Artist Profile: Debbie Wagner

We’re finally back with another artist profile! Meet Debbie Wagner, who so graciously answered a variety of questions to tell us about herself and her work. Enjoy!

REB: To start with, tell us a bit about yourself.

DW: Artist, mother, brain tumor survivor.  The artist in me has manifested itself in so many directions throughout my life.  Whatever the direction, my passions have always been intense. But after the removal of two pear sized brain tumors in 2002, my artistic passions became all consuming.  These slow growing tumors had been bearing down on the frontal and occipital lobes of my brain.  With their removal came an exploding need to create and fulfill artistic endeavors.

It takes a lot of confidence to commit to a life as a full time artist.  Since so many of my mental capabilities were damaged with my brain surgeries, I was basically left with my artistic gifts.  In redefining who I was, this option continually pushed itself into the forefront of my life.  Therefore, the courage to dive into my art career fulltime was a result of a negative stimulus.   In retrospect, I now know this is who I always was supposed to be.

REB: You live in a fairly rural part of Kansas.  How does that impact your work?  Does it influence how you define yourself as an artist?

DW: Kansas is quietly beautiful.  The beauty of Kansas is not as obvious as a rugged seashore or the vista from a scenic mountain top.  One has to be reflective and observant to really appreciate the magnificance of the rolling hills and farmlands.  I have often thought about how different my observation skills might have been if I lived in a place with a lot of stimulation.  Because of the lack of external and cultural temptations, much of my time is spent reflecting on the world around me.  Many of the narrations developed around my work are a direct result of this little piece of the world I live in.  My love of solitude and my residence in a sparsely populated area are a great match.  Wintertime escalates this trait.  Sometimes during a snowstorm, or as I lay in bed in the early morning darkness, I simply relish the privilege of silence.  It is both inspiring and soothing to me.

I recognize that I belong to a minority experience in this country.  Only five percent of our population can claim a rural area as their platform for life.  My hope is that my art reflects these serene and peaceful (although sometimes dramatic) moments.

REB: Could you tell us about your recent series of sunrise paintings?  What they are, what inspired them, what they mean to you and to others?

DW: In December of 2005, I began my series of sunrise portraits.  The initial sunrises were inspired by a number of consecutive mornings marked with stunning color and drama.  After painting several of these, I noticed how the paintings felt like a diary.  Since I had lost my ability to write with any kind of fluidity and enjoyment, these sunrises began filling that void.  Daily documentation of the sky became my journal; waking each morning with gratitude to the option of another day helped me figure out who I was now.  After I had painted these sunrises for one year, Dr. Richard Bergen, Salina, decided it would be a unique exhibit to feature.  So we hung 12 sunrises, one representing each month of the year.  People were amazed that I had painted the sunrises of an entire year.  Several people asked me if I would sell them one. They were interested in specific days, moments of time with meaning to their lives.

The idea of purchasing a sunrise for special dates took on a life of its own.  After some fortunate publicity, my sunrises became an international intermingling of personal narratives documenting a gamut of emotional experiences.  Sharing the stories of individual lives has become important to me.  I have been allowed to be present in the most intimate experiences involving people I previously didn’t know.  The sunrise I paint each morning begins as my personal journey in life.  When someone else buys it, they often don’t even ask to look at it.  They want that specific sunrise to document their own life story.  So what hangs on their wall is not just a sunrise but a symbol of a personal journey, which ultimately represents the power of art and how it transcends the life of the artist.  When I began painting the sunrise, not even in my deepest imagination did I ever entertain the idea of God allowing my art to touch others in a global theater. I am humbled and honored to be an instrument in this way.

REB: What background do you have with feminism or gender issues?  Do you identify with those terms?  Why or why not?

DW: For me, feminism is similar to life as an artist.  My idea of feminism is not about the big issues many women face, but the more personal conflicts within my small bubble.  It is about the people I actually come into contact with and influence, like my children.  I want to have the freedom to define myself without boundaries of societal definitions.

I attended the University of Kansas in the early 70’s, a time when the feminist movement was quite aggressive.  It was the first time in my life I was exposed to different approaches relating to how I define myself.  I have never enjoyed being part of a big group movement.  It somehow stifles my own thoughts, so even then I chose a more personal path. At this time, I was also greatly influenced by my own family who encouraged me to seek a career path that offered lucrative incentives.  I was never comfortable in this endeavor and serendipitously chose a different life path.  My journey has been a constant effort in defining myself.  The brain tumors really allowed me an opportunity to redefine myself without undue influences from others.

I feel there are two types of people.  These types are well represented in my mind when I consider the way a person experiences the natural world.  One type walks through the woods seeing the big picture and encompasses the world all around them.  The other type, like me, is looking down and seeing a detailed world within a very small boundary. As far as being an advocate for the feminist movement, my lifestyle affects those who are right here and with whom I cross direct paths.  I am not the charismatic feminist who charges into the big picture with a strong voice and who makes a big difference.  However, I believe both groups are extremely important in who we are as women.

REB: At the time, did you engage with the American Feminist Art Movement of the 1970s?

DW: Definitely, there is a thread of passion for the female perspective and how I see a woman being defined today.  I am especially influenced by the 1970’s since I was in college at this time.  But raising three children has also influenced my thought process.  Many of my pieces have narrative threads throughout indicating issues I feel are presently important and need to be confronted.  I am especially concerned about the idealized American beauty image and how it affects our young women as well as our young men.

REB: Does feminism influence your art and/or your personal politics?

DW: Working as a female artist may be one of the most difficult careers for a woman to be taken seriously in.  Throughout history, the serious art has been dominated by the male gender.  On a personal level, I first began to pick up on this when I started attending exhibits and art openings.  Even today, the male artist is often esteemed over the female.  A woman artist has to work exceptionally hard to make her name in the art world.   I have noticed many times that when a woman mentions she is an artist, others often think of a hobby artist, something she does on the side.  It has been a struggle to have others consider me a serious professional.  If someone calls me while I’m working and I happen to answer the phone, if I mention that I’m working at my art, my time is generally deemed extraneous. After all,  I’m ‘just painting,’ and that is something fun to do!  My generation of women is still so defined by the home they keep.  It is assumed that since I’m just ‘doing art’ that I can easily keep house too.  There are not too many other professions where using the left side of the brain to multi task is utterly detrimental to the work we do.  Nothing can break my artistic thought process like doing a load of laundry.

One internal frontier I am currently struggling with is the draw I have towards the fiber arts.  Fiber has always held an allure for my thought process.  I love the color, I love the textures, I love the feel of fibers.  Since I’m a narrative artist, it is so exciting to confront the challenge of my artistic voice with fiber.  However, the stigma associated with fiber art is so engrained in me that even I have been guilty of these thoughts.  I remember when a friend of mine who was an accomplished painter switched gears and began working with fabric.  I am embarrassed to say that I thought to myself, “She’s abandoned ship!  She is not going to use her talents to further her art!  She’s going to become a hobby artist!”  This was a major glitch in my thought process.  After being exposed to felting and what I could do with it, I was hooked. I like including fiber as part of the media I use for my narrative voice.  Life is full of opportunities for women to grow and change who we are and how we think.

REB: Are there feminist artists and writers whose work has shaped your own?

DW: My art reflects my personal experiences as a rural woman and as that, I hope it connects to the experiences of other women.  Perhaps it is the stereotypical American female who has influenced my work more than a specific artist or writer.  I am very sensitive to the subjects women talk about who surround me in my community.  So much of the time, women are still confined within the litany of domestic chores a woman has always been bound with.  It is really difficult for a husband and wife to find a workable formula of sharing household chores to support each other in their individual endeavors without one becoming dominant over the other.  As equals, both need to have the freedom to achieve their individual goals.  I sometimes become frustrated at the freedom a man has when he is not confined by these artificial boundaries.  Recently I asked my mother, who is 85, “What would you have done if you didn’t have to fulfill your household obligations all by yourself?”  This thought was completely foreign to her and she had a difficult time continuing the conversation.  She eventually drifted back into telling me how she had to pick up Dad’s shoes or they would be left all over the house.

I feel very fortunate to have a husband who, while he may not help me with all of the ‘household chores’, does allow me freedom from these confining tasks. My hope is that my work is a positive influence on my own daughters and son and the ways they approach the hurdles blocking them as life draws them into permanent relationships and careers.

REB: Other artistic influences, historical or contemporary, that you’d like to mention?

DW: There have been so many artists, both of visuals and written works, who have had a strong impact on me throughout the years.  My memory has been damaged, but I know the influences remain.  Actually, one vivid memory is from my years as a university student when I studied French and Chinese.  It was through the French language that I was exposed to The Little Prince. There are some passages in this book which deeply move and influence me:

On ne voit bien qu’avec le Coeur.  L’essentiel est invisible pour les yeux.” (“One sees clearly only with the heart.  What is essential is invisible to the eye.”)

This is a philosophy that has carried through in every endeavor throughout my life.

The second quote from this book that is very powerful to me was articulated by the fox:

“You become responsible, forever, for what you have tamed….It is the time you have devoted to your rose that makes your rose so important.”


Published by rebuller

Dr. Rachel Epp Buller is a feminist art historian printmaker book artist and mother of three. She has lectured, exhibited, and published widely on issues of mothering and the maternal body; her books include Reconciling Art and Mothering (Ashgate 2012) and Mothering Mennonite (Demeter 2013), among others. She is a Fulbright scholar, a board member of the National Women's Caucus for Art (US), regional coordinator of The Feminist Art Project, and Associate Professor of Visual Arts and Design at Bethel College.

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