Since recovering from two brain tumours, American artist Debbie Wagner has painted the sunrise every day. On a recent visit to Ireland, she told Ellie O’Byrne all about it.
THINK back to any day worth commemorating in your life in the past decade: the day your baby was born, or the day you first woke up in the arms of the person that would become your spouse, or the day you lost a loved relative or friend.
Now imagine that on that day, a woman has risen with the dawn in her home in Kansas, calmly and quietly gathered her materials, and settled down to paint the sunrise of the day that means so much to you. Because it’s almost certainly true.
Debbie Wagner began painting sunrises in 2005. It happened on impulse, but not without cause; to Wagner, her daily ritual of painting the sunrise is an act of profound gratitude for her very existence.
“In 2002, I was diagnosed with two brain tumours,” Wagner says, seated in a café in Cork, resplendent in clothes as bright as her sunrises.
“I learned that when a man has brain tumours, they compare the size of his tumours to sports balls: golf balls, baseballs, things like that. But when a woman has brain tumours they compare them to fruit. Isn’t that funny? Mine were the size of pears.”
Following her surgeries and treatment, Wagner couldn’t complete formerly easy tasks such as following a recipe or reading a novel. But she takes these limitations in her stride. “My daughters get very frustrated because sometimes I just can’t quite grasp what’s going on,” she says, smiling wryly. “But I was willing to redefine myself. I knew I wasn’t going to be exactly the same person, but I got to be alive. I say to my husband that he’s one of the few men who has been married to two women without having to pay for a divorce.”
She also found herself seized with an irresistible urge to paint. “I woke up one morning in the wintertime and the sky was so intense and I just thought, ‘I’m going to try painting that.’ I woke up the next day and tried again, and I tried again and again and pretty soon a year had passed. Now, my sunrises are my diary.”
Working in soft oil pastels, on heavy gauge paper, Wagner has developed a distinctive style of her own. The sky, naturally, dominates her canvas and the effect is at times almost abstract, a celebration of colour. “I love the energy of the turquoise on the orange and when I put that first splash of blue on orange I still get so excited,” she says. “No sky is ugly. There’s something beautiful in every one. Unless it’s raining very heavily or snowing so much that everything’s white, I paint. Sometimes if I stand there long enough things change. I like the foggy days, when I wait until the sun is just coming over the top of the fog.”
When the Three Rivers Gallery in Bennington, Kansas, where Wagner lives, exhibited her work, people started approaching her to purchase sunrises on specific dates that they wanted to commemorate. Local TV appearances were followed by national networks as word of Wagner’s unique discipline spread.
“Then the Huffington Post picked it up and pretty soon I started getting orders for specific sunrises from all over the world,” she says. Wagner quickly gets tearful when she recounts some of the reasons people have shared for wanting to buy her paintings.
“I have around 2,000 stories from people all around the world and I think that 65% are actually very sad stories, like, ‘My father was murdered this day, do you have the last sunrise he saw while he was alive?’ Just heartbreaking things. Some are uplifting, but some are so incredibly sad. I never drop those stories. They internalise.”
Wagner and her daughters have been visiting Ireland, as so many Americans do, to trace their family roots.
Choosing a bed and breakfast to stay in close to Kinsale, the Wagners had one priority; a room with a view, facing east.
“The sunrises here are beautiful,” Wagner says. “People did warn me about it being overcast, but I love clouds, and I brought my special stormy pastels with me.”
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