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 31, 2015

45,000 miles of Book Arts

We’ve left behind the snow of the north and the humidity of the south, and now have entered the hot and dry west. We are staying in an RV campground in Texas, where the hardwoods shine in the last light of day with the new bright green leaves of spring. Just as we arrived the host rushed over to us asking if she could take a few quick promotional shots for "divine diva adventures" at the campground. We agreed and had hardly turned our backs when they had two beautiful white clad “divas” posing in the doorway of our wagon...

Meadowmere Park in Dallas, Texas
We have now driven more than 45,000 miles on our three trips across the country as wandering book artists. We have wanted to celebrate with a book arts cheer: “sew it, glue it, rah rah rah!” but really there aren’t any good book arts cheers yet, so this little celebration of what happens on trips will just have to do instead. Well first off we have given lots of tours of the wagon. Everyone wants to check it out and see inside. When they ask, "What is that?" We say, "Its a tiny home on wheels, an artist's interpretation of a RV trailer."

Students by wagon at Baylor Unibersity
Before we left home, we arranged to visit a number of special collection libraries at universities across the country, both to show them our recent work and to encourage them, in general, to collect artists’ books. The books always look so beautiful when spread out on the wooden tables of these library reading rooms:...

Books on display at Vanderbilt U in Nashville, TN

We have also been doing research on the history of Jug Band Music for a future project.

Peter with the giant disks in Memphis
We have taught bookbinding workshops where students learn how to make some of the binding structures we have developed and described in the book we wrote for Quarry Books titled “More Making Books By Hand."

When visiting universities Peter often has given talks to students about the history and future of the book as art. We have also taught papermaking workshops. 

Louisiana State University, Baton Rouge
Leslie Koptcho's Papermaking class 
Demonstration of hand papermaking at Baylor University
Iphone sized sheets of paper made during demonstration at Baylor University
Each lecture comes with musical entertainment as Peter sings a couple of book arts folk songs with his ukulele book! 

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Crossing into other worlds and crossing paths with another Gypsy Wagon

So, just for fun, let’s work backwards in this post. We are in New Orleans and have spent the last two days on our “Roots of Jug Band” pilgrimage visiting Tulane University Library’s Jazz Music Archives and the “Crescent City’s” French Quarter. At Tulane we looked into the “spasm bands” of the 1920s, which were popular before the emergence of jug bands. These were bands, mostly young kids, playing homemade instruments like tin pots, cigar box ukes, and earthen jugs.

Spasm band of long ago

In the French Quarter we listened to the music, and the hustle and jive of street performers. There were brassy loud parades, older jazz standard musicians and scrappy young musicians with thrown-together bands all playing in the middle of partially blocked off streets, moving aside to let an occasional car go by, not ever stopping their tunes. We were on Bourbon Street on Saturday evening, where live music and stale alcohol air pours out of every bar. Honest to god, there were 1000’s of drunk and still-drinking people roaming and wandering the street, or in the balconies above (there is no open container law). We stopped long enough to hear a few songs from the cajun bands then, steering clear of the drunks and speeding cars, we returned to the safety and sanctity of the caravan.

Wedding "second line" on Royal Street

Street vendor of hot dogs in New Orleans

Before NOLA, we were in Lumberton MS, in another sort of world. We were at a "Society for Creative Anachronism" event called the Gulf Wars (That has been the name for over 20 years, long before the Mideast one.) The SCA is the group that does medieval battle reenactments. We watched one “battle” where two hundred metal-armored soldiers bopped and poked each other with blunted lances and padded swords for over an hour in humid 80-degree weather. They love it so much that they don’t mind the all-over sweat-soaked garb. As well as fighting in period costumes they offer workshops on “period” crafts. Donna took a class where she baked bread in a wood fired oven and Peter took a class where he learned to make the tools to mint his own coins.

loitering at the war

Peter's die, punches and coins

Donna's instructor at the earthen oven 

Before visiting the SCA event we were in Memphis, still another world, with Stax records and its extended run-down neighborhoods of turn-of-the-century homes. There we continued our Jug Band pilgrimage, visiting Beale Street with its lights and music joints. We stayed in the Cooper Young district in the parking lot of Tsunami Restaurant and gave a talk next door at Burke’s Book Shop, an independent shop celebrating its 140 th birthday. If you are ever in Memphis visit them both!

Peter on Beale Street

Parking at Tsunami, best asian restaurant in Memphis

Oh yes, on the tiny home front… We can’t forget this... We saw another vardo at the Gulf Wars. Vardo is the word that some Romany (Gypsy) people use to describe their wagons. This was a ledge style wagon and was just completed two weeks ago, so was on its maiden voyage.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

St. Louis: Spontaneous Pop-up Book Arts Sing-Along Phenomenon!

If you have read the past few blogs you have probably heard enough about snow and ice and below freezing temperatures. (Especially if you are in Santa Cruz where it is probably too hot.) Well here is something different: When we got to St. Louis it was dry and warm, like the first day of spring, even though it was only March 9 th. Little yellow and purple crocuses were poking their heads up through the brown leaves. Birds were singing. People were out walking in shorts and tee-shirts.

We parked the wagon in front of Paper Birds Studio, at the invitation of owner Joanne Kluba having previously sent out an email invite for St. Louis folks to stop by. 

Joanne and student Anne selfie
The next-door neighbor was a violinmaker’s shop, and since we were kind of blocking his parking I went in to introduce myself and invite them to tour the wagon. (An aside: The owner, Geoffrey Seitz, has played in Jug Bands and I got to see his collection of washboards, washtub basses and ukuleles.) As the folks from the shop came out to look, several other folks arrived (including Ted Gast who makes “Arch Shred” paper pulp and Jim Croft’s mom). People walking down the street gathered ‘round and a car driving down the street screeched to a halt, the driver hopped out crying, “I can’t believe this. It’s so beautiful. I want your life to be my life. I want a gypsy wagon!”

Val and Geoff Seitz
Sensing the time was right, I started passing out song sheets for a Book Arts Folk Song sing along. Donna and I got out our ukuleles, Geoffrey brought out one of his hand built violins. We started playing and everyone started singing. Cars driving by slowed and stopped at the traffic light they rolled down their windows so they could hear the music. It was a happening!

Here is a link to a video of us all singing "Read to Me." Geoff’s wife Val took this and posted on it on Youtube:

Val told us this was her first time to post to Youtube. I love how it starts showing the backs of the crowds reading from their song sheets, the low sun flashing in the camera, Geoff’s fiddling, the guy walking around in the background talking on his phone, the lady from the car dancing, and that all this happened on a commercial sidewalk in the historic Carondlet District of South St. Louis. 

It is really a Tiny Mobile House', and may we park in your driveway?"

“What is that thing?” That’s what we heard in 2010 when we first started traveling with our wagon. They recognized its beauty and uniqueness, but they didn’t have a way to pigeonhole it. On this trip everyone is asking, “Is that a tiny house? I have heard about them and have always wanted to see one.” Describing our gypsy wagon trailer is a bit easier in 2015.

Hospitality on the road is really appreciated. We always need a place to park and shower. Often, and sometimes at short notice, folks open their driveways and homes to our tiny home. We want to thank them all.  In St. Louis we stayed with Anthony Garnett, an antiquarian book dealer who sells our books. We couldn't resist including this photo contrasting our tiny home with his.

In Nashville, we stayed with book artist Lesley Patterson-Marx and her family. She is a founding member of Platetone Book Arts Center
where we taught a Sunday class. Check out their schedule of awesome print and binding classes.

Enjoying the "Open Caravan" event in Nashville
Peter demonstrating binding at Platetone

 Lesley's quote after the class: "I am most joyful when engaged in work that I find meaningful, and thus bring joy into all that I do aside from that work. Like the song says...Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me…making books!!!!!"

Ukuleles and Books at Platetone

We were parked in Lesley’s driveway and all the neighbors wondered who was moving in.
In Louisville, at Lesley's mother Patricia’s home, we met  Kelly and Joe who host a “pop-up dinner party” once a month at their art gallery/home. If you are in Louisville, look up “Evolving” try out Joe’s incredible cooking skills and see Kelly’s work. A great innovative new idea!

Sunday, March 8, 2015

Book Arts on a Snow Day in Tennessee

Professor Kathleen O’Connell teaches the book arts classes at Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, TN. She invited us to MTSU as visiting (wandering book) artists to make a collaborative artists’ book while working with all three of her classes: Bookbinding 2, Letterpress 1 and Book Arts. We discussed structure and content ideas with Kathy by email, but decided to leave final decisions until we met with the classes.

Donna woke up the morning before the first class (inspired by an email we just received from a friend, Stephen Flanagan, that had real care given to the composition and a depth of content to match the quality found in old handwritten letters) with the idea to explore the interplay between letter as a shape and letter as a narrative.

The bookbinding class determined the structure, conceiving a simple binding that would convey the idea of letters being sent, a pleated spine with postcard-like pages attached.

The letterpress class met next and they determined a direction for the content, printing the letters of the alphabet on the 26 postcard pages, to represent the letters, or to imagine the stories that might have been told by letters or to letters. Students from the other classes also created letter postcards, using ink jet printers and hand inked flexi-cut stamps.

The book arts class pulled the whole collaboration together by titling the book “Letters”, creating a postcard-like title page, and envelope-like slip case to hold the book.

Working late into the night on the third day of classes, we finished ten of the 45 copies even though technically school was closed due to snow and ice. We have observed a trend these days to use a superlative like, "the oldest, farthest, biggest, etc. when trying to impress someone. Get ready to be impressed! During this collaboration we set two personal records. With a total of 32 students in the three classes, this was the most collaborators we have worked with on a single edition, and it was also the first time in our "California born and bred" lives that we have had a “snow day” while in school. We've always wanted a snow day!

Thanks to Jackee for taking the photos of the book collaboration.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Comic Chattanooga Choo Choo Encounter

We left the folk school with the wagon's roof covered with snow. We followed the Ocoee river west (past the former Olympic site) to Chattanooga where we taught a book arts class at the new community based letterpress shop called Open Press.

After the class I wanted to eat at the Terminal Brewhouse, where we had dinner the last time we were in town. We got downtown already really hungry. We found a crowd flowing out of the brewery door and a 1.5 hour wait. We were bummed and starving. And there were crowds flowing out of every restaurant door. I saw a person wearing a spiderman costume. Donna heard someone saying there was a ‘geek convention’ in town. A bit dispirited, hanging onto our grumpiness, we went into the old Chattanooga railway station, now a hotel, looking for food. We found the hotel was hosting Comicon Chattanooga, "Con Nooga": a gaming and comic conference. We had “dinner in the diner” surrounded by costumed characters and had to let that grumpiness go. How could we keep from smiling, sitting with a Lord of the Ring Orc on one side and Archie & Veronica on the other? After that we got a little video of the wagon and the Choo Choo which is posted below....

And if you are in Nashville come visit us this Saturday when we have the wagon on display and open for visiting from 4-6 at Platetone: Printmaking, Paper, and Book Arts.