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....

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Home in California!

We spent the last week wandering around Southern California. We started the week with a visit to our old sixteenth century stomping grounds, the “original” Renaissance Pleasure Faire, in Irwindale, and found a cousin of our wagon parked there.

Cute restored vintage wagon at the Renaissance fair

We kept ourselves busy running around town. We gave a talk at the Flintridge Bookstore where Peter (La Canada HS class of ’72) spoke to a crowd that was mostly high school classmates. Early that morning we parked the gypsy wagon down the street from the bookstore and drove the truck to give a talk and papermaking demonstration at Occidental College. When we got back, the owner of the house we had parked in front of came out to talk to us. We thought she was going to complain, but she said, “My friends have been calling all day asking where I got the beautiful wagon and if I am going to give up my job and start traveling. Can you leave it here a few more days?

Great outdoor papermaking area at Occdental College

LA is the land of freeways and they are always crowded. There are so many people and cars that finding parking for two vehicles is a big deal. We even had to parallel park the truck and wagon when we went to see the Watts Towers. We still can’t figure out how we got it in those two tiny spaces…

If you haven’t guessed, we are now back home in Santa Cruz with tons of work awaiting us. Most pressing is to bind the books we sold while on the trip. But before we finish off this blog post, we want to share some statistics we have compiled for this trip. To recap, for those of you who have just begun to read the blog, we left Santa Cruz in September 2012 and drove across the country, arriving in Florida in early December. We left the truck and wagon in storage and flew home for Christmas and a winter break in California. In mid-February 2013 we flew back to Florida and then drove back to Santa Cruz, arriving home on the last day of April.

25 States
On our eastward trip we passed through the middle of the country (mostly on Interstate 80) and we returned through the southern states so we covered lots of ground. Note: on our 2010 – 11 wandering book artists’ trip we went through 15 states we didn’t visit this time, so our total is now at 40. Sounds like we might have to take one more trip to get the easy 48…

13,000 Miles
That sounds like a lot of driving, but we were gone for over five months. Luckily Peter is fine with doing most of the driving. I really should calculate how many stitches I have knitted. What I remember completing is: 3 sweaters, 5 pairs of fingerless gloves, 6 hats and 3 crocheted flower garlands!

150 Days
That is an average of about 90 miles per day. We usually drove less than 3 hours between appointments and there were days when we didn’t drive anywhere. It was great to have a day off now and again to work in our “office” somewhere beautiful.

50 Libraries
We visited 50 special collection departments to show our books and 10 public libraries to do office work or download audio books.

45 Talks, Workshops and Open Caravans
These were given to library patrons, university art classes and community book arts groups. Peter may even have one or two “groupies” for the “Book Arts Folk Songs,” which he sings at every event. He can bring a smile to even the most reserved audience member…. “I really need to make a CD,” says Peter. It is still fun for me to hear the talks even though I have heard over 100 now. I love how he changes what he says to meet the needs of each group. The open caravan tours are a real blast. I love hearing, “You’ve changed my life” and “You MADE this? I want to do that!”

Gypsy wagon tours, "Take me with you!"

Class presentation number 99.....still fun for us!

30 Campsites
We tried to find a place of natural beauty to camp, hike and generally regroup in between our public engagements. We stayed in 2 National Parks and 5 National Forests, 16 State Parks and 7 random campgrounds. Vedawoo, Zion and Big Bend were highlights this trip. I just can’t get enough of red rocks, and natural hot springs are divine.

The last campsite: Mariposa, CA

43 Driveways
We parked in loading docks, winery lots, campus parking lots, but the most fun was always the driveways of new and old friends! We played music, shared meals (gumbo, won ton soup, sauerkraut and polish sausage, and more….), took hikes in favorite local places, played with a monkey in one house, got massages, made books, and swapped stories. Thank you to all our hosts.

1 Final Story
This sort of encounter is typical of what happened all the time...
I was filling up the truck, feeling pleased that I had gone a few blocks off the freeway and found a station that sold diesel for $3.90 per gallon rather $4.35 at a station right off the highway. 20 gallons is an average tank full, so it doesn’t represent that much money, but it does give a lot of satisfaction… I was up on the hood trying to scrape a giant smashed bug off the window, when I heard some one saying, “That is awesome, what is it? Can you live in it?” I looked up to see this 20-something year old guy with pierced lips, acne, something sticking thru his nose, multi-colored hair, the works. “Do you want to see inside?” I asked. (Part of the responsibility of owning such a beautiful and intriguing vehicle is the obligation to show it to anyone who shows real interest.) “Whoa, that would be sick!” So I showed him inside. He asked, “Did you build it?” I showed him the book we made with the construction pictures. He got more and more excited about it. I said that we were out on the road encouraging other people to build their own gypsy wagons. He asked, “Where do you get the wood? Home Depot?” I said we milled the wood from sugar pine trees near Yosemite, but any lumber yard would have wood. Then he asked, “How did you put in the electricity?” I said just like wiring is done in any home and I showed him the propane tank and fuse box. He said, “Where to you buy all that?” Then the gas tank was full and I had to finish up washing the windows, so he wandered off. When I was telling Donna about him, she said, “I bet he grew up around malls, where everything you can buy is already made, and so he's never made anything in his life.” I wonder if she was right…

Chinese houses blooming in the Sierra Nevada foothills in California

Autumn 2014
Although we plan to stay home for awhile, it looks like this will not be the final wandering book artists’ road trip. Peter is scheduled teach a ukulele class at the John C Campbell Folk School in North Carolina in October 2014, and there are rumors of a visit to a University in New York City floating around…. Let us know if you would like us to visit you then!

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Southwest Natural Beauty Alerts/ Wanderers take time to paint the red rocks

We just spent more than a week in the deserts of the southwest. Donna made lots of new watercolor paintings, Peter played some ukulele, and both of us hiked up and down and through the vermillion cliffs.

Secluded camp site near Ghost Ranch, NM

Painting from the caravan to escape the wind near Ship Rock

Rock fin wall and wagon back with new towel rack

I love it when the trail just drops into a slot like this! Hovenweep

The spectacular ruins at Hovenweep, at sunset

Zion National Park, like Yosemite's walls, only red! Oh, and they are sandstone!

See that knife-edge? That is the trail to Angel's Landing in Zion NP

Chain link adds to the fun on the "trail" to the top

Paintbrush in the red sandstone

Looking back into the narrows of Zion Canyon

butterfly on the sage

Spring has come to Red Rock Canyon, near Las Vegas

Calico Cliffs walk in Red Rock Canyon

Posing with the red rocks outside of Las Vegas

Walking to a secret canyon in the white cliffs, shh, private property!!

Well, we are nearing the end of our second wandering book artists' road trip. The next post will probably be the last and it will certainly come from California!

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Do we have a printing press with us in the Gypsy Wagon?

People have been asking us if we have a printing press with us in the Gypsy Wagon, and how do we get so much work done in such a little space? Then we have to ruin their romantic vision by telling them the truth, that we actually don't live in the gypsy wagon full time, that we have a studio in Santa Cruz, CA where we do our printing, papermaking and bookbinding. But actually we do have a sort of printing press with us. It is called a Cuttlebug, a sort of mini etching press made for "crafters".

Santa Fe, NM is a town of Art and Artists. Donna's Great Aunt Mil lived in Santa Fe in the 1930s and one of her friends was an artist named Gustave Baumann. When we knew Aunt Mil she still had a few of his prints hanging in the living room of her house. Donna always admired those prints, so when we were in Santa Fe we visited the Palace of the Governors, where there is a historic print shop that has a display of Baumann's printing shop. It has Baumann's handpress, his pigments and equipment for making ink (now we want to make our own ink too), and examples of his prints. Curator Tom Leech took time to show us additional prints from their archives. Looking at examples of Baumann's reduction woodcuts, in the various states and colors, Donna was inspired to try making a print that looked like one of Baughman's. After leaving Santa Fe, while camping near Navajo Dam, in the Dine-tah (the Navajo's traditional homeland) we pulled out the little press and printed a three color reduction cut print of the surrounding landscape.

Donna is getting ready to cut the rubber stamp block

Donna pulling the first print with yellow ink

Peter's view of Donna working while he is laying in bed eating bon bons....

Inking up for the second color

The image after pulling the second color

Drying the cuts out of the wind

Placing the block for the third color

Removing the block after printing the third color

The finished print. It is about 4 by 6 inches.

So there you have it. Now we can say that the Wandering Book Artists DO work while on the road. 

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Gypsy wagon pictures

We are in the New Mexico desert, or is it Arizona, or is it Colorado, well actually right now it is Utah, but only for a few more miles.... We are in the "Canyonlands" area of the southwest, where the red rocks and sandy washes and slot canyons abound.

We just took a mighty nice picture of the front of the wagon, so I just had to post it and show it off.

Paria Canyon, near a great campground, "Paria Canyon Guest Ranch"

Then as long as we were showing pictures of our gypsy wagon we want to show you pictures of wagons we saw in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

And, here are a few more almost gypsy wagons...

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Las Cruces + Santa Cruz = Cruces

Those of you who were following our trip in the spring of 2010 will remember that we made a series of collaborative broadsides during that trip. The final collaboration was at Indiana University in Bloomington where we made a broadside combining the state motto, “Crossroads of America,” the celebrated Johnny Appleseed, and Mathew Carters’ newly cut Van Lanen and Van Lanen Streamer wood type.

Two graduate students, Gatis Cirulis and Katya Reka, worked with us printing the project. In 2011 they moved to Las Cruces, New Mexico, where they now teach at New Mexico State University (NMSU). They invited us to come to Las Cruces to give a talk at the Unsettled Gallery, and when we got there they proposed we do another collaborative print project.

An open and closed copy of Cruces

We arrived about 7 pm on April 2, and by 8 pm we were already pulling out the miniature Hollander beater and new iphone-sized paper mould to make paper from century plant leaves that Katya had been retting for the past 6 months. As the paper dried, the brainstorming began. Many ideas surfaced relating to the theme of “crosses.” Our earlier collaboration in Indiana was about crosses and crossroads, Las Cruces was first founded as a crossroad town, early town logos had three crosses, our home city is “Santa Cruz,” or “Holy Cross” is also a cross city. We settled on the idea of making a small book in the shape of a cross.

We always run our Yarnell mini "cocktail" beater with a few drops of wine.

Peter found a quote by New Mexico’s revered artist, Georgia O’Keeffe, from My Faraway One, selected letters… “Anyone who doesn’t feel the crosses simply doesn’t get the country.” It refers to all the crosses she saw around the countryside in New Mexico. He wanted to change the spelling of “the crosses“ to the Spanish ‘Las Cruces’  to make it seem like O’Keeffe was writing about the city but that never happened.

Peter making paper with the iphone sized papermaking mould constructed by Brian Queen

In the morning we finished up the papermaking. We started playing with a cross-shaped piece of paper, folding the flaps to make a little container, or perhaps a shrine, for the little 3 by 2 inch pieces of paper we had just made. Then Donna and Gatis began cutting linoleum blocks for the cross-shaped paper.

More miniature papermaking
Century plant paper drying in the sun

In the early afternoon we went down to the NMSU art department to print the cuts. NMSU has a Vandercook press, but we did not have wood to mount the linoleum on, so we crossed the hallway to the printmaking studio and used their etching press instead.

We limited the edition to 20 copies, a manageable number to finish in a short time, and printed the cuts on paper Peter had previously made and had brought on the trip for just this sort of occasion. We placed the two linoleum blocks side by side on the bed of the press. We hand inked both blocks at the same time using a specially mixed yellow ink. We placed the paper on the lino-blocks, covered it with a newsprint slipsheet, then pulled the print. After that we re-inked the blocks, flipped the handmade paper over and pulled a print on the reverse side of the paper. This way the two lino-blocks ended up being printed back to back.

Cutting linoleum in the school printmaking studio

Donna and Gatis then swapped blocks and cut away more for the second run. Gatis called it making a “suicide print.” At the same time Katya cut linoleum for the cover to be printed on a very strong flax paper Katya had made when she worked at Cave Paper in Minnesota.

After the second time through the press, ink is offset on the slip sheet, below is the print

After printing the second run in rust-colored ink, a swash of deep red applied with a second roller, the blocks were again swapped and cut away for the final olive-green run. After the third cutting there was very little linoleum left on the block. It was a “suicide print” because there was no going back. It almost became a real suicide for Gatis when he stabbed his hand while cutting away at the block. He worked the rest of the night with that hand wrapped in gauze held over his head.

Gatis working one-handed, still smiling!

After finishing the third run it was almost midnight, but we still needed to print the cover. We inked the cover’s lino-block with the olive green already on the slab, placed the paper on top of the block, then took a slip sheet covered with the offset ink from the previous run and placed it face down on the paper, then we pulled the print. The result was that the paper had the green linocut on one side and the three color “ghost print” on the back. We were excited with the results and pleased that the ghost print could conceptually tie the printmaking to the text, as O’Keeffe had lived at Ghost Ranch in New Mexico.

Prints drying in the garden

The next morning we got ready to cut up the prints into the cross shape, but found the ink was not dry. In a stroke of genius, Donna took dry earth from the yard, sifted it through a tea strainer and sprinkled it over the prints. When that dirt was brushed away the prints were dry and had a nice earthy patina. 

Dusting with the earth of Las Cruces

Donna wrote out the quote by hand on 20 little pieces of the century plant paper, while Katya sewed them in place on the print using three cross stitched crosses to reference the town’s early logos. 

No, not the typewriter! Donna writes the text out by hand

The covers were punched and cut. We titled the book “Cruces” and Donna cut a lino-block title. Using green ink saved from the last night’s final press run, Peter and Gatis printed it like a rubber stamp on the cover. 

Gatis and Peter printing the title

The final step was to sew the folded cross page into the covers.

Katya and Donna sewing and making the final folds

The project was complete…in less than two days. We split the edition in half, Gatis and Katya getting the even numbers while Peter and Donna got the odd numbers. If you are interested in buying a copy, decide if you want an even or odd number, then you will know who to buy it from. The price is $125 regardless of whether it is even or odd.