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....

Saturday, November 24, 2012

I just want a gypsy wagon...

We spent a day at Longwood University in Farmville, VA. The visit was set up by Kerri Cushman, who I had met while serving on the executive board for the Friends of Dard Hunter. They have an amazing new art building with a great papermill and binding studio. Donna and I set up our gypsy wagon in front of the student union and held an "open gypsy wagon." Crowds of students came to look and at some point Donna overheard one girl saying, "Forget the diamond ring, I want one of these things..." That's our kind of gal.

On this trip I have been giving a talk I title, "The ascent of the Artists' Book in the Age of the E-reader." Last summer we were hiking  the John Muir Trail, 210 miles from Yosemite to Mount Whitney. I carried two issues of the New Yorker to read, I cut out all the front matter and New York centric stuff to save weight. My daughter hiked with us and carried a Kindle. It weighed less than my stripped down New Yorkers but had about 30 books on it. The battery lasts 300 hours, it is back lit so she could read it at night, and if she got tired of reading she could put in earbuds and listen to a computer voice read the text. I was sold. For conveying information and text I am pretty sure the e-device is going to replace the book. (But the e-thing will not replace the artists' book, listen to the lecture if you want to hear more here is a link:

A sociology professor stopped to chat. He told us that most of his students preferred paper text books to digital ones. I couldn't believe it. So when I gave my lecture that evening I polled students audience of 100 asking who would rather have a digital text book or a paper one. 97 percent said they would rather have a paper one. So much for my theories....

After touring our gypsy wagon Kerri had her students make a quick drawing from memory. 

Monday, November 19, 2012

Asheville becomes a William Everson kind of place for the Wandering Book Artists

This year celebrates the centenary of William Everson’s birth. Everson was a California poet and he is the man that taught us to love and how to print fine press books. 

Everson surrounded by Santa Cruz printers in a photo taken only a few years before he died

Everson had several distinct phases of his literary life. He grew up in Selma, in California’s Central Valley and began writing poetry while in High School. He found his literary voice reading Robinson Jeffers’ poetry while studying at Fresno State. He quit college and went “back to the land,” becoming a Central Valley farmer. That calling was cut short by WW2 when he was drafted and then sent as a Conscientious Objector to a work camp in Oregon. There he met several San Francisco poets and after being released from the camp moved to San Francisco to become a “Beat Poet.” He acquired a Washington handpress and proceeded to print and bind two books of his own poetry. In the mid-1950s he had a religious conversion experience, joined the Dominican Order and changed his name to Brother Antoninus. He continued to write poetry, give readings and print books, and became widely known as the “Beat Friar.” In the early 70s he fell in love with a woman he had been counseling and in a dramatic moment at a poetry reading he stripped off his monk’s robes announcing he was leaving the order to live “in sin.” It was now no longer a beat, but rather a peace, love and rock and roll kind of world and he began to write “earth poetry.” It was at this time, dressed as a mountain man in buckskin and bear claws, that he began to teach at the University of California at Santa Cruz while at the same time printing “fine press” books for the University’s Lime Kiln Press.

The day we left home for this current wandering book artists’ trip, which was back in September, we finished a project we had been working on since 2009, an edition of William Everson's poem, “The Alder.” Our book is designed to do homage to his groundbreaking edition of “Granite and Cypress.” (you can see some images on our website at:

Our book has an introduction written by Allan Campo, an Everson scholar. He lives in Asheville and so when we passed through the town we set up an appointment to meet with him and his wife Nancy to show them the finished book.

But the reason I say Asheville became Eversonesque for us is this: the same evening we had dinner with an Asheville artist named Laura Lago. 

Laura (on left) in her tobacco barn

Laura had taken a class I taught at the San Francisco Center for the Book. That class was titled “Fine Press Printing and The West Coast Fine Press aesthetic of the 1950s-70s.” Here is the class description: “Learn the fine points of fine press printing. In this class you will study examples of books printed by mid-twentieth century west coast fine press printers including William Everson, the Allens, Grabhorns and others. You will then handset type, damp paper and use a Vandercook proof press to print a one page poem on a folio sheet of Peter’s handmade paper. Peter will explain the fine press aesthetics of page layout and type setting as he learned it from William Everson at the Lime Kiln Press in the 1970s. You will learn how to impose the type in the bed of the press, how to damp paper and how to achieve perfect registration and presswork.”

In that class we made a book, titled “Excerpts” with quotes by Everson on the book as an art work (you can see it on our web site at Laura cut the images for that book, and she did it so they would look very much like the images that Rose cut for Everson’s first two books, “A Privacy of Speech” and “Triptych for the Living.”

It was nice, if only for a short moment, to once again feel a good strong connection to my printing mentor. Everson was the one who set me on the path to being a book artist. He encouraged all his students to find quality content and strive for perfection in workmanship. Mentors are important. And as we travel on this trip we try to be mentors of sorts, encouraging the people we meet to explore the possibilities of the book arts, sharing our expertise and our passion for this new artistic medium, the artists’ book.

Sunday, November 18, 2012

The Gypsy Wagon meets an Art Car

We had the greatest time the last three weeks at the John C. Campbell Folk School. During our final week Peter took a blacksmithing class. He learned enough about forging to make his own needles and will be teaching how to forge a needle this coming summer at Jim Croft's  Old Ways Bookbinding Workshop in Santa, Idaho

Blacksmith Peter made lots of hooks, towel bars and bells, some for the gypsy wagon, some for our other home in Santa Cruz.

Donna took a basketweaving class with instructor Lee Nelson, mostly using rattan, but also some willow, honeysuckle, bittersweet  and kudzu.

Donna's class. Her baskets are the large open one, the two to the left of the large one, and the small handled one inside the large one. She wants to change careers now....

This week focused on recycling and one of the students in the recycled plastic class drove to the folk school in her "art car".

Lisa Shoemaker with her art car. It is decorated with pop beads! So cool and beautiful! Our gypsy wagon was pleased to be parked with kindred wheels.

As we were leaving the folk school we took a photo of our wagon with theirs....

the folk school's wagon

We drove to Asheville to our friend Maggie Cheney's house, just like we did two years ago. Maggie is a dedicated and enthusiastic book artist making some well thought-out books. We had a great session comparing structures and talking about the numerous tools she is so knowledgeable about. Her studio is perfect. Lots of reference books, good light, big table, and a bed in the corner when she gets flummuxed by some crazy book structure.
Maybe she should open a B and B, though, because her hospitality is superb!


So we are on the road again, now in Virginia. We will spend Thanksgiving with just the two of us in a State Park campground. This will be the first Thanksgiving on our own!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Ukuleles and Kaleidoscope Quilts

We have just spent our second week at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. The fall colors continue to inspire me creatively!
Blacksmith barn at the folk school

frosty morning walk
 I took a kaleidoscope quilt class. I spent the week "fussy cutting" fabric, piecing small squares and sewing over 10 hours a day and that was heaven to me! Our instructor, Karen Tunnell, is a very accomplished textile artist. She inspired me to get into fabric design again, which I did a small bit of in the 1970's in my textile class at Drake High School.
Sewing the Kaleidoscope square

First Kaleidoscope
Petal Kaleidoscope
Moth Kaleidoscope
Kaleidoscope skirt!

Peter taught a beginning ukulele class this week. I think they had the most fun of any class here. They sang and played great music together. Two of the students had never played an instrument before and most were complete beginners, but that did not stop them from having fun. They even played a gig at the Daily Grind and Wine in Murphy. Dave Peters assisted teaching the class and is in the process of making a music video from footage taken at the gig. When that is done you will hear some more about the class. All week long the uke players kept coming up to me and saying how much fun they were having with Peter and the class, and Peter kept saying how much fun he was having. It must have been fun.
On Thursday, the class performed at a coffee shop in town!

Beginning ukulele class performing at the school 
Will you join us at the John C Campbell Folk School next time we teach there? It would be so fun to share this great place with you.
P.S. The gypsy caravan made an appearance next to the Craft Shop here on Thursday, all who toured our home on wheels marveled and dreamed, just like they always do! The school has a facebook page and here is the post featuring Paloma, (which is the name I gave to our wagon.)

Saturday, November 3, 2012

The wandering book artists sing behind the plow

We just spent the first of three weeks at the John C Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina. This week we both took classes ("ongoing education" is what they call it when you are a wandering book artists telling the IRS why we were here). The folk school is an awesome place to take craft classes. Donna took a copper enameling class and Peter took a class making stuff out of tin cans. We encourage you all check out their web site and consider taking a class. The school was founded in 1925 to nurture and preserve the folk arts of the Appalachian Mountains. It offers year round week-long and weekend classes in traditional and contemporary arts, including blacksmithing, music, dance, cooking, gardening, nature studies, photography, storytelling and writing. The school also holds a regular concert series and community contra dances.

A cousin to our gypsy wagon lives in the entry circle of the JCC Craft School

Tin Can Art turned out to be the perfect class for me. I had total freedom to do what I wanted. When I make an artists’ book I am always striving for perfection, but with tin can art there is no such thing as perfection, so I just had fun making things. As you can see, the classroom was a pile of tools and I made some fun things out of old Christmas cookie tins and olive oil cans.

Donna took enameling and as the final project each class member made a book. Hers is the middle one.

On Friday night I went to join in the music jam at the general store in Brasstown. I had to run the gauntlet of older locals, blocking the way, sitting in a semi circle around a pot belly stove shooting the breeze in the entry while the music played inside. One of them was Clay of "Clay’s Corner", the establishment that hosts the jam (famous for its New Year’s Eve possum drop…don’t ask..they really do drop a possum) and he was a character. He told me that Brasstown’s population was 200 when it was founded some 150 years ago, and today when one gal gets pregnant one guy leaves town so the population is still only 200…