Woman finds life after loss
When Karen Vondette lost her husband and soulmate in a freak outdoor accident three years ago, she found her life losing some of its direction.They had known each other since childhood, had been married 42 years and shared a love of Colorados mountains. And suddenly Mel Vondette was gone at age 62.Vondette said she found herself floating afterward, and doing little, when she decided to make a portfolio of her black-and-white photography for each of her children. In pursuing that project, I decided it was going to be so expensive I might as well do a book, so thats what I did, Vondette said.The project gave her direction, especially as she went about learning the process of self-publishing. The fruit of her labors is now out in print. Western Places and Western Faces is available at the Book Train in Glenwood Springs and Karylett Kollectibles in Rifle. The first half focuses on Western landscapes, and the second mainly depicts the descendants of the Native Americans who first lived here, dressed in full regalia. The book is subtitled Vol. 1. Vondette has many more images she would love to publish, and this may not be her last book.Meeting Vondette today, its hard to imagine she ever was seeking direction in her life. Her days are a blur of activity and her conversations filled with giggles and hearty laughter. She teaches photography at Colorado Mountain Colleges Rifle campus and does beadwork. She also makes clay beads, does silversmithing, and incorporates those and other artforms into her beaded jewelry and other creations.Vondette lives off the grid in what was once a summer cabin high on a hillside several miles north of the Rifle Fish Hatchery. She heats her home with wood in the winter and keeps hundreds of hummingbirds well-fueled during the summer via numerous feeders outside her door.Animal skins hang inside her cozy, log-accentuated home, and she tans them and uses the leather in her artwork. She can even skin an animal if called upon.You want to learn about animals, skin em, Vondette said.Her house is also full of antlers, some of which she wraps in beads. And she incorporates skulls of rabbits and other small creatures, along with roadkill treasures such as porcupine claws and hair, into her art.Clearly, Vondette isnt your typical 63-year-old woman.My father always said he wanted a boy, and he came close: He had Karen, she said.Not just any man was going to be a good match for this tomboy. Luckily for the Rifle native, she met Mel Vondette early in her life.He was the boy next door, literally. He moved in next door when I was 6 and he was 9, she said.They were married when she was 16.In 1979, the couple went househunting on a budget, and came upon what remains her home to this day. It needed winterizing and they added a second story. It also required outdoorsy inhabitants who didnt mind having to plow the long road to their door, and maintain a cabin-like house in the woods.Its not for everybody. Definitely not for everybody, Vondette said.But it was perfect for her and her husband. They loved hunting, fishing and snowmobiling.He was just a cool guy, she remembers. We did pretty much everything together.Vondette said her husband was a world-class elk hunter, and she described him as a skinny Grizzly Adams, pointing to pictures in her living room of a gray-bearded man. On her table sits a fishing pole of his that she has retired, decorating it with beads. On her wood stove rests a pair of his snowmobile boots.In 1984, Vondette took up photography. She quickly fell in love with the black-and-white format, and was teaching within a year or two. Photography came easy to her, she discovered, just as beadwork did when she began that six or seven years ago. Silversmithing, a newer endeavor, is a different story, Vondette said.Over the last few decades, Vondette traded her fishing pole for her camera on her trips around Colorado and beyond. Her book features places both far and near, from the view off her front porch and down the road at Rifle Falls, to the Flat Tops, Hanging Lake, the Elk Range near Aspen, the San Rafael Swell in Utah, the rain forests of Oregon and the Chisos Mountains in Texas. Buffalo, cranes, coyote, moose, elk and wild horses also browse, gallop and graze in her photos.She loves shooting with infrared film. Used by the military to detect heat, its shorter wavelengths turn closer foliage white and glowing, and give her photos a grainy, dated quality. She photographed the Native Americans in her book during an event put on for artists in Olathe. She also sprinkles quotes, mostly Native American, throughout the book.I just like the way Native Americans say things, she said.A page dedicated to her husbands memory quotes Chief Seattle: There is no death. Only a change of worlds.Mel changed worlds not far from their home, while working in his element in the outdoors, when a fallen tree stump rolled down a road and struck him. He had been a lineman for Public Service Co. of Colorado, now Xcel Energy, besides being an outdoorsman, and had been exceedingly safety-conscious, she said.He always had three ways out of every situation, so I just know he had no idea it was coming, she said.She found her husband after the accident, but never had a chance to say good-bye to him. Vondettes world had changed along with her husbands, but some things were still the same.All is beautiful around me, a Navajo saying in her book proclaims.Today, Vondette said, its a little harder to enjoy the outdoors than when she could share them with her husband. Still, she treasures the beauty outside her door, and the nature that forms the foundation of her art, inspired by some muse.I just dont fight the beads. Thats the key, she says of her unique artwork. I just put things out here and pretty soon they just kind of decide what theyre going to do.One senses that they may also be guided, if not by some invisible hands, then at least by the memory of another lover of nature who also was the love of Vondettes life.
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Imagine Glenwood and The City of Glenwood Springs is slated to host a virtual town hall at 5:30 p.m. Thursday, March 11.