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....

Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Crossroads of America

“Crossroads of America” is the state motto of Indiana and this is where we are crossing the figure eight in our travels. On this trip we went north across the states to Vermont in the east, then looped around to Kentucky, Michigan and now Bloomington, Indiana. We leave the gypsy caravan and truck here for the winter in this boat storage place down the road (the proprietor was really jazzed to have Paloma parked there!).

But wait, we have some stories to tell of Bloomington first. Our friend and conservator in the Lilly Library, Jim Canary, invited us to come to the University of Indiana. (One of Jim’s other jobs is the keeper of the scroll of Jack Kerouac’s book, “On the Road”. He sets up the shows and tours of the scroll around the country!)
Peter gave a talk in the library where there is a huge collection of miniature books. The talk was preceded by an open caravan and the thing I liked about the event was that is was mostly students and they were interested in books and art as much as they liked the caravan. We always get someone who “has always dreamed of doing something like this…”

We printed our last broadside of the series, this one done at the Graphic Design Press at the University. We worked with Paul Brown and Tom Walker and the cool thing was having 2 presses going at once! We designed and printed the amazing number of 6 color runs in the day.

We used the pressure print technique to do the crossing roads, a very fine wood engraving of an apple by Paul, and some wood type for the words “Cross Roads”. The broadside’s got great color and I’m happy with this final boldness.

Just a few runs are done on this print…

We camped here for the night at Oliver’s Winery when we found we could not get down the hill to Jim’s to park the caravan, hence the stay at the winery then the boat yard.
So we fly home tomorrow. The caravan is nestled in. We will miss living in the simple colorful way we have lived for the past 6 months and we’ll miss the companionship of all the folks who have been part of the adventure.
We will return to wandering next March. Our first event will be teaching some classes at the John C. Campbell Folk School in South Carolina, then crossing America to get home in the summer sometime. Let us know if you would like the wandering book artists to visit!

Friday, September 24, 2010

When I see things like this, I remember how I want to live my life

That is what Olivia, in Kalamazoo, said to me yesterday. Now that quote is what makes the trip worthwhile!
The other quote of the day was,"What the F**k is that!!!" Hmmm....
You want to see the wagon up close? Peter and I give you an especially homey homemade video here.
We met with Neil Chase of the Western Michigan University Special Collections Library. A nice change from other library visits is that he showed us some of his favorite artists' books in their collection! One artist I was intrigued with is Gwen Frostic. She worked in the last century, creating books of her poems and linocuts.

Her work is simple and beautiful. Apparently her work is still being printed on notecards and other things, but I really loved her nature books in the library.
Our friends Ladislav and Janna Hanka live in Kalamazoo and what a pleasure to visit their creative world. Look what they painted on the walls!

Lad is attending ArtPrize in Grand Rapids this week where he is competing in this art show with one of his fantastic intalio prints. It's huge, 6' by 2'. Here is a photo of the print: and if you go to grand rapids this week, you can vote!

Here is another of his prints:

Today Peter is teaching the last class of the season at the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center.

This is another newly established center that is vibrant and thriving. Lucky for almost everyone in the country except Californians, there are incredible buildings built a long time ago, with lots of character, that are being turned into community arts spaces. This place is right downtown, has lots of equipment for printing, papermaking and bookbinding. Western Michigan University works in cooperation with the center, mostly to provide interns that are interested in book arts to work there. Western's printmaking teacher Jeff Abshear is the director of the center.
Wow. there is so much happening around the country that is GREAT for book arts and that means great for all!
Peter and I fly home next week to attend 2 weddings, 1 birth and stay for the winter. We will leave the gypsy wagon in Bloomington, Indiana for the winter and return next spring to continue the wandering. Keep checking for updates on our schedule for next year!

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Midwestern hospitality

Someone told me a long time ago that the midwesterners were the friendliest and most hospitable folks on earth. I have to agree. We had a visit to the home and studios of Tim Moore and Pati Scobey in the village of Concord, Michigan for the weekend and they are proof that this is true. Tim makes papermaking and bookbinding equipment of the very finest quality,
and Pati makes beautiful prints and books.
We took a bit of a break here before heading off to Kalamazoo to teach our final classes of the season. They live on over 100 acres, most of it is planted in pines which are all the same age, so not all that pretty, but more firewood than they'll need for their whole lives. In the forest grow hickory, oak and other hardwoods which I loved to walk through.

Other friends we visited here are Wil and Sarah Reding, the "Rent a Rambling Naturalists". Their big accomplishment in the last few years was walking from Indiana to Florida, following John Muir's "1000 Mile Walk to the Gulf."
They showed us pics from their trip and we were glad our Muir Ramble Route is only 300 miles long....

Camping on the east shore of Lake Michigan is lovely: Sand dunes 100 feet tall, clear water waves lapping at the rocky shores, people gone for the season.

Nearby is the community of Holland, which was very heavily settled by the Dutch so we did a touristy thing and went to see wooden shoes being made. The machines were awesome: simple yet ingenious! Big belts, lathes and augers noisily grind along and turn poplar cubes into shoes!

The reason we were interested is that we have a wooden shoe collection and are trying to figure out how to change them all into artists' books.....

The art community of Ox Bow is near Holland, and we stopped to tour the facility with the plan to someday see about teaching there. They built this cool structure/gypsy house for a parade this summer.

A little cousin to our caravan...

We are here for 3 days before we head to Kalamazoo for a whirlwind 3 days of classes, library visits and talks. I can make it, I can make it......

Friday, September 17, 2010

Cincinnati and Ann Arbor

We had two days to drive from Larkspur Press in Kentucky to Ann Arbor where we were to teach a class at Hollander's then be part of the Kerrytown Bookfest. We spent the night between in Cincinnati, where Peg and Stuart hosted an open gypsy wagon pot luck for the Cincinnati Book Arts Society. (I have to add here, these people really know how to cook! Homemade cookies, salads, appetizers with olive oil and herbs, etc.)

We stopped for a short papermaker's pilgrimage to the Cheney Pulp factory in Franklin, Ohio. This is where we get the raw material for our paper. They buy raw rag and process it half way so that I can use it in my beater. An interesting fact…Before NAFTA they used to use denim, but now it is all produced in South America, too far away to make economic sense, and there is an even bigger problem with denim today, from their prospective. Almost all of it has some spandex put in it to make it stretch in all the right places…and synthetics make it unusable as pulp for papermakers. So, instead they use tee-shirt knit off-cuts, mostly from the Caribbean we were told.


 We arrived in Ann Arbor with plenty of daylight left to get lost a few times before ending up in front of Hollander's to get ready for the class and book fair. 

While in Ann Arbor, we parked on the street by book artist Barbara Brown's house. A park stretches out down the hill in front of her house, with huge mown lawns and lush green shade trees.

 What a lovely way to watch fall come in. Leaves yellow and red fell on the roof and the grass and we needed blankets again to sleep.
We stayed in Ann Arbor for 5 days. We taught a class, attended a eco-type festival about local food, participated in the "Kerrytown Bookfest", showed books to two libraries and gave a talk at the Book Club of Detroit. Our daughter asked, "Is your schedule ever going to let up? I mean, aren't you a little tired?" In answering, I thought about how much we get back from all that we do. The class at the center called "Hollander's" was well received and we saw some great innovations in the structures Peter taught. The bookfest was full of smart and interested people looking at books. It reminded me of the old days at the Renaissance Faires where there were crowds all day looking at books. We had our gypsy open for tours at the fair and had a nonstop stream of visitors. The rug kind of got worn out 'cause so many people walked through and I bet some of them will make their own gypsy wagon some day. 
For a short break, we camped one night in Waterloo State Park, 1/2 hour away from Ann Arbor. OK, now the campsites look like this: all empty. We walked in the woods here and saw cool carnivorous pitcher plants and dwarfed tamarack trees growing in the bogs. 

We made a quick drive up to East Lansing to show books at Michigan State University and arrived at just the wrong time: pouring rain! and no parking close by!

We had a worthwhile meeting with the librarians, though. Peter sold the 'History of the Accordion Book there!

One funny picture of me to end: this is what a wandering book artist looks like when doing bookkeeping in a gypsy caravan:

Friday, September 10, 2010

We slow down for rural Kentucky

We spent three peaceful days in rural Kentucky at the Larkspur Press with Gray and Jean Zeitz as our hosts. In the 1970s, as a poet at the U of Kentucky, Gray had worked with Carolyn Hammer at the Anvil or King Library Press and like others who worked there he was inspired to set up his own press, so with his wife Jean he moved to Monterey KY where land was cheap, to get back to the land, farm and do what ever was required (grow tobacco, hogs, constructuion… You get the picture) to set up their own private press to print Kentucky poets.

       Now thirty years and hundreds of books later they are living the dream, letterpress printing and binding poetry on a 12 by 18 C&P in editions of 5-700 copies, working exclusively with Kentucky poets, including their neighbor Wendell Berry.

       While there we printed a broadside together, well maybe it would be more correct to say Gray printed it while we watched. The text is from the 1970s Whole Earth Catalog… The story of Divine Right’s Trip. I had loved that story when I first read it stretched out through the catalog, a few lines at the bottom of each page, and again, later, I read it in paper back form. I had not realized that the author was from Kentucky. Gray knew the author, Gurney Norman, who is currently Kentucky Poet Laureate, and found a passage written by Divine Right’s VW bus, that he thought perfect for a collaboration with wandering book artists traveling in a gypsy wagon.

       Every October Larkspur Press hosts a wood engraving workshop with Wesley Bates. Donna found the class tools, instructional hand-out and scraps of endgrain wood and carved her first wood engraving, which we used in the broadside.

       We had some beautiful weather, and took some time to work on the gypsy wagon. Donna painted Whitman’s quote on the side of the wagon. We are now looking for a travel quote for the other side from a well-known American woman author. Any thoughts?

I fixed the taillights. 

Never told the story of being pulled over in Vermont for driving at night with out proper taillights, did we? The parking/running lights stopped working back in Montana or Wyoming, and I meant to fix them, but you know how that goes…. When we gave the evening lecture in Burlington, with the gypsy wagon parked in front of the library, we had to drive home in the dark. That was the first time on the whole trip that we drove at night. It was 11, a Friday night, and a probably bored policeman pulled us over, you know the drill. About an hour later he let us go with only a warning. Thank you Mr. Policeman. After that I kept meaning to fix them, but we kept moving at a relentless pace (wandering is only a figure of speech some times we should call ourselves the road warrior book artists….) until Kentucky, where everything has time to slow down.

Apparently it is an important piece of info: "Ice cold beer also available on Sundays"....

If you can get to Santa Cruz this Friday night, our town’s Museum of Art and History has a show opening about hand papermaking in Santa Cruz. We have a great display of our work in the show which we are proud of and too bad we can’t be there with you to see it. Check it out and say hi to our papermaking friends John Babcock, Laura Ito, Chuck Hilger and others!

Sunday, September 5, 2010

Lexington, Kentucky: Miniature books and more

On our first day in Lexington we met with Meg Shaw of the Lucille Little Fine Arts Library. Parking near the library was so tough she agreed to look at the books in the gypsy wagon (braving the soaring 90s temps) as we waited in a loading zone in front of the art museum.
She chose two of our favorite books for the collection at the arts library:
"Sit and Knit"
and "The Pencil"
Our primary reason for visiting Lexington was to attend the Miniature Book Society's "Grand Conclave."
Peter and I made our first book under 3 inches tall in 1980 or so. We just were wanting to use up some beautiful handmade English paper that was headed for the recycling bin and thought this small format would be fun and challenging. Well, we were led down a long road of making miniature books, teaching miniature book making classes, writing the book, More Making Books by Hand (which features many miniature book bindings), and attending meetings of the Miniature Book Society. 
We went to the first ever meeting of the society in 1983 in Ohio, carrying baby Tanya (our daughter) with us. We were the "hippies from California" at that meeting. Today I watched a movie taken at that meeting, where long-bearded Peter played accordion and barefooted me played along on a penny whistle. But the folks were friendly and they bought our books! We just finished our weekend with the Society. The numbers at the conferences are lower than in years past, but the group is a close-knit one we are brought together by our somewhat quirky delight in small books.

On the second day of the conference Peter and I printed a broadside at University of Kentucky's King Library Press. 

This press was established in the 1950s under the artistic vision of American Uncial type designer Victor Hammer. Our broadside features a quote by Hammer that we find inspiring, about the "mystical quality of handiwork." In any age, there seems to be a small group of folks who find satisfaction, or even enlightenment through excellence in the use of ones hands and hearts. (Also meeting at the hotel was a group of 5000 marketers that looked to me like some kind of pyramid scheme, a way for some to get LOTS of money, while others get bilked, but that is another story, I guess....) I am happy to be a member of the group of craftspersons. Peter and I named our press years ago "The Good Book Press" because we aimed to make our books with the highest level of craftsmanship. The name fell away as we decided to work as artists and not as a press, but the intention has always been there in our work. Hammer's quote was a reminder for me.
The Miniature Book Society toured through the King Library Press while we were working, so we had to answer questions while pulling the handpress. This is not always the best way to do good work, but happily the ink went into the page crisp and black (and red).
On the last day of the conference, we parked the gypsy wagon in front of the Hyatt Hotel for all the miniature book folks to tour through. And we guessed right: miniature book enthusiasts also love miniature houses on wheels!