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....

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Waltz across Ohio with wood engraving on my mind..

We last wrote from Cleveland, then we went from Pittsburg to Athens to Cincinnati to Monterey, Kentucky. Sometimes, as we zigzagged across Ohio last week, we felt a bit like a band whose booking agent did not pay much attention to the map. But we don’t have a booking agent, so there was no one to blame but ourselves. We probably got the most beautiful fall photo of our gypsy wagon camping between Pittsburg and Athens:

In Athens we gave a lecture to the book arts class at the university, gave a open gypsy wagon show and tell to a local home school group at the public library, and visited the community based paper mill called Paper Circle.

Athens Public Library, Ohio
Daniella at Paper Circle near Athens

The hunt for painted tin to use in a class at John C Campbell Folk School led us to this rural scrap metal yard. We both scrounged around the pile and picked up a bunch.

Waltzing across Ohio we visited the Serpent Mound and the Appalachian Highlands Nature Preserve. “The most singular sensation of awe and admiration overwhelmed me…for here before me was the mysterious work of an unknown people…I mused on the probabilities of the past; and there seemed to come to me a picture as of a distant time…” F. W. Putham at the Serpent Mound in 1883.

Peter in a cave at Highlands Nature Preserve, Ohio
an old drawing of the Serpent Mound

Donna meditating at the head of the serpent, Serpent Mound, Ohio

In Monterey, Kentucky, we took a wood engraving class from Wesley Bates at Gray Zeitz’s Larkspur Press. Wood engraving is similar to the linoleum cutting that Donna has done to make illustrations for many of our books, but it works the endgrain, and can achieve variations of shading, line and light in a manner impossible to achieve in a linoleum cut. Donna’s future work will reflect some of the new skills she gained in this workshop.

Donna's engraving for upcoming book, "Sierra High Route"

Finally, walking to the library at UK I watched lines of students leaving their classes staring at their phones, typing madly, and I mused on how society was changing so rapidly. Soon after, ironically, I was sitting at a lunchtime concert by a folksinger, Si Kahn, scanning his web site on my iphone (learning about his current protests against privatization) rather than listening carefully to what he was singing. Oh well …


Sunday, October 21, 2012

Barbed Wire and Locks

Barbed wire topped chain link fences that are padlocked shut between you and your gypsy wagon is not a good thing. Especially at 11:30 pm. And especially if you have had a couple of glasses of wine and you are wearing a floor length skirt. It has happened to me. So what did I do? Well, it’s been a long time since I’ve scaled a 8ft. chain-linked fenced topped with two rows of barbed wire, but that option sounded better than bothering our hosts in the middle of the night to come bring a key. I took of the skirt, took off the nice long coat and muffler, (oh, did I mention it was 40 degrees and windy too?) and climbed up in my underwear and t-shirt. Bed never felt so good.

The caravan is back there in the yard. The morning after the fence-scaling in my underwear....

The caravan has been a magical and welcome home. Our days have been full of new and long-time friends, miles and miles of driving, a workshop taught here, a talk given there, and now a conference attended. The Friends of Dard Hunter conference, “Watermarks” took place this week in Cleveland, Ohio.

Artist friends Ladislav Hanka and Jana Hanka looking at our books at the Dard Hunter Conference Trade Fair

At the conference there was a show called "Jerry Rigged"with vintage and home made and curious Hollander beaters . I've never seen so many beaters in one place, I don't think anyone in the world has.  Lee Macdonald was there with 2 of the beaters he made for the Combat Paper folks, David Reina was there with his own Reina beaters and the plywood beater made at a class he taught for FDH conference at Arrowmont. The Morgan Conservatory had 2 built by Douglas Howell in the 1960s and about 10 others that the run regularly. Peter showed his second mini "Cocktail beater" that had been built by Jim Yarnell. This Cocktail Beater runs on a car battery, so we decided that since it was on a 12 volt program it should be filled with wine instead of water.

Yarnell "Cocktail Beater" beating pulp at the Morgan Conservatory

Dipping the micro mini mould into the pulp made in the micro beater

Couching the micro mini paper onto the felt
In between the scheduled events, I found time to play. I toured the Cleveland Botanical Gardens with Diane Tomosso, our friend from Denver. After finding the farmer's market in town closed, we all went back to the caravan for a gypsy like meal of sausages and "Whitlock Red," the wandering book artists' favorite wine, made by friends in Mariposa, California.

Nothing better than eating and drinking in the caravan with good friends,   Friday night with Ray and Diane Tomosso

We also had a chance to visit Case Western's Library to see the retrospective show for Jan Sabota, a world renoun binder (and a good friend) who passed away earlier this year. When there they saw our pencil book and showed us their own famous pencil.....

The Wandering Book Artists become Roycrofters

About a week ago now, we taught a book arts workshop in East Aurora New York at the Roycroft Campus. It was an honor to work in this place that was the home to so much creativity and art at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Power House building where our workshop was held
Here is a bit about the Roycroft Campus: Dard Hunter, the father of the revival of hand papermaking in America started his artistic career as a Roycrofter. Elbert Hubbard founded Roycroft, an Arts and Crafts movement community, in 1895. Inspired by a visit with William Morris who had founded the Kelmscott Press in 1891, as a way to produce books by traditional methods using printing technology and styles of the 15th century. Morris and his fellow artists went on to design and produce products such as wallpaper, textiles, furniture and glassware. Hubbard started his own private press, the Roycroft Press, and then developed the Roycroft community. The "Roycrofters" produced handsome and sometimes eccentric books printed on handmade paper, and operated a fine bindery, two magazines (The Philistine was bound in brown butcher paper and full of satire. Hubbard claimed the cover was butcher paper because: "There is meat inside."), and shops producing furniture, stained glass, limp suede and hammered copper goods in the uniquely American "Arts and Crafts" style, a decorative arts design that emphasizes spare, clean lines and simplicity of design.

Our class in the Power House building
Peter posing as a Roycroft printer

As we were leaving town I stopped for gas. A woman came up to me asking, “Are you the gypsies? Three wagons are supposed to be arriving. Where are the others?” I am not sure what that was about. Still pumping gas a fellow came up to admire the wagon. He said he had lived on boats in San Francisco, and painted school busses in Vermont at Bread and Puppet, and it turned out he was Daniel Roelofs, a great grandson of Elbert Hubbard and he ran an organic farm called Arden Farm located outside of town. I gave him a tour of the wagon and he gave me a beautiful bunch of kale for the road.

Friday, October 12, 2012

It's a *#@&^-ing gypsy caravan, for goodness sakes!

Just what is it like to be traveling in a gypsy caravan? I thought I would go through a typical day with you.

First, we make tea and have our breakfast in the caravan. We pack up the back steps, roll off the leveling blocks and pack them away, then I help Peter back up the trailer (I have a set of complicated hand signals so nobody has to hear me yelling over the truck noise).

Then we drive (usually between 1 hour and 4 hours, or $100 in gas/time) to get to an appointment with a friendly librarian or two.

Geoff Smith at Ohio State University (soon to be President of FABS)
Artists and librarians with us in  UI Champaign/Urbana, IL
displaying our books
Sometimes the librarian arranges a place to park the truck and caravan, sometimes not.
Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington, IL

We often have an "Open Caravan" so interested students can peek inside and perhaps get inspired to live creatively. At the Herron School of Art and Design we held an open caravan from 11-12 and had over 100 visitors.
Herron School of Art and Design, IUPUI, Indianapolis, IN
Ohio State University, Columbus, OH
I am sitting in the "no parking" zone, waiting to meet the parking police, but they never come. I notice that the students all seem to turn away when I look up from my knitting and catch them peeking at the caravan. Why are they afraid or shy? Do they think they are going to offend me by staring?? I am sitting on a gypsy caravan, for goodness sakes! Finally, a sociology professor stopped by to talk (whose last week’s guest was a “sex fetishiser” or something or other). I love it when people are engaged with life!

After visits we stay with our hosts or drive a bit further down the road. My first choice is to drive so we can stay in nature, at a state or national park campground. That is where I can find beauty, quiet and a level parking spot.
camping in Buck Creek State Park, OH
If we stop at a campground we get to hike for an hour or so in the fresh air, and see the colorful fall forest. Then it is dark and we eat dinner and head for bed in the caravan. People always ask if are warm. We have a propane heater, and it keeps the caravan perfectly warm in the mornings and evenings when it is chilly.
Buck Creek State Park in Springfield, Ohio.
Peter loves it when we spend the night in a friend’s driveway. Then there may be a chance to play music or have local book artists over for a potluck. The librarians and art teachers at University of Illinois, Champaign/Urbana have such a great working environment that they get together for fun after work! 
Musical librarians at Bea's house
Parking at Bea Nettle's house with glorious fall colors

We have to squeeze in doing “office work” on the computer at some point every day. Arranging the next days’ visits take lots of time on the phone or in emails and it is hard work finding internet on the road now that everyone has password protection.

Peter works on a blog post at Pam and Willy’s house in Salt Lake.

It is nice to know we have friends and family traveling with us via cyberspace!

Sunday, October 7, 2012

The Book Arts are Big in Iowa

We found a giant calligraphy pen at a rest stop on highway 80 near Iowa City. Clearly the book arts are big around here.

In Iowa City we delivered Peter’s collection of books and ephemera related to the subject of hand papermaking to the University Library.

The University of Iowa has just added a graduate degree in the book arts, and we hope our collection, which includes many unique books on the subject of papermaking, will provide valuable research material for Iowa's Book Arts students interested in the history of the modern revival of hand papermaking.

A sample from the collection. A page from the book, Rapid: A Private Paper Mill, by Roger Daniels (Melbourne Australia: 1963). 5-1/8” x 7-3/4 Pages: 51. Number 5 of 15 copies. Daniels wrote the text, made the paper, printed and bound the book.

Dandelion Wine from Nebraska

The closest campground to Lincoln, Nebraska, was the Pawnee Lake State Recreation Area. As we pulled in, we recognized that it was the same campground we had stayed in last time we visited the University of Nebraska in Lincoln in spring of 2011. The trees were turning bronze, gold and crimson, popping sounds of duck hunters’ guns echoed from across the lake that was clearly low (little rain this summer…), and there were no dandelions anywhere. Dandelions? When we camped there a year and a half ago the campground had been covered with dandelions, and like the resourceful gypsy wandering book artists we are, we picked the dandelions and as we traveled we made wine. Here is a picture from the last trip of the wine fermenting in the back of the truck. We didn’t have an air lock with us so used the old rubber glove trick.

Well I packed one of the bottles of 2011 dandelion wine to share with our moonshiner ukulele friend Dave in Brasstown, NC. But this was the perfect occasion, so we pulled it out of the gypsy wagon’s wine cellar (a Coleman ice chest under the bed) and opened it. 

We toasted the full moon, the open road, and good friends, like uke friend Dave, who would share his unreceived wine with us.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

The country is big and the gypsy wagon is small.

We have a pretty tight schedule and hoped to have time see the beautiful rounded rock formations in Vedauwoo, Wyoming, so we got up early and were driving down the road as the sun rose, a bad plan since we were driving due east. We crossed the Green River and, just like we imagined gypsies would do, pulled off near the river for breakfast under a beautiful butte.

Back on the road things were perfect. We were cruzin’ at 70 (the strong eastward wind made the back of the wagon like a sail) listening to the local country station (with ads for making sausage from your trophy buck - that’s not something you hear on radio back home) when smoke starts spewing out of the hood and red lights start flashing on the dash. We pull over fast, but it was in the middle of nowhere. AAA and Towtruck man to the rescue. Towtruck man is missing his 2.25 ball so cannot pull the wagon (Don’t leave home without it?) and we have to leave the wagon by the side of the highway. (Don’t worry Paloma, we will be back soon…we hope…maybe.)

Luckily, no, perhaps a miracle, it is only a broken fuel line and they can fix the car in an hour. We will make it to Vedauwoo. Posted from the Dodge agency in Rawlins, WY.

PS, We made it to Vedauwoo. Also, we saw an interesting camper in a rest stop. Check it out.

Wandering through Utah

Today we went to Ogden and spoke to Susan Makov’s printmaking and book arts classes. When I was describing the qualities “great” artists’ book would have (what I call in my lectures the “Mona Lisa of the Book”) I found myself comparing a book without words to a print made using medium without pigment. The printmaker could be making some kind of great statement, but in my opinion, mostly they would just be wasting a lot of great potential. So it is with words in a book, they add color. Too bad I didn’t find it spelled out in lead type when I pied a case or something. I could have started a religion….

PS. Last night we went to Salt Lake City’s bohemian roadhouse, The Garage, where we ate dinner and listened to a local band called Wayward Molly.