Peter and Donna Thomas have been making fine press and artist's books for over 40 years. When they started, as craftspeople at Renaissance Faires, they fell in love with the graceful beauty of "gypsy wagon" caravans that other vendors had made to sleep in or use as booths for selling their wares. In 2009 Peter and Donna built their own tiny home on wheels, designed after a typical late 19th century Redding Wagon. This blog documents their trips around the country, taken to sell their artists' books, teach book arts workshops, and talk about making books as art; as well as to seek out and experience the beauty of the many different landscapes found across the USA.

Peter and Donna started their business in 1977 and made their first book in 1978, so from 2017-18 are traveling to celebrate 40 years of making books with shows in a dozen libraries across the country. See the schedule on the side bar to find if they are coming to a town near you....

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Friday, November 23, 2018

Home again home again jiggity-jig

It takes a long time to drive around the country. We thought our Wandering Book Artists trip to celebrate our 40 years of making books that we thought would only go from 2017-2018, but clearly it will be stretching into 2019.

The route this leg: looping around the midwest!

Although we are home, the truck and trailer are not: we left the truck and trailer in Waco, Texas and flew home. The vehicles are in a metal barn formerly used to store vintage cars, belonging to a Baylor University librarian. Apropos, as I believe we can now call our caravan “vintage” since we have pulled it over 75,000 miles over the last 8 years.

Backing into the barn

We are truly fortunate to have had the chance to drive, camp, shop, eat, and meet the people in so many places around the US.

Open Caravan at Baylor University, Waco

"Wait, can we really go inside?"

We will miss seeing a new part of the country every day. But we won’t miss the crazy schedule with long drives between universities, or the stress of trying to find an alternate road when we find Google maps has directed us to what they say is the quickest route, then turns out to be a narrow dirt road with a sign saying no thru trucks.

Typical morning in the RV park, crowded but quiet

And speaking of things we will and won’t miss, now that we are back in our 1500 square foot heated home, with running hot water, we have made a short list for you to consider: We will miss the beauty of the wagon. And the simple living, without too much stuff, and without too many expectations. This is what everyone who sees us in our trailer imagines our life is like: carefree, unhurried, and uncluttered. We rarely ruin that imaginary story line by telling them the hidden truths.

Donna stays busy knitting while Peter drives. These are fingerless gloves.

What we won’t miss is stepping over each other’s legs and feet when trying to cook or clean or get dressed, or do anything really. We won’t miss having to shop every other day for food, and then having to search up and down the isles in an unfamiliar grocery store looking for decent bread and fresh fruit and veggies.

The display of our work in Waco

We are really honored to have had all the universities hosting shows of our work for the 40 year celebration. But we won’t miss hauling two suitcases each, over cobbled walkways from remote parking lots (where there is space to park the caravan), and lugging them up stairways because we can’t find the handicap ramp, then pushing the first suitcase through double sets of heavy library doors and having the second door clamp down like a vice on the trailing suitcase.
Fun at the Printing Museum workshop

Our niece Molly's first printing experience!

But we will miss all the super kind and generous students who noticed our struggles and held the doors. We will miss seeing the libraries with all their varied architecture, modern or classic. We will miss meeting the librarians and learning interesting new things as they share about their special and unique fields of interest.

Great horned owl above the caravan

We will miss the constantly changing experience of nature we found as we stayed in campgrounds between appointments. FYI we used the All Stays app, and our preference is in this order: National, State, County, City, then private parks, with Walmart as a last resort. 

In the midwest many campgrounds were in parks built around reservoirs with watershed nature areas to explore on an evening walk. Some were pretty primitive, so we really won’t miss taking lukewarm showers, especially the ones we had to take in freezing shower stalls with moldy, pealing-paint floors, surrounded by no-seeums…

Ars Longa, "Art is Long" plant stand

But anything we are missing will not be missed for long. We will fly back to Waco as soon the snows will allow us to cross the Rockies, and then head for California, and home. Until then we are staying home, warm and dry, enjoying the chance to once again work in our studio. There are fun new books being created, which we will be showing you when we start the next leg of our trip, from Texas back to California.

Tuesday, November 6, 2018

Why do birds fly south for the winter?

Bringing color to the roadside stops.

Why do birds fly south for the winter? We can tell you, having just traveled from Decorah, Iowa to Waco, Texas, that even though the common answer is, “because it’s too far to walk…” the real answer is the weather. It gets cold up north.

Frost appears on the pennies
"Ars longa" or "Art is long" painted plant stand
Donna spent a Saturday painting on the inside of the wagon

In the last post we told you about questions we get asked about being book artists, but there is another line of questioning we get just as often, and most often it starts: “Of all the places you have visited, where would you think of moving?” Ours is a theoretical answer, since Santa Cruz is one of the nicest places in the world to live and we wouldn’t think of leaving, but on this last leg of our trip we did find a few interesting places.

"Live Action Role Playing" in a campground in rural Iowa
Decorah, Iowa, with its Norwegian heritage architecture, its many current off-the-grid residents, a great food co-op, and a community-based art center, could be a great place to live. The rocky ridges and hardwood forests surrounding the town are awful pretty too.

Hand knitted & embroidered gloves, Vesterheim Museum, Deborah, Iowa
Peter giving his talk in Deborah, Iowa
Iowa City, where we went to attend the annual conference of Friends of Dard Hunter hand papermakers organization, could be a great place to live. It’s a just-big-enough little city to support a thriving cultural scene. And beautiful in fall.

Surprisingly, since we have never heard of it before, we found Columbia, Missouri to be a great place to live, especially if you want your income to easily exceed your cost-of-living. Mature hardwood trees line quiet neighborhood streets (where we saw our best autumn color scenes this trip), and houses are a fraction of the cost of California houses.

Color in the Ozarks in southern Missouri
Then there is Bentonville, Arkansas, home to Wal-Mart. One of the Wal-Mart heirs has built an art museum, “Crystal Bridges.” Her foundation is funding the arts in the community and drawing artists to the area. Housing is cheap and wages, surprisingly, I was told by tellers and store employees are more like $10-12 per hour, higher than the federally set $7.25.

Nifty vintage neon trailer and car in Bentonville, Arkansas
If it weren’t for humidity and heat and snow and frost and floods and bugs there would be a lot of great places to live in the midwest. And where is the midwest anyway?

Flooded lakeside in Roy Roberts park near Dallas
We spent last few days in Dallas. We’ve always considered Texas to be the start of the west, with its open ranges, and cattle, and cowgirls. No one would think of Dallas as the midwest, right? But actually it is geographically, east to west, about the center of the country. So that means we still have a lot of miles to go till we are in the west! Go figure.

Sunset at Lake Park, Lewisville, Texas
On every trip we dedicate a little blogspace to showing the interesting vehicles we have found. Now seems an appropriate occasion since we are coming to the end of this current wandering trip:

Vintage truck chicken coop at the best Pumpkin Patch in Missouri

Nice wagon also at the pumpkin patch in Missouri

He says to us, "Hey you got an interesting contraption too!"

The ladybug short bus at a campground in the Ozarks

The Toonerville Trolley in the Toy Museum, Kansas City
Vintage toy wagons at the Toy Museum

Then finally: We had a rare thing occur in the second Texas campground we stayed in. There was an actual tiny home in one of the neighboring slots! Its owner and her dog live full time on the road. She hasn't been out a whole year yet, but as of today, she loves it!

The purple tiny home in Texas

And really finally!

Donna loved this tiny home at the Kansas City Art Institute

Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Where do you get your ideas?

One of the things students always ask is, “Where do you get your ideas for your books?” They also are often curious about which comes first: the idea for the structure or the idea for the text. In Kansas City, we saw an art installation by Nick Cave, displayed inside an abandoned church, which had us wondering the same thing. This multimedia installation is part of a Kansas City-wide art exhibit entitled, "Open Spaces."

We usually answer student’s questions with examples: in “Piute Creek” it was the structure. We wanted to make a larger scrolling book, and Gary Snyder’s association with Japan and Jack Kerouac made one of his poems a logical pairing.

Piute Creek
In the book made previous to Piute Creek, “Rock after Rock,” the paintings led the way, demanding a text to support them. In this case, Donna’s journal accounts juxtaposed with complementary writings gleaned from early Sierra Club Bulletins. The binding further developed the thematic treatment, with wood covers and a backpack as the slipcase.

Rock After Rock
Sometimes the text directs the binding structure and illustration. In the book, “Memento Mori,” the theme led to our choice of a long, narrow format as an allusion to a coffin or grave and also suggested the idea for pages that lifted up, as a body rising out of the ground, and both of these then offered constraints for typography and illustration.

Memento Mori
Other times the subject leads us to write our own text. Many of our books have been about hand papermaking, featuring texts we have written, for example, our 2016 book, “Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper.

Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper
Currently I am considering how to make a book about the kazoo. I don’t imagine it will be like the series of books we made out of ukuleles back around 2000. Still, like the ukulele before the 2000s, the kazoo is not considered a musical instrument and is not even listed in most encyclopedias of musical instruments. But, as an integral part of Jug Band Music (which we are currently exploring musically), it has a place in the world of music. We are exploring ways we might feature it in an artist book…and as part of that exploration, last week we made a pilgrimage to Warrensburg, MO, to view one of the world’s largest collections of kazoos, "Knobtown Kazoos."

Knobtown Kazoos, photo by Chris Azevedo
We are not yet sure how the information we find will manifest as an artists’ book. Our next step will be to gather more written information and search sound archives around the country to see what has been recorded.

So where do we get our ideas? As many different ways as there are different ways. Some ideas come as a whole package, as they did with Memento Mori. Some develop step by step, as they did for Rock after Rock. And some ideas, though they seem promising, and we start to work on them, never go anywhere. We will see what happens with kazoos.

Autumn beauty in a Missouri campsite

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Loop the Loop Wanderings

In 1997 we printed a quote from Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five as a scrolling book titled Pandora’s Box.

Who would have guessed that when we visited the Lilly Library at Indiana University Bloomington last week….

…we would find Vonnegut either wrote, or stored, his original manuscripts as scrolls?

And that in the woods of a nearby campground we would find another kind of scrolling book?

So here we are, just about to the end of week three of our trip, and we have seen lots.
You can tell that until just a few days ago the weather was HOT and humid too. For those of you who are curious: we made the caravan with west coast weather in mind, and with the copper roof, it is really hard to keep cool with the heat. In fact, we had to buy an in-room air conditioner to make this sort of midwest fall weather bearable..

As Peter often read in his favorite Dr Seuss book: On Beyond Zebra: 
“Most people stop with a Z but not me, the places I go and the things that I see could never be spelled if I stopped with a Z ….” 
And wow have we seen some things on this trip:

In Louisville we saw what must be the shallowest house in the world:

And, we saw a bicycle-powered printing press while attending the Ladies of Letterpress gathering at Central Print in St. Louis.

We learned to print from found objects like dominoes and legos...

And we saw beautiful colors in all sorts of places.

Nearby, in the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections Library at Washington University, St. Louis, they were hosting a show of our work.

As was the library at IUPUI’s Herron School of Art and Design.

We visited classes and held open house during our visit in Indianapolis.

In Marshall, Illinois we spent the rainy and cold day in the public library catching up on business. Donna helped the local “Saturday Ladies” complete their weekly jig saw puzzle and learned the lore of a local hero whose blessing protected the town from tornados.

A little further down the road we found the Gateway Arch Replica, a little smaller than the arch in St. Louis, and so much more approachable.

What we found at the University of Illinois, Urbana, was really past Z: the handprint of a seventeenth century papermaker revealed as a "watermark" on a page in a book they had on display:

Check out this crazy "loop the loop" route we have taken! It is like one of those letters from beyond Z. Truly we are "wandering"!!