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Local writer chronicles a journey through a pandemic

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Writer Tom Vandel and painter Karen Wippich have known each other for 20 years and teamed up to write “Strange Days: a pandemic journey.” PHOTO COURTESY OF TOM VANDEL

By Mira Brody EBS STAFF

BIG SKY – By now, two skills have been realized to emerge from a pandemic: collaborating from a distance and dealing with the unknown. For writer and part-time Big Sky resident Tom Vandel and painter Karen Wippich, that’s exactly how they produced their newest book, “Strange Days: A Pandemic Journey.”

While spaced miles apart, Wippich and Vandel created the journal-style art book that captures the experience of the current pandemic from different perspectives. It matches 48 of Wippich’s original paintings with Vandel’s prose-poem musings in a unique chronicle.

Ironically, the idea for a book was already on the pair’s mind before COVID-19 hit, and became a saving grace when the economy—and life as we knew it—hit a standstill.

“Victory Garden” is a painting by Karen Wippich featured in “Strange Days” where a family pays homage to a roll of toilet paper. PHOTO COURTESY OF KAREN WIPPICH

“Thank God I had this thing to do with Karen. I don’t know what I would have done otherwise,” Vandel said. “For me writing about a tough subject is better if I just start writing it, because once you write something, it crystalizes your thinking about it.”

The paintings mix old, uncopyrighted black and white photography with a vibrant palette of paint accents, sometimes with photoshopped tweaks, such as a family gathered around a single toilet paper roll, one member with the head of a cat.

“It was hard to capture,” Vandel said. “I was trying to make something out of her painting but also the coronavirus and all the experiences we’re all going through. Sometimes she wouldn’t tell me anything about [the images] and I would have to pull a theme out.”

It isn’t the first time the duo have worked creatively. They met 20 years ago as officemates in Portland, Wippich working as a graphic designer at the time and Vandel at his copywriting business, Les Overhead. He’s still copywriting, but says it is a career he is slowly retiring from. Their first art book, “Driving Strangers: Diary of an Uber Driver,” captures Vandel’s observations during his time as an Uber driver.

So far, the book, which is up on Amazon, has been well received. Vandel says he intends for the subject matter to be relatable and objective so the reader can pull from it their own personal journey through this bizarre and unprecedented time. Just as it helped him remain productive and process his own pandemic journey, he hopes it will do the same for others.

“None of us have gone through any of this and this is a way to deal with the emotions of it,” Vandel said. “People want to look to art more and more during moments like this when there’s a calamity. Art helps explain it, helps them go through it, helps them laugh at it.”

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