People find unique ways of storing and recording memories of the most important days of their lives. Some save cinema ticket stubs from their first date, some like to keep home videos and photo albums of family events. The methods of storing memories – both happy and sad – are endless. But the story of Cody Cox stands out from the rest. He chose to remember the last day his nephew Justin Tyler Berry was alive in a very different manner – by purchasing a painting depicting the last sunrise his nephew had ever seen. This was possible because brain tumor survivor Debbie Wagner has been painting the sunrise every single morning since December, 2005.
56-year-old Wagner is from Bennington, Kansas. In her healthier days, the mother of three loved to read long novels, cook up complicated recipes, take care of her family’s finances and always got nine straight hours of sleep every night. When she was diagnosed with not one, but two tumors in her brain in 2002, her life changed forever. Although the surgery to remove the tumors was successful, she lost the ability to do many of the things she loved. Wagner could no longer multitask, follow recipes or novel plots, balance a checkbook, or even sleep soundly through the night.
Photo © Debbie Wagner
However, Wagner was not one to give up on life. Just five or six months after surgery, the woman who never dreamed she would be an artist one day, had started to paint. Since the surgeries left her with an increased visual awareness, this was a natural choice at the time. Three years into the activity, the idea of painting the sunrise occurred to her. One morning in December 2005, Wagner says she was struck by the colors of an overwhelmingly beautiful sunrise and was compelled to paint it. “It was so exhilarating that I did it again the next day, and the next day.” Now she says that the devotion is so effortless because she gets such a rush from it. So far she has completed 2,200 5-by-14 inch paintings and it takes her 30 to 45 minutes to do each one. With the exception of mornings when the sky is completely overcast, Wagner hasn’t missed a single day.
Through word of mouth, Debbie’s sunrise paintings began to grow in popularity and she was soon invited to exhibit a show at a gallery in Salina, Kansas. Wagner says of her work, “I think people are drawn to the honesty of what I’m doing, and the pureness of it. It’s not calculated and it’s not planned, and it was never meant to be commercial. It’s my journal and it’s very personal.” People have started to request Wagner’s paintings to celebrate all kinds of milestones: weddings, the birth of a baby, the day of overpowering an addiction or the safe return of a loved one from Iraq. Debbie Wagner sure does seem to have found a beautiful purpose to her life – to be able to live and appreciate each day for the beauty that it holds.