Northeastern student found art as she fought leukemia. Charitable foundation is her legacy

katie and chris hemphill posing with a portrait of samantha hemphill
Katie and Chris Hemphill with a portrait of his younger sister, Samantha Hemphill, a Northeastern student who died in August at age 22. Photos by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern

Samantha Ryan Hemphill, known as Sam among so many who loved her, was diagnosed in 2019 with a rare form of leukemia nearing the end of her Northeastern freshman year. It was not until she had passed away last August, at age 22, that her family discovered how prolific an artist Sam became over the course of her illness.

“We didn’t know the half of it until we saw her collection of sketchbooks,” says her older brother, Chris Hemphill. “She was doing this mostly for herself. I believe art provided a sense of accomplishment and escape, especially during her treatment.”

Sam was a woman of many strengths, lovingly referred to as the “golden child” by her siblings. She excelled academically and, as a civil and environmental engineering student at Northeastern, was deeply committed to conserving the environment.

Her drawings and paintings, playful and poignant, form the catalog of SamScribbler, a site created recently by Sam’s family for the viewing and purchase of her works. All profits are going to The Sammo Fund Inc., a charitable foundation created in Sam’s honor for two causes—to help families undergoing the stress of a child’s fight against cancer, and to support the environment. 

Sam’s devotion to the latter is revealed profoundly by her artworks, which were on display in December at Northeastern’s Holiday Market at Curry Student Center. 

“They basically told her she had maybe two months to live,” says Chris’s wife, Katie Hemphill, director of Northeastern’s Technology Ventures and Talent Network to support entrepreneurship. “Sam was a fighter. She wanted to live, spend more time with her family and friends, and make a greater impact.”

katie hemphill and chris hemphill holding a portrait of samantha hemphill
Sam’s art focused on the outdoors and the environment. “She was going to try and save the world,” Katie Hemphill says. Photo by Alyssa Stone/Northeastern University

There is a geometric mandala drawn meticulously by Sam as a flower; a nude outlined by a single curling pen stroke; a Van-Goghish depiction of mountains that brings inanimate objects to life; and three figures holding a large ribbon reading, “This too shall pass,” which has been titled, “Hope.”

“We named everything after she died,” Katie Hemphill says of Sam’s works. “Because she didn’t name anything. She sold two original pieces total in her lifetime.”

The COVID-19 pandemic added to the isolation enforced by her illness. But it also enabled Sam to continue her studies remotely. Her Northeastern degree in civil and environmental engineering, awarded posthumously, hangs in her bedroom at her family home in Vermont.

“It’s helping us make the most of a really tragic situation,” Chris Hemphill says on behalf of his parents, Clare and Matthew, and sister, Jessica. “We need some way to remember her and ensure that her legacy lives on. She was so young, she would have done so much.”

Sam left more than 150 works of her art. Many that were sized to her small sketchbooks have scaled up beautifully. Her family and friends rallied together to transform them into posters and stickers and refillable water bottles.

“She was going to try and save the world,” Katie Hemphill says. “She was going to be a civil and environmental engineer, and she was going to fix water filtration systems in third-world countries. Sam really enjoyed creating ‘plant people’ who, I believe, inspire folks to think more about the environment which she loved so much and take care of it.”

Her ‘plant people’ emerge throughout the collection—a Lady of the Forest, a woman created from plants, gazes upon a mushroom sprouting from her extended palm; a man and woman each sprouted from the Earth dance entwined; single hands signal rock on or offer a thumbs up.

At the Holiday Market, Northeastern students Bella D’Ascoli, Tracy Qiu and Benjamin Lanava—all chapter members of Engineers Without Borders—helped sell their friend’s artworks while standing near a poster of a complex water filtration system that Sam had helped develop for a village in Uganda. A drinking water well was installed in Uganda in 2019 by Engineers Without Borders. Sam’s focus of this phased project was a water distribution system to distribute water equitably across the community. Sam’s contribution to the project will be constructed by her peers and the Nakyenyi, Uganda community this spring.

“I found out only a few months before she passed,” D’Ascoli, a fifth-year environmental engineering student, says of Sam’s illness. “I kind of always had a hunch but I was never going to ask. She never talked about it once with me. She always attended class and meetings like nothing was wrong, and it was the most incredible thing to watch, because you never knew anything was wrong and she was such a strong person about it.”

Among the collection is a self-portrait of Sam, her skin as blue as the sky. The shoulders of her blood-red sweater are sloped like a mountain. Her long hair flows like tangles of autumn-hued lava, fiery oranges and golds with strands of blue streaked in. She stares back at you with large knowing eyes and lips pursed around something more she was hoping to say.

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