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.
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.
“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.
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.
“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.”Story: Lucas and Juno: Special bond of a rescue dog and dying boy
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.
© 2013 NBCNews.com Reprints