Portland, OR–based writer Tom Vandel and artist Karen Wippich have not taken the Coronavirus lying down. Even as social distancing kept them spaced miles apart, Wippich and Vandel have worked closely together to create an off-the-wall art book that attempts to capture the personal experiences of their different perspectives. Remarkably, while other artists have been paralyzed by the shutdown and safety restrictions, their Strange Days: A Pandemic Journey, featuring 48 "reality-bending images and prose poem ponderings" for our times, has added a bit of levity to the dour. I asked the duo to talk a bit about how they made their art in the time of COVID.
You have taken this book to press rather quickly. How did Strange Days evolve seemingly as fast as the virus spread?
Vandel: Once we decided to do a book on the pandemic, we worked on it pretty much nonstop. [We] finally decided we had enough images and it was time to stop. Within a week Karen had it designed and ready to print. A few years ago, we created another art book (our first) called Driving Strangers: Diary of an Uber Driver. Karen designed that one and was set for this one.
Wippich: The book happened fast. Since we had created our first book together, I remembered how to do it. I worked as a graphic designer for over 40 years before changing over to creating art full time. Tom was a copywriter I worked with for about 20 years. My graphic design skills matched his writing/creative direction and we work really well as a team. I originally designed a different cover and Tom prodded me into a new design. I helped him with copy direction a bit when we were getting started. We’re both in sync.
Would it be wrong to presume that some of this was in the works? Or was this shutdown, social incarceration energy at play?
Vandel: Before the pandemic hit, Karen and I had planned to do a book on her latest art—and I was trying different approaches on how to write to her images, which are all so weird and funny and layered—with so many interpretations. Then one day she said she was becoming obsessed with the pandemic and all her art was now focused on that. I didn’t know if I could write so many takes on one subject, but it’s a big subject and once I got in the flow and had the voice figured out I just tried to keep up with her. She was just flying. I worked in my car at a park every day because I couldn’t concentrate at home. We never did meet in person on this whole project.
Wippich: My house was full of old art from a gallery show. So, I started painting over old paintings (I do that a lot). I noticed the paintings started to be all about the virus. I was producing one or two a day. I sent images to Tom and asked if we could make the book about the virus. Tom wrote to about 10 of the paintings and sent copy. It touched me deeply and something clicked. We were both connected; with very little communication between us, the words and paintings flowed.
I've been asking the question, "what art/design/writing/music/theater/etc. will emerge from this world-changing moment?" Were you concerned in making something to commemorate the event, vent your own emotions, both, or none? Why do it?
Vandel: I’d say it was both—to chronicle the event and evoke some emotions, capture a sense of the experience we’re all having, from my view. It’s such a strange, unknown time. I see all kinds of cool art coming out of the woodwork. Walking down the street in Portland so many people have created their own art. On fences, sidewalks, little dioramas in trees. This event will spawn so much new art in every form and I can’t wait to see it. The art of life itself is changing. For this book, I just tried to be an objective observer—like writing war dispatches and tapping into my own emotions, thoughts and humor to fit Karen’s art.
Wippich: Every day was full of surreal moments. I noticed on social media people were searching for meaning. I started posting the virus paintings daily; since they were like current events, people seemed to connect. This was not about venting for me. It was about embracing and portraying the events, and all being in this together. Even though I live alone, I never felt like I was alone.
The prose poem is so spot on, given my own feelings. The collages are both moving and beautiful. This is truly a gift to those of us—which means most all of us—who are suffering. There are many layers to this gift—would you discuss them?
Vandel: Karen and I never discussed the art or talked about what topics to cover—she just painted what came to her. Then I wrote what came to me when I saw her images. She has so much going on in her paintings, so many layers—and so much under the surface too. Usually, I felt a theme emerge from each one and I followed that path. Each one a different take and perspective on our changing life. With a few of them I just had fun so it wouldn’t be such a downer. For fun, we changed colors on some of the letters and made a secret sentence spelled out in the book—a hidden layer of meaning.
Wippich For me, making art is an out-of-body experience. I think the paintings were made to create unity and foster love between all of us. Because I paint over old paintings, historic images show through. I think people see what is inside of them. Some people see love and humor, others see politics and darkness. Tom saw them in his own way and brought that out in profoundly beautiful words.
I don't know whether you've thought about this in a video form, but as I anticipate the speed in which it was accomplished, I also see it moving and, therefore, reaching many more people. Have you finished with COVID-19 or are you thinking of more—maybe the next wave that is being predicted?
Vandel: We haven’t really thought about doing more … but you never know. We may team up on something else. It’s a joy to work with her—we have the same sensibility and bent sense of humor.
Wippich: Funny you ask about a video! I created a short trailer for the book.