “I began to notice that others of all ages who normally sat with no expression, suddenly lit up when I walked in with Mojo,” she wrote. “I saw just how much a psychedelic stuffed frog could make even the saddest faces turn to smiles and laughter.”
Greene began giving Mojo frogs to the newly diagnosed, and as word of the project spread, people began donating the dolls to her and she would send them out to women all over the world. She maintained a Facebook page where “Mojo” would post.
She gave the last of the frogs away to Patricia Placona, a Roanoke artist who is part of the Gallery 202 figure painting group and one of the calendar models.
“And I still have it,” Placona said.
A yoga and Pilates instructor, Placona, 68, contributed a dynamic, colorful painting to Gallery 202’s October exhibition, “Dancing into Healing.” She described her style as somewhere between realistic and expressionist.
Placona's painting of another model, Wanda Kemp, has been designated for the calendar, making the project a tribute as well as a benefit. Kemp, who posed while undergoing treatment for pancreatic cancer, died in 2016.
Placona was diagnosed with breast cancer three years ago and still has it. She regularly goes to Blue Ridge Cancer Care in south Roanoke. She talks about her ongoing ordeal with a peppy smile. “I go through the heavy chemo. Lost my hair, grew it back a different color and different kind, and somehow or another managed to teach classes all through the entire time. They thought I was crazy. Now they’re used to me.”
Her home business has helped her deal with her “new normal” wherein her cancer is not cured but can be held at bay, becoming a chronic condition like diabetes. “Cancer treatment is not for the faint of heart,” she said. “Having classes to teach was a gift because it gave me a reason to get up in the morning. I’m a widow, my kids are grown, they’re out of town, and you know, you need something to motivate you.”
One of the most essential and one of the toughest parts of dealing with cancer maintain a hopeful attitude. “Sometimes, the emotions, the reactions to things, will hit you,” she said. “Trying to stay positive, trying to stay strong, and that’s not always an easy thing to.”
“People with that kind of attitude, positive and determined,” handle the ordeal better, said Pulaski County artist Cyndi Maitri, 56, another of the calendar’s models. After her breast cancer diagnosis, when her doctor presented her with a plan, she found it, in a way, soothing. “The limbo was the hardest part, when you didn’t know what was going to happen.”
A massage therapist by trade, Maitri volunteers at Colonial Farms in Pulaski and also owns sheep and a goat. She uses the fleece and wool to create what she calls wool-felted “paintings,” which do indeed resemble paintings, though they are made from wool dyed different colors. She sells them through her business, Appalachian Wool-Works, and teaches the techniques she uses.
She’s been cancer free for seven years. Her rapidly-growing cancer was discovered through a regularly scheduled mammography, treated via a lumpectomy, tamoxifen and radiation therapy. Like Greene and Placona, “I went right back to work,” she said.
About five years ago, Maitri commissioned a portrait of herself from Wright as a gift to her husband. Though it wasn’t specifically created for the calendar, she’s allowing its use for the project.
For more information about the calendar project at Gallery 202, email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 798-1299.