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, September 28, 2014

John C Campbell Folk School in Beautiful North Carolina

Even Wandering Book Artists need rest and recreation from time to time, and our favorite place for R&R is in North Carolina at the John C Campbell Folk School. Throughout the year they offer a class in almost any craft. We are taking Blacksmithing (Peter), Coppersmithing (Donna, week 1), glass bead making (Donna, week 2) and in Peter's case, teach a class in beginning uke playing is recreation.

Peter had lots of fun at the final performance, joined on stage by his class and the painting class's paintings.

We love the folk school. There is nothing like this place in California. We will be back there from Feb 15 - 27th. Peter is teaching another beginning uke class Feb 22-27. Check out the classes being offered next February when we will back here.  Come join us!

Donna's copper book cover

Gypsy wagon series, copper belt buckle

Before we got here, we had successful visits in Connecticut and Pennsylvania, then we had an automotive break down (broken fuel injector line) in Altoona, PA. We were towed by a tow truck driver who was afraid of driving hills and over bridges, so we drove a very nice back roads all the way to the repair shop. I thought it was cool that he could still do his job with that particular phobia!

Pulled over at a rest stop in Virginia. we met Abel Zimmerman, of Zyl Vardos. He is featured in the same Shelter book we are, "Tiny Homes on the Move." He had just dropped off his most recent vardo for a customer. He drove it all the way from Washington State. Great guy with great building skills! You can read about our meeting on his Facebook Page 

Our books, set up for a showing at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston!
We are back on the road again the 6th of October with visits to Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Baltimore and Washington DC! Let us know if you want us to stop by.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Life in the Wagon: The Odd Questions

We spent this week in New England.

We had an open house in the gypsy wagon in the street in front of Lee MacDonald and Ann Marie Stein’s house in Newton, MA. The highlight may have been the Book Arts Folk Song sing-along. State folklorist, Maggie Holtzberg, who was there to document these folk songs in the making, joined us playing her fiddle. We did not have printed song sheets so everyone just turned on lap top computers and iphones, and opened the pdfs from our website, Some may see it as ironic, but we think it more just the way things are going. 

The other highlight happened after a few glasses of wine. We belted out all the odd camp songs we could remember, most under the category of “songs that should no longer be sung in public.”

We always say that you have to be ready for lots of visitors with lots of questions when you travel in a gypsy wagon like ours. People can be seen gazing around with wide eyes, just wondering what it is. Like this fellow who stuck his head in the door just as I was taking a picture of the Boston MFA sculpture in the parking lot. He had never seen anything like it. "You really opened my eyes." is what he said.

We visited the Rhode Island School of Design. The thing we noticed there was that every single student was engaged by the wagon and our books. Sometimes when our wagon is on the green, or a quad, of a college we see students just walk by without even noticing it is there. We wonder about that.

Across the hall from the RISD Special Collections Library is the Materials Resource Library. What a cool thing. Shelves of color, shape and texture. The items can be checked out, but are only for reference and not for use. There is supplier information attached if a student wants to buy it.

We gave and evening showing of our books for students at the Creative Arts Workshop in New Haven, CT and got a nice noir photo.

Sometimes we get a memorable odd question. Here are a few good ones:
“Do you smoke weed in there? Too bad, that would make it more authentic ‘hippie’.”
How do you drive it? (Meaning: where are the steering wheel and engine?)
Can you drive it on the highway? (Yikes, that’s a lot of back roads, all the way from California!)
Pointing to the refrigerator they ask,” Is that a photocopier?”
A toll collector recently said: “I’m trying to figure out what it is. Is that a fancy outhouse?”
Where is the shower? (That is the polite way of finding out if we have a toilet in the wagon.)

Here is another story: We were camping in State College, PA, at a Walmart (if you can call that camping.) About 9:30 pm we heard a clank on the bell to get our attention. We thought it was going to be the police, but instead it was a long haired gentleman from the nearby mountains who just wanted to tell us, “I have been following this tiny house thing. This is the first I ever saw. I am in awe."

Well it happened again. Another fuel injector line broke and with desiel gas spraying everywhere we pulled over on the side of the highway till the tow truck got us. It took a second truck to pull the gypsy wagon and we spent the night in the parking lot courtesy of Courtesy Dodge in Altoona, PA. They were awesome getting us back on the road.

We are on our way to Brasstown NC for two weeks, where Peter teaches a week long ukulele class. Then we head up through Washington DC, Baltimore, Pennsylvania and New Jersey, ending up a Rutgers for a big event with the Art Library on October 14.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Weekdays - Libraries. Weekends - Jazz and Tugboats

This week (Sept 1-7) we continued our whirlwind tour of mid-west universities, showing our books to librarians and students, just outside the caravan. Michigan State University, the University of Michigan Ann Arbor, Oberlin and the Rochester Institute of Technology.

Lansing, MI

Ann Arbor, MI

Oberlin, OH


Hampshire, MA 
(I know,  we're not in the midwest anymore, but we wanted to include the photo.)

RIT’s Cary Collection had the nicest bunch of hand presses that we have seen anywhere. “We need one to show each style of toggle.” I think that is how they put it…


Like all normal working wandering book artists we celebrate and make the most of our weekends. On Saturday we went to Albany, NY for the Riverside Jazz Festival, and on Sunday to the Tug Boat Roundup in nearby Waterford NY.

We have a few good stories from the weekend.

Jazz: Because of the threat of rain (more than threat - it poured) the Albany Jazz Festival was moved from a beautiful riverside amphitheater to a cement shelter under Interstate 780. The first two acts were instrumental New Orleans and then vocal Ella Fitzgerald styles of Jazz. The headliner was Jack Dejohnette, with John Coltrane’s son, Ravi Coltrane. It was the kind of jazz that, like some styles of modern art, I want to like, but can't figure it out!

The Tug Boat Roundup: Pete Seeger was instrumental in the victory of the battle to clean up the Hudson River. The companies that were guilty of polluting, in the process of cleaning, got most of the locks on the Erie Canal working again, so navigation is now possible. We met a crew who had barged from Vermont to Waterford for the festival. They brought Vermont goods to sell and were pioneering the reuse of the waterways for commerce and pleasure. We decided that we want to tour the great lakes some day by boat! Do you think we could do a wandering book arts tour by barge?

The Twelve Tribes: At a turnout, a beat-up sedan pulled up next to us and the passenger stuck out his head to say something about our wagon. His eyes had that certain look of earnest bliss. I looked inside and saw the back seat was full of potatoes. I forgot to take pictures of it, but I am telling the truth. They said they were part of the "Twelve Tribes" and did we want some potatoes or corn and would we stop by their home for a cup of Mate`, to show the others our wagon and see the Yellow Deli café they were getting ready to open? OK, we were curious. We followed them, and as we drove Donna read about the 12 tribes. It is a messianic Christian community with all possessions held in common. They have been accused of brainwashing and child abuse, and praised for their paramedical and food ministries at huge youth gatherings. We didn't see any of that. They invited us to see the new cafe they were creating in throwback 70's Hippie style, all wood and macramé. Think we should add macramé to the gypsy wagon?

We were treated to ice tea and introductions all round. .Everyone was friendly, happy and blissful. One woman told me, “I was a misfit before and now I have a home.” Isn't it true that everyone just wants to have friends, community and a home. Everyone wanted to see inside the wagon. It turns out the 12 tribes have a fleet of converted school busses that they use to take their paramedical and food services to large outdoor events, like a recent Phish concert.

One week later:

if you are in the Boston area we would like to invite you to an open house party to see our gypsy wagon artists’ bookmobile:
When: September 12, 2014 at 6pm till the cows come home.
Where: The party is hosted by Lee McDonald at his home, 31 Madoc St. Newton MA 02459
What: Tour the wagon, see our books, join us singing book arts folks songs.
Food: It will be a pot luck sort of gathering. BYO everything… or just stop by.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Collaborating with Bees

Years before we were wandering book artists we took a trip to Europe. In the Czech Republic, in a little village called Loket, staying with the world-renown bookbinder Jan Sabota, we met Ladislav Hanka and Jana Hanka, two Czech artists who live In Kalamazoo, MI. When our wandering took us by Kalamazoo we wrote to see when we could visit.

Lada wrote back: "we're just artists - weekdays and weekends are all the same for us. I will be on deadline for the Art Prize competition in Grand Rapids, but hopefully done by then or have thrown in the towel......who knows. 

Lada’s work is graphic, predominantly etchings in sepia, black and white on natural themes. He was working on his art work for Art Prize when we arrived. What a brilliant artist he is. He recently started keeping bees, then imagined he could collaborate with his bees. He has been making his etchings, framing them in honey comb frames and putting them in the hives for the bees to make honey comb over. Here are some pictures of the process and his work.

Jana works in ceramics. Here are some pictures of her sculptures and tile work. Her creative spirit permeates every nook and cranny of their home. 

After showing us around their home and studios they invited us to a bohemian street party where our gypsy wagon, along with one of its distant “cousins,” a 1963 Scotty, became the center of socializing. The party was a regular event because the host owned every house on the block! Home prices are less that 1/10 of the Santa Cruz average in Kalamazoo, and 200k will buy you a mansion. 

Next week we will be in New England. Hampshire and Mt. Holyoke colleges on Tuesday. Dartmouth on Wednesday. School of the Museum of Fine Arts on Thursday and other Boston colleges on Friday, with a big party at Lee MacDonald’s place friday night. If you know Lee you can invite yourself….Remember the “circles" thing I mentioned in the last post? Well when we pulled into Oberlin College and couldn’t find the library we stopped to ask a student where it was. He said, “I think I met you before.” He was Cooper MacDonald, Lee’s son. What are the chances? I guess pretty good.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Sometimes We Pretend

On our first trip as Wandering Book Artists we went from the Golda Meir Library in Milwaukee to the Kalamazoo Book Arts Center without stopping in Chicago. Donna said she never wanted to go into a big city with the gypsy wagon. Well, never say “Never.” This trip Paul Gehl asked us to stop by the Newberry Library, and how could we refuse. It wasn’t as bad as we thought it would be and led to a few great photos of the wagon causing traffic jams on busy Chicago streets.

Just before entering the Eastern Time zone we spent a night with Andrea Peterson, Jon Hook and their family at Hook Pottery Paper near La Porte, Indiana. On our last visit Andrea taught us how to spray pulp through stencils to create imagery in handmade paper and we wanted to show her what we had done with the process. This we lucked out to be there when they were having a wood fired oven pizza party!

Did you know that Indiana is all split up with the time zones? We didn’t either (the zones were set keeping in mind Chicago and Louisville TV broadcasting areas rather than geography) so we were an hour late getting to the Tri-state Bluegrass Festival in Kendallville, Indiana to meet up with Howie Clark. Besides being one of America’s best know papermakers (TwinrockerHandmade Paper) Howie is a regionally recognized old timey and blue grass musician. And yes, he was in the seminal 2005 Dard Hunter Conference Band in Chillicothe, OH, when the Book Arts Folk Songs were first performed live in the Chillicothe Opera House.

But let’s get back to the bluegrass festival. It is a three-day event, the largest in the tri-state area, with about 2000 attending. Most of the other folks were camping in beige RVs, trailers or fifth-wheels, so all eyes were on the wagon as we pulled in. We set up camp, did some laundry and hung it to dry. The laundry might explain why, but the people who stopped by to see the wagon (and that was at the rate of about ten every five minutes) kept asking, “Is that a gypsy wagon? Are you gypsies?” We told everyone, “No, we are book artists, but ‘sometimes we pretend’ we are like Mr Toad in Wind in the Willows,  'A life on the open road, there’s nothing like it!' ” We then show them what an artist book is, pulling out our most recent book, which is titled “Sometimes I Pretend.” Click on the link to see the book. It works with a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. That book, as all our books, is made with our own handmade paper. The illustrations were made by spraying pulp using the technique we learned from Andrea Peterson.

Everything comes round in a big circle, doesn’t it? And this week we will be circling around Michigan. Then we will be driving up to Rochester, NY, and after that heading out to New England. We are planning a book arts folk song sing along in the Boston area, so let us know if you want to attend.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Porridge Papers, Lincoln Nebraska

When we were at the University Library in Lincoln, Nebraska we were told about a strip of commercial buildings with a commercial printer, a letterpress printer, a hand bindery, a paper mill and a pawnshop - all in a row. We had to take a look. Kevin Oliver runs the Signature Bindery and Christopher James runs Porridge Papers. We neglected to take pictures of the bindery or presses in action (sorry about that) but did get some pictures of the paper mill.

Christopher has two full time employees. They have a beater made by Mark Landers that beats about 30 pounds of recycled fiber at a time. They run three beater loads a day and produce a darn lot of paper with some pretty simple equipment and a lot of hard work.

The beater with a hydro-pulper in the background. The series of PVC pipes allow Christopher to run 30 pounds of pulp thru the pulper in one load.

The beater room has two vats. Here are two views of one of the vats.

The stack dryers are in a separate room with three levels.

Their finished paper is sold for specialty commercial uses like wedding announcements, gift cards, beer coasters, etc.