He is a well-known, creative icon in Kamloops. His detailed watercolors that depict many of the city’s historic landmarks have been the subject of several exhibits and are reproduced in a beautiful full-colour catalogue providing a pictorial history of the city.
Werner Braun and his wife of 54 years, Christa, immigrated to Canada from Southern Germany in 1958 on the very day they were married. There was a small wedding in the morning and by afternoon they were headed to Canada where they settled in Calgary, Alta.
Like many people, Werner put his personal desires and dreams on the backburner while he raised a family. Then, 19 years ago, the Braun’s retired to Kamloops.
Here, much to the delight of the community, Werner rediscovered his first love — painting. Upon arriving in the city he began meticulously chronicling the structural heritage of Kamloops by producing more than 110 original watercolors of the city’s oldest and dearest landmarks.
But Werner has more than just raw talent. He has a true fascination for his subject matter and this is evident in each of his works. His passion for architecture and history is what inspired him to create the treasured Kamloops Heritage Collection.
However, in November of 2007, Werner was hit by one of life’s curve balls when he was diagnosed with the onset of Alzheimer’s disease.
“At first the symptoms weren’t very noticeable but by 2008 it had become evident. Then in 2010 Werner had to give up his driver’s license and now he forgets simple things every day.
The biggest challenge is that his speech has become affected, making it hard for him to communicate,” said Christa.
This became the determining factor in the Braun’s decision to move to the new RiverBend Senior’s Complex on the North Shore. The couple sold their large house in Aberdeen and downsized to a quarter of the space. This meant deciding what to keep and what would go. Then they had an estate sale and put approximately 95 of Werner’s original watercolor and acrylic paintings in storage to accommodate their new lifestyle. Christa hired a moving company that took care of everything so that when they arrived at their new apartment, it looked exactly as it did the day I visited, with all the dishes in the cupboards, pictures on the walls and fresh sheets on the bed.
The first thing I noticed when I was greeted by Christa and Werner is how incredibly welcoming they both are. I was immediately offered coffee and given a tour of their new home. If they are at all homesick it is impossible to tell. They are constantly smiling and willing to talk about and share their new life. “There is this very positive way of thinking and support from management and staff alike here. We feel at home already,” says Christa.
Werner was eager to show me his new studio and explain what is to be done with the paintings still in storage.
He is animated, acting out his thoughts when the words will not come together. Christa has become Werner’s memory and voice.
She lovingly and patiently listens as he tries to explain the plans for his paintings and fills in details when necessary. As it turns out, Werner’s paintings will come out of storage to be displayed in the Grand Room at RiverBend for residents and guests to enjoy. The pieces will be for sale but while on display will provide an amazing backdrop at the complex.
Although there are new challenges each day, living at RiverBend has made life easier for both of them as there is a wonderful support system in place.
Every Monday Werner spends the day at the Ponderosa Lodge Day Program, allowing Christa time to relax and to catch up on other tasks. Werner has a full, active day from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. He spreads good cheer and helps where he can. There is exercise, hot chocolate, lunch, socializing and many other activities, and Werner has been given a corner where he paints each day after lunch.
When asked if she has noticed a difference in Werner’s work since his diagnosis Christa says, “It has become bolder and more colorful.”
My research on Werner inspired me to bring a photo of the beautifully restored heritage home on West Seymour Street in which I live. When I pulled the photo out of my pocket Werner’s eyes lit up.
“This is where you live?”
Christa went to her computer and much to my surprise pulled up half a dozen photos of my house. As it turns out Werner has been planning to paint it for some time now and took a series of photos in preparation.
“You must paint it,” I begged, explaining that it’s is the oldest house in Kamloops so it ought to be a part of Werner’s Heritage Collection.
It is hard to say how much longer Werner will be able to paint as Alzheimer’s affects each person differently. There are drugs to slow the progress of the disease but no cure. For now Werner and Christa are taking life one day at a time and making each as meaningful as possible.
“It’s all about keeping busy and positive,” says Werner, which he most certainly does. Within their apartment he has a studio and at age 78, paints every day. He is currently working on two commissioned pieces for heritage homes in Kamloops, at which I was fortunate enough to have a sneak-peak.
“We have had a very rich and exciting life,” says Christa. “We have two good, capable children and four wonderful grandkids. Life still has a lot to offer. Yes, Alzheimer’s is a devastating decease but we should not let it take over our lives here and now.”
When I left Werner and Christa, I couldn’t stop thinking about how the house I live in — the house Werner wants to paint — this beautiful, old building had become the common denominator between us.
I dearly hope that his next project will be to paint it.
Then I thought about the artist who, despite a life-changing diagnosis, still has a passion within him for old buildings and retains a rare talent for reflecting their history through his paintings. Alzheimer’s can never take that away.
But what really struck me was the inspiring strength and the bond that strengthens between two people facing what is perhaps the most difficult chapter in their lives.