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....

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

You never know what you are going to find on the road…

When Peter gives his talks he uses this old wallet he found by the side of the road to illustrate a point. He first holds up our commercially published “1000 Artists’ Books” and says “Raise your hand if you think this is a book." Everyone will raise their hands. “1000 Artists’ Books” is an archetypal book that was made to convey information. It has pages, pictures and words right where people expect to find them. Peter continues, pulling the old wallet from his pocket and asks the same question. But before anyone is put on the spot he continues, opens the wallet and says, “It tells a story." Showing the few dollar bills in it he says, “It tells about how much I made today…” And showing some receipts he says, “And how much I have spent.” "Business cards show who I have met, and who I am…” Then he opens up a flap in the wallet to reveal letterpress printed pages with a question mark and the words “What is a book?”

When you pull into a rest stop and see a van loaded with guys that is pulling a small cargo trailer you can guess they are some kind of musicians heading somewhere. These guys were headed for South by Southwest, a music fest in Texas. Their motto is "Live free or Die".  Above them, painted on our wagon, is our motto: "I'm as free a little bird as I can be..."

After staying with Julie and Raymondo, the quirky primitive artists in Atlanta, we seemed to find quirky things everywhere. In this post we are going to share a few quirky pictures we have taken on the road. 

Somewhere, Mississippi

Bill and Vicky's Tramp

Port Arthur, Texas

The Orange House, Houston TX

Not at all qirky, but it was primitive camping here.
Sea Rim park, Texas

Finally another gypsy wagon….

We had a few free days between Tuscaloosa and Baton Rouge. We were going to visit the Natchez Trace Scenic Parkway but found a Society for Creative Anacronism “war”, was being held in Mississippi, and it was right on our route. It is called the Gulf War and is one of the SCA’s largest and longest events. 

As well as being a place to fight with sword or arrow, the SCA events are places to learn about crafts of the time. We took classes in fiber and metal arts (Peter made a Viking safety pin and Donna made a cloak), wood fired cooking, and bardic lore.

We have traveled about 35,000 miles and have not seen another gypsy wagon on the road. When we pull into campgrounds the rangers and hosts stare. We always ask, “Do you get many gypsy wagons at your park?” Only once or twice have we heard…”We had one that looked like that once.” There was one other gypsy wagon at the war. It was made by Ken and Betty Brand. Here are a few pictures.

We did not come prepared to dress in costume, so had to throw something together.
Here we are saying goodbye to the war....

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Wandering Book Artists in Alabama

“You are doing what I have always wanted to do.”
“You are living my dream.”
“Can I have your life?”

Parked under the raining pink magnolia blossoms in Tuscaloosa, AL

We hear this sort of thing almost every day. Living your dream is nice work if you can get it. We are grateful for this opportunity to see the country traveling in our gypsy wagon. But, we want you to let you know that traveling as wandering book artists has its challenges too. Like yesterday morning, we were at Cloe's Cup Coffee shop using the internet, so engrossed in the mundane but necessary work we do every day on our computers (setting up the next stop on down the road, confirming workshop details, and sorting out the always challenging “where can we park the truck and gypsy wagon,”) that we forgot we were in a two-hour parking space and came out to find we had gotten a parking ticket. Darn. The good news was that it happened in Tuscaloosa where parking tickets are only  $15.

Office work at the cafe
On the first Thursday of the month there is an art walk in the quaint town of Northport, Alabama, just across the river from Tuscaloosa. Wandering around we found “The Southern Letterpress,”  new enterprise that is the result of Jessica Peterson and Bridget Elmer dreaming, risking, and working hard. The shop opened a few months ago in a "shotgun" building (it is about 6 feet wide and 100 feet long and used to be a gun repair shop). During the “Art Walk” visitors were invited to print a poem on the Vandercook press. The poet, Samuel Gray, was there, and he gave us an impromptu reading of the poem! Jessica does job printing, artful printing and sells letterpress printed cards and broadsides in the Northport shop, while Bridget works out of another branch of the shop in Saint Petersburg, FloridaWe felt a real kinship to them running a business out of such a tiny little space.

The Southern Letterpress
From the back of the shop

Entranced by the colors in this mosaic at the Kentuck art plaza, Northport
In Tuscaloosa we talked to the letterpress and papermaking classes at the “Crimson TideUniversity of Alabama. It is one of the few universities in the country that offer a MFA degree in Book Arts. We could see that the current students in the program are focused and hard working. Clearly that is a tradition here, as we have been impressed by the number of UA graduates that we have met teaching book arts teachers at other universities in the south. Those UA graduates are living their dream, sharing the book arts with their students. Hopefully they also find time to continue making their books too. Good job UA Book Arts!

Peter at the mini Hollander “cocktail” beater, before adding the red rags to make some “crimson tide” pulp in the parking lot at the U.
And another oops: Chewing into a cheese cube at the reception after his talk at Emory University Peter broke a bit of tooth off his molar and so had to find a dentist in a strange town. No big deal, but we’re showing you this just in case you think that wandering book artists somehow escape all the tribulations of life…..

Sunday, March 3, 2013

Gypsy Wagon meets Quirky Primitive

One thing about traveling around the country in a gypsy wagon is that gypsy wagons are like "art magnets" and we sure have been lucky to meet some incredible and creative artists on this trip. For example, in Atlanta we parked beside the home and studio of Julie Newton and Raymondo Vaughn. Julie is best known as a book artist and Raymondo a metal worker and their work is categorized as “Quirky Primitive.” 

The mosaic in their kitchen

At first glance quirky primitive art can appear simply fun and whimsical, but closer inspection reveals layers of meaning that are deep and sometimes dark as well. We want to share two short videos made by Jacob Snowden about Raymondo's art and life. Chalk tells about his work. Angel + Mermaid shares a more personal story

The gypsy wagon angel over Raymondo's art work.

Thinking about those two videos, I am reminded that when I find art is good or successful for me, it is usually pleasing at the first glance but doesn’t stop there. The longer I look, the more I enjoy it and the more I start to imagine I can understand the intention of the artist and where they are leading me and what they are sharing through their creation. 

As book artists we work in a medium that abounds with opportunity for depth. A book is not two dimensional, it has layers, both physical and conceptual:  There are almost endless choices for text, endless ways of illustrating and binding, multifold possibilities available in the choice of type faces, colors, papers, threads... These choices and options all lead to the possibility of creating a very rich and engaging art work.

As I type Peter is teaching a book binding class at Emory University Library in Atlanta, GA. The binding is one we developed for our book, Song of Creation, using pop-ups and layers of accordions. It’s pretty fun to introduce folks to structures that are new for them, thus adding to their stash of binding options.

Current and future great book artists at Emory University

Along with sharing book arts with folks, we are playing music too. Yesterday we gathered with people from the class Peter taught last fall at the John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. We played and sang for hours at a funky fun tea house called “Dr. Bombay’s Underground Tea Party.” Peter will be teaching uke again in 2014, so you too can have this much fun!

Uke playing at the teahouse

This photo is especially for my son-in-law Toby. This is the cool collection of skateboards in Raymondo's living room. Many more vintage boards line the walls of other rooms.

When we finish teaching this workshop we will be heading west. Our first stop will be Birmingham, Alabama for a short visit with Vamp and Tramp Booksellers, who represent our work and the work of many other book artists.

And now a final look at the Quirky Primitive:

The Low Key Hideaway, a quirky primitive bottle-walled bar in Cedar Key

bottle wall detail
The bottle wall in the garden at the Low Key, Cedar Key

Good bye to Florida and Georgia.
This is the view out the window at our campsite in
Cedar Key, Florida.