With the artistic donation of a local artist, hope is rendered in Newport Beach

Cancer survivor Frank Di Bella and abstract artist Leonardo Cruz Melo.
Cancer survivor Frank Di Bella, right, stands with contemporary abstract artist Leonardo Cruz Melo in front of an artwork created by Cruz Melo at City of Hope Newport Beach on Thursday.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

City of Hope Newport Beach is just a couple of blocks away from Fleming’s Steakhouse at Fashion Island.

The two places are more connected than one might think.

Now 40, Leonardo Cruz Melo has been working at Fleming’s since he was a teenager. The bartender is also a contemporary artist, and the restaurant displays his paintings on its walls.

Cruz Melo’s works caught the eye of Donna Porter, the co-chair of the “Let’s Be Frank About Cancer” gala, before she died of cancer in December 2019.

Newport Beach resident Frank Di Bella, the gala’s namesake, said he has raised more than $8 million for City of Hope through the gala in the last six years. During the pandemic, the gala was cancelled in March 2020, but he came up with another way to make a difference.

Di Bella, 75, does everything he can for the City of Hope. He was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 2011 and got a third opinion from City of Hope after the first two opinions gave him only months to live.

His cancer is still in remission. Porter’s wasn’t, but she invited him to her San Juan Capistrano home a week before she died.

“She said, ‘I’m going to give you $100,000 for ‘Let’s Be Frank About Cancer,’” Di Bella said. “She asked to use part of it to acquire some paintings from Leonardo, because she knew she wouldn’t be alive to see the new facility. So that’s what I did.”

City of Hope Newport Beach opened a month later. Six of Cruz Melo’s paintings are now on display there and include a triptych piece consisting of three panels personally donated by the artist himself.

A painting by artist Leonardo Cruz Melo at City of Hope Newport Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

When City of Hope Newport Beach opened, many Orange County cancer patients who had previously traveled to Duarte for treatment now had a more convenient location.

Following the donation of Cruz Melo’s artwork during the pandemic, patients now have something else to help them relax during what can be a traumatic experience.

“The finishes that were selected for the building itself are very soothing and organic, and this artwork really enhances that environment,” said Larry Zeiber, vice president of philanthropy for City of Hope Orange County, who was with Di Bella on a tour of the facility before it was completed. “For our patients who spend on occasion quite a few hours there, I think it contributes to the healing process.”

Dr. Sumanta Pal, who has treated Di Bella at City of Hope for close to a decade and said he considers him family, agrees with that sentiment.

“I can’t imagine a place that has the potential to be more unsettling than an oncologist’s office when you’re waiting for scan results or lab results,” Pal said. “I think that having the paintings there offers patients a really serene experience, as they’re often facing very difficult circumstances. They’re not surrounded by the sort of standard glare of hospital lights … This really does make it peaceful of an experience as one can have.”

Cruz Melo, who said he started painting about five years ago as a way to keep his mind occupied, was happy to help. Cancer has affected him too, he said. His mother, Alicia, is a breast cancer survivor, and he had a nephew who died of cancer in 2013.

Cruz Melo, who lives in Santa Ana, said he does yoga and practices reiki energy healing to get in the right frame of mind to paint. That relaxed vibe follows onto the canvas.

Paintings like these, created by Leonardo Cruz Melo, hang on the walls of City of Hope Newport Beach.
(Kevin Chang / Staff Photographer)

One piece displayed in the conference room at City of Hope Newport Beach has a primary color of lavender. A light purple or lavender ribbon is a sign of support for people living with all types of cancer.

“Hopefully, it makes [the patients] feel good and brings them peace,” Cruz Melo said. “That’s more rewarding than anything else … To be able to give something back, that’s what matters, for sure.”

Di Bella, meanwhile, said he believes his late friend Porter made a worthwhile investment.

“She’s in heaven right now smiling,” he said.

This year’s “Let’s Be Frank About Cancer” gala is scheduled for Oct. 23 at the Balboa Bay Club.

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