Artist draws children fighting cancer and their ‘simplest joys’

"Kylie Rowland," is one of Irvine artist Diana Jane Mordin's child portraits at her exhibit "The Simple Joys" at Concordia University. The displays feature portraits of children who are fighting cancer.
(Don Leach / Daily Pilot)
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Before opening her first art exhibit “The Simplest Joys,” Irvine artist Diana Mordin spent four years creating portraits of children whom she calls her “little superheroes.”

She’s done 60 drawings and her muses all have one thing in common — they are currently battling or have battled some type of cancer.

Mordin is displaying 20 of those portraits at the John and Linda Friend Art Gallery at Concordia University Irvine until Oct. 7. She wanted to have their faces up during Childhood Cancer Awareness month.


The portraits are digitally drawn. Mordin starts with a photo of each child and draws his or her face on a pad connected to her computer. The lines she sketches and traces onto the pad then appear on her computer screen.

She completed her first portrait in March 2011 of a girl in Rancho Santa Margarita named Jessie Joy Rees. Jessie was diagnosed with a form of brain cancer known as Diffuse Intrinsic Pontine Glioma, or DIPG, that same month. She was 11 years old.

A friend of Mordin’s, who went to the same church as Jessie, asked her to draw a portrait of the young girl after she was diagnosed.

At the time, Mordin had already graduated with her degree in illustration from Cal State Long Beach. She was working jobs in designing banners and clip art but said she was still searching for meaning in her life.

Through Facebook, Mordin found Jessie’s photos to draw and followed her journey through the disease. She said she was inspired at how Jessie focused on giving joy to others during her misfortunes.

While being treated, Jessie collected the small toys in her room, placed them in jars and handed them to the other child patients in her hospital.

Jessie lost her battle to cancer in January 2012. Her Joy Jars continue to be created and sent to children by the Jessie Rees Foundation.

“When you have lost a child, all you have left is memories,” Jessie’s father Erik Rees said. “But having these special portraits is another way to hold onto your child.”

Mordin was inspired to continue drawing patients who were battling cancer but still giving and appreciating the simplest joys in life.

Through this Facebook community of families living with cancer, she was able to find and draw individuals from all over the country. She befriended teens Dominic Henriquez from Moreno Valley, and Amber Marie from Des Plaines, Ill.

Henriquez was diagnosed with DIPG while Amber had glioblastoma, an aggressive tumor in the brain tissue. The two became close friends through Facebook.

Henriquez reached out to a wish-making foundation for a chance to fly out and meet Amber in person.

When the foundation was not able to grant his wish, Mordin and her father arranged a rental car for Henriquez and his family to drive and meet Amber. In October 2012, the two teens finally met halfway in Las Vegas.

Henriquez lost his battle to cancer in February 2013 and Amber in March 2014.

When arranging their portraits in the exhibit, Mordin said she had to keep them next to each other.

Mordin recently fulfilled her dream of illustrating a book with the help of one of her newfound friends. This past year, she helped complete the artwork for “Superhero Training School — My Adventures in the Hospital,” a story Ladera Ranch resident Michael Spinello drafted when he took his then 5-year-old son, Cade, to chemotherapy.

“To lessen the anxiety of the hospital visits, I told him that the chemotherapy was turning him into a superhero,” Spinello said. “I said the IV machine was his own personal robot and his bed was a rocket ship.”

Cade’s portrait hangs in the exhibit as “Super Cade.” The young hero will turn 10 in January, Spinello said.

Mordin works as a graphic designer for a marketing group and plans to continue creating portraits.

“After a long day at work, I’ll sit and do a portrait then I’ll realize that what I had to do that day was nothing compared to what these kids face every day,” she said. “They’re heroes for doing what they do.”

She hopes to display her work in more exhibits in the future.

“The Simplest Joys” will be up at Concordia until Oct. 7. The college is at 1530 Concordia West in Irvine.