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Image: Sunrises (from top) that Debbie Wagner painted on Jan. 1, 2006, Nov. 25, 2009 and Dec. 18, 2010.
Debbie Wagner
“The sunrise offers a sense of hope and eternity that is unspoken,” artist Debbie Wagner said. “I don’t have to say anything. It’s all said in that little painting.” These were the sunrises on (from top) Jan. 1, 2006, Nov. 25, 2009 and Dec. 18, 2010.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 2/1/2012 2:48:11 PM ET 2012-02-01T19:48:11

No two sunrises are ever the same. Each day’s spectacle in the sky is altered by particles in the atmosphere, the tilt of the Earth, the lengths of different waves of light.

Debbie Wagner knows this better than almost anyone else. With earnest devotion, she has risen in the darkness more than 2,200 times so she could observe and paint the sunrise. She’s rarely missed a morning since December 2005; for Wagner, the daily ritual is sustaining.

“As a brain-tumor survivor, I lost so many of the loves I had, like reading and writing and mathematics,” said Wagner, 56, who had two cancerous, pear-sized tumors removed from her brain in separate surgeries in 2002. “My visual journal became essential to my attitude for the day.

“When I look at a sunrise, it represents a new beginning. I’m just so happy to be here another day and see my kids do different things and go to dinner with my husband. I suppose that’s the addiction of it — it puts me in a state of mind focused on gratitude.”

Slideshow: Her art asks: Can you believe your eyes? (on this page)

Increasingly, Wagner’s artwork is taking on personal significance for others as well. People moved by her story have started requesting sunrise paintings for their own milestones: the day of a wedding or a baby’s birth; the day a loved one came home safely from Iraq or Afghanistan; the day a person finally overpowered a stubborn addiction.

Image: Artist Debbie Wagner drawing the sunrise
Courtesy of Debbie Wagner
“I’m always busy during the sunset, but the sunrise is a tranquil time of day,” said Debbie Wagner, pictured here painting in her home studio. “It’s just that special time of day when nothing else is going on.”

Three weeks ago, the family of Justin Tyler Berry reached out to Wagner for an altogether different reason. Wagner learned why in a concise email from Berry’s uncle, Cody Cox.

“My 24-year-old nephew was killed in a car accident December 12th, 2011 — the day of his last sunrise here with us,” Cox wrote. “I would like to purchase that day’s painting, if it is available, and also December 13th, 2011. Both unframed please.”

Berry had been an outgoing student working toward a degree in agriculture marketing at Pittsburg State University in Kansas. He died instantly outside Miami, Okla., when an oncoming driver swerved into his lane and collided into his truck head on. He had been on his way to an evening basketball game where he planned to help younger kids improve their techniques.

“His last day was beautiful just like his whole life was,” Cox, 33, said in an interview. Cox smiled when he recalled the “typical” way Dec. 12 began for his perpetually carefree nephew: Berry had locked his keys in his truck, so he had to run to class so he wouldn’t miss a final exam.

Once he got the exam and the key mishap behind him, Berry spent the rest of his day with almost every member of his large and close-knit family. That evening he headed out to play his favorite sport.

Image: Justin Tyler Berry is pictured along with Debbie Wagner’s painting of the sunrise on Dec. 12, 2011, the day 24-year-old Berry died.
Courtesy of the Berry and Cox families; Debbie Wagner
Justin Tyler Berry is pictured along with Debbie Wagner’s painting of the sunrise on Dec. 12, 2011, the day the 24-year-old died.

“He was just a delightful person,” his uncle said. “He made friends so easily because he was so sincere and so genuine. ... He made everyone in his life feel as though they were his favorite person.”

‘You have to redefine’
When Wagner learned that Berry’s family wanted to memorialize him with her sunrise paintings, she sat down and cried. She then made arrangements to deliver the paintings to Cox in person in Oklahoma City on Feb. 4.

Wagner is always astonished by the encounters she has with families who seek out paintings and share their stories with her. The Bennington, Kan., resident never imagined such connections could be possible — in part because she never imagined she’d become an artist.

She had been a healthy and fit mother of three when doctors discovered her two large brain tumors a decade ago. Before her surgeries, doctors warned her she likely was mere weeks away from a major stroke; after her surgeries, doctors likened her experience to being shot through the head.

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Wagner had long been a foodie who loved to prepare complex recipes. She also savored long novels, managed her family’s finances and made it a priority to get at least nine hours of sleep a night.

Post-surgery, all of that changed. Multitasking became nearly impossible, and she found she could no longer follow recipes, balance a checkbook or keep a novel’s plot straight in her mind. She also lost her cherished ability to sleep through the night.

“You go through this mourning-type period of sadness, and then you realize that you’re a different person and you have to redefine,” Wagner said. “My husband jokes, ‘Well, I’ve gotten to be married to two different women without having to get divorced!’ ”

Her brain tumors and surgeries may have robbed Wagner of much, but they also gave in unexpected ways: She said she wound up experiencing a heightened visual perceptiveness and an irresistible pull toward art.

Slideshow: ‘The Birth of Venus’ (in a bikini): Famous masterworks remade (on this page)

“I started painting pretty much right away, maybe five or six months after my surgeries,” she said. “It just happened. I had to express myself.”

A personal journal
Wagner painted for about three years before attempting her first sunrise. She felt compelled to try it one winter morning when she awoke early from a fitful sleep. She still remembers how vibrant and spectacular the big-sky Kansas sunrise looked that day.

“I thought to myself, ‘I wonder if I can paint that?’ And I did!” Wagner said. “It was so exhilarating that I did it again the next day, and the next day. ... Now the devotion to it is effortless for me because I get such a rush from it.”

It takes Wagner about 30 to 45 minutes to complete a 5-by-14-inch pastel creation from a darkened second-story perch in her home. She skips her morning routine on days that are completely overcast, but her ritual is so ingrained that she brings her painting equipment with her on vacations. Her sunrise paintings gradually began to grow in popularity through word of mouth after a gallery in Salina, Kan., invited her to exhibit a sunrise show.

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“I’m not a great painter. I’m not trying to ask for a compliment or anything — I’m just telling you the truth,” Wagner said. “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.”

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As was the case with Justin Tyler Berry’s family, another Midwestern family felt drawn to Wagner’s paintings after experiencing a devastating loss. A beloved 30-year-old Kansas school teacher died unexpectedly one night from a mysterious and sudden illness. His wife was three months pregnant when she attended his standing-room-only funeral.

A friend requested Wagner’s sunrise painting from the day of the teacher’s death and gave it to his family. Family members were so moved by the gift that they contacted Wagner about five months later to place an upcoming sunrise painting on hold: the date the teacher’s wife was due to give birth by Cesarean section.

“On the day of the baby’s birth, the sunrise was incredible,” Wagner recalled. “I had a very difficult time painting this sunrise because of the significance to the family. I didn’t feel like I was fully capturing how beautiful it was. And I realized at that time, I never really capture the beauty of the real thing — I can only show my reaction to the beauty I’m seeing.

“There is no substitute for the real thing.”

To learn more about artist Debbie Wagner and see additional examples of her sunrise paintings, visit her website.

Need a Coffey break? Friend TODAY.com writer Laura T. Coffey on Facebook, follow her on Twitter  or read more of her stories at LauraTCoffey.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Photos: ‘Remake’ photo project breathes fresh life into classic works of art

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  1. The birth of ... wait a second!

    Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus” is one of the most famous works of art ever created – but it is more than 525 years old. Couldn’t it use a little bit of, oh, you know – reimagining? Well, get this: Booooooom.com’s “Remake” photo project challenged people to recreate classic works of art using photography only. Click through this slideshow to see the revitalizing results.

    A submission from Kevin Thom, along with Sandro Botticelli’s “The Birth of Venus,” which was completed in 1486. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. 'The Birth of Venus' – take two

    Here is another submission updating Botticelli's "The Birth of Venus." This one came from Julio Cesar León Peña. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. ‘The Two Fridas’

    The idea behind Booooooom.com’s “Remake” project was to inspire creativity and excitement as people painstakingly restaged well-known paintings. Claire Ball submitted this take on Frida Kahlo’s surrealstic self-portrait “Las Dos Fridas.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. ‘Pot Pourri’

    Tania Brassesco and Lazlo Passi Norberto created this version of Herbert James Draper’s painting “Pot Pourri.” Jeff Hamada, the Vancouver, British Columbia artist who founded Booooooom.com, said he was struck by the simplicity and beauty of many submissions Booooooom received. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. ‘Lady in a Fur Wrap’

    Here is Tony Mac’s remake of El Greco’s “Lady in a Fur Wrap,” pictured alongside the original piece. Booooooom’s deadline for submissions was Oct. 21, 2011, but the project has been so popular that creative types are still uploading their photo remakes on Booooooom’s Facebook page. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. ‘Vase with 12 Sunflowers’

    Qi Wei Fong submitted this re-creation of Vincent van Gogh’s painting “Vase with 12 Sunflowers.” Booooooom.com received submissions from all over the world for its “Remake” project. Adobe Systems Inc. ran a similar photo contest for United Kingdom residents and then supported Booooooom.com’s contest by providing a software prize for the winner. Booooooom’s winner was Justin Nunnink for his re-imagining of “The Ship” by Salvador Dali. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. ‘Portrait of a Man in a Turban’

    Here are images of Ryan Halliwill’s submission (left), Loli Casas Marino’s submission (right) and the original “Portrait of a Man in a Turban” by Jan van Eyck (center). Booooooom’s contest rules dictated that “all the work here happens before you take the photo, rather than afterward. Please refrain from adding special effects and other things to your image on your computer.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. ‘Portrait of the Artist’s Mother’

    Here is Roxana Azar’s submission of her version of James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s “Arrangement in Grey and Black: Portrait of the Artist’s Mother.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. ‘Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary’

    Marianna-Oboeva shared this reimagining of Pierre-Auguste Renoir’s “Portrait of the Actress Jeanne Samary.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. ‘The Last Supper’

    A submission from Kiran McCandless is shown along with “The Last Supper” by Leonardo da Vinci. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The creation of ... Gumby?

    Spencer Pidgeon shared this unique take on Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. ‘Bedroom in Arles’

    This is Joshua Louis Simon’s reimagining of Vincent van Gogh’s “Bedroom in Arles.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. ‘St. Rose of Lima’

    Genevieve Blais submitted this remake of Carlo Dolci’s painting “St. Rose of Lima.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. ‘The Poor Poet’

    Here is how Regina Speer re-created Carl Spitzweg’s painting “Der Arme Poet.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. ‘The Girl with the Pearl Earring’

    This is Sybille de Chavagnac’s remake of Johannes Vermeer’s famous painting “The Girl with the Pearl Earring.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. ‘Grande Odalisque’

    A submission from Craig White is featured along with the original “Grande Odalisque” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. White’s creation was a finalist in the photo contest. () Back to slideshow navigation
  17. ‘Grande Odalisque’ – take two

    A submission from Patrick Richmond Nicholas is featured along with the original “Grande Odalisque” by Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres. () Back to slideshow navigation
  18. ‘Narcissus’

    Max Zerrahn submitted this remake of Caravaggio’s “Narcissus.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. ‘The Maids of Honor’

    Here is Natalie Pereira’s reimagining of Diego Velázquez’s painting “Las Meninas.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. ‘Allegory of Spring’

    Gianluca Fabrizio submitted this re-creation of Sandro Botticelli’s “Primavera,” complete with a flying cherub. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. ‘The Desperate Man’

    Stefano Telloni created this version of Gustave Courbet’s painting “Le Désespéré.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. ‘Lady with an Ermine’

    This is Sarah Hertzman’s submission of her version of Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine.” (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. ‘Self-Portrait 1889’

    Vincent van Gogh painted portraits of himself nearly 40 times between 1886 and 1889 – and Seth Johnson nailed his remake of this van Gogh self-portrait from 1889.

    To learn more about Booooooom.com and its “Remake” photo project, click here. (booooooom.com) Back to slideshow navigation
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  1. booooooom.com
    Above: Slideshow (23) ‘The Birth of Venus’ (in a bikini): Famous masterworks remade
  2. Photos by Alexa Meade, Courtesy of Irvine Contemporary
    Slideshow (20) Her art asks: Can you believe your eyes?
  3. The Girl Project
    Slideshow (13) Teen girls’ self-portraits are raw, intimate, honest

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