Staff photo illustration by C.B. Schmelter / In this photo illustration, Nathan Sexton paints at his home on Wednesday, Sept. 12, 2018 in Signal Mountain, Tenn.

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Nathan Sexton

Nathan's art

Nathan's drawings are available on Etsy by searching "Indianinkblot" on the e-commerce site.

Nathan Sexton spends most days in his guest room-turned-art studio, sitting at a wooden desk in the beige room with perfect lighting. As cancer and its invasive treatment slowly chip away at the local man's mind and body, Sexton, 31, has found solace in this room in his Signal Mountain home drawing ink-based nature portraits, taking control of the parts of his life he still can.

Original drawings hang on the walls alongside family photos — he and his wife, Elizabeth, on vacation in Paris; him crossing the finish line of a race, his young son following behind, eagerly walking in his father's footsteps. A photo of the couple on their wedding day sits on a shelf near the room's entrance. On the shelf above sits a panda he drew for his wife. Some of his work and the prints are stacked in the closet, ready to be sold or held onto for keepsakes. So far, the Knoxville native has sold 290 pieces.

Before the spring, Nathan had never considered himself an artist. He had not sold a piece. In fact, he had never painted a piece in his adult life.

"This has been really surprising," Elizabeth said.

Their best guess is the creative side of his brain overcompensated when the cancer attacked the logical side, but they don't know that for certain and aren't sure that's even possible.

Nathan began painting thanks to his mother and sister, a Knoxville-based photographer. Earlier this year, they had encouraged Elizabeth to try ink-based painting. She wasn't good, she said, but Nathan saw it and tried. His first picture was the panda.

"I was like, 'Wow, that's actually really good, Nathan. I want to get that framed,'" she said. "That was his first one. That's the original, and there are no prints. It's one of one."

Nathan's journey

Nathan's journey captivated many across the region after he was diagnosed with glioblastoma, one of the most aggressive forms of brain cancer, in 2015. His story was shared widely in national publications and featured in a documentary titled "Keep Fighting: The Journey of Nathan Sexton."

The former vice president for one of the area's fastest-growing local startups, Bellhops, was given 15 months to live more than three years ago.

The cancer has no cure, but Nathan aimed to take steps to live longer than the average life expectancy for glioblastoma patients. He started running, and within a year he turned himself into one of the fastest local runners for his age group. He placed high in local races and finished the 2017 Boston Marathon despite suffering five seizures during the race.

He ended his running career with one last showing at this year's Chattanooga Half Marathon.

Each surgery and treatment has taken its toll, and running became more difficult.

"[It] hasn't really been enjoyable," he said.

An outlet

Confusion has been the biggest side effect for Nathan, his wife said. He leans on her more heavily as the cancer spreads.

She sets up appointments, communicates with doctors, helps with his diet and works in tandem with his thoughts. He can no longer clearly communicate those to others. That area of his brain has been hit the hardest.

He's observant and alert, able to engage and follow conversations, sometimes participating, but words get lost, unable to make it from thoughts to sounds.

Nathan has lived more than twice as long as expected. He can't explain how that feels or what he thinks about it. He gives the question thought, ready to give his answer, but somewhere the cancer is fighting against him. The words never make it out.

"I mean, yeah, I can't answer," he said, looking toward his wife.

"I would say for him, it has been a blessing," she said. "Obviously, he is grateful for every day, and that's probably the cliche answer, but it's true."

Nathan spends time painting and with his family. They go on trips and enjoy the days they have together, but those days recently started running together. He can't tell you what he is doing Saturday or even when Saturday will come.

After Nathan stopped running, he transitioned to cycling on his Specialized Roubaix bicycle. Shortly after, he grew increasingly worried about having a seizure or getting confused while riding, so he retreated to the makeshift art studio and poured himself into his new-found passion.

The art has become a full-time career for Nathan, Elizabeth said. He basically works from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. drawing. The art has helped the family financially, but it's been more than that for Nathan.

"It gives him somewhere to go where he doesn't feel like he's just sitting around the house letting time pass by. He's doing something with his time," Elizabeth said. "It's profitable in more ways than just financially."

Nathan paints what interests him: nature. He paints animals, primarily fish. The colors and patterns pop against the white backgrounds. The studio is filled with his supplies and completed work. Orders are coming every day through the website, and Nathan was especially excited for this Wednesday morning, when he got to start on a new piece.

The family's friends also see the impact the art has made.

"It has given him an outlet," longtime friend Lindsey Houghton said. " I honestly think it's pretty crazy to see this talent come out of nowhere. "

Houghton and her husband Jared have purchased nine of Nathan's paintings. They're the only artwork in the walls of their new Chattanooga home.

"I just don't ever see any artwork that I like," Houghton said. "I know Nathan thinks it's just because I know him, but I can honestly say it really isn't. I was drawn toward them. I like the colors he uses and the details."

Beating the odds

Nathan wasn't going to sit idle and let cancer take him willingly. He isn't that type of person, Elizabeth said. He changed his diet and exercised regularly, doing all he could to ensure he lives as long as possible. He wasn't going to let treatment and chemotherapy dictate his final days.

Nathan's story has never been one about athletic prowess or renowned artistic ability — although he may have discovered both. It is a story about perseverance and determination.

His body is failing and his mouth doesn't always communicate clearly, but his mind has remained active. Under the confusion, where words get jumbled and days get lost, Nathan is still living, radiating himself through his art.

"I think as his disease progresses it's been hard," Elizabeth said. "You're grateful for the time you get to spend, but it's not easy to know that this might be inevitable. Nathan has definitely beaten the odds."

Contact staff writer Mark Pace at or 423-757-6659. Follow him on Twitter @themarkpace and on Facebook at ChattanoogaOutdoorsTFP.