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....

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

The publication party for The Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper

Saturday May 13th, 2017 was the big day. In the first post we made about our wander to England we explained that about thirty years ago we first met and interviewed some retired hand papermakers from Tuckenhay, a small village in rural Devon, England. On this trip we were back to celebrate the completion of the project to document those interviews, a fine press book we had made titled, “Tuckenhay: People and Paper.” The publication party was at the Tuckenhay Mill, which is now vacation cottages. About sixty people gathered. At least half were relatives of the papermakers we had interviewed, and many others had family members who had worked in the Mill. 

The celebration was all that we could have hoped for and more. It was such a real pleasure to meet the people we had been corresponding with over the last 5 years as we worked to finish up the book.

Peter first told the story of making the book, which involved interviewing the papermakers and then trying to understand the Devon accents, collecting the paper samples from the mill, and organizing hours of cassette recordings into a cohesive narrative. On top of all that, there was a problem with the timing of the publication having to do with the life and death of the last owner of the mill who was so bitter about its bankruptcy!  After that we had members from the audience tell what their connection was to the mill.

One big surprise was to meet John Stevens, who now at 87, was actually the last apprentice at Tuckenhay Mill. If you read the book you will see that we thought Ron Eden was the last, and Ron claimed he was too, but it was really John. And John could tell some good stories, good enough to make us wish we had known him in the 1990s and would have included his stories in our book.  

Another treat was to meet Tom and Pearl Wakeham’s two sons and one of their daughters. Sam and Kitty Cox’s son Pat Cox was there, along with grandson Steve Cox. Steve was the catalyst for finishing up the project. Ron Eden’s two sisters were there, and we met others who had worked in the mill, and some who were children of mill workers. Many of the people gathered had not seen each other for years, so it was exciting for them as well as it was for us. The room was hushed as each got up to tell their story. There was sadness expressed about the mill’s closing, but there was a healing spirit in the room as we listened to the old stories about how this small community had lived and worked together so closely with one another. Names and contact information were exchanged, and we hope that this will be a catalyst for members of the community to connect in new ways. 

Cyril Finn. Photo by Ski Harrison
Kitty Cox. Photo by Ski Harrison

Pearl and Tom Wakeham with their son. Photo by Ski Harrison
We also met local photographer Ski Harrison, who has lived in Tuckenhay since 1975. She had met and photographed most of the people we interviewed. The stories she told us reminded us of how profound the change in the area has been. The papermakers we met were people from the end of an era. Their parents were born before WWI, and when they grew up most people had never traveled further than 50 miles from their home.  Until after WWII there were only two cars in Tuckenhay, one owned by the mill and the other by the mechanic. There were no phones in the houses, and many did not have indoor running water, toilets or baths. People kept gardens and animals for food, fished with nets in the creek, and what goods they did not make themselves they got from the village carpenter, blacksmith or small shops. They relied on one another. And they saw Tuckenhay and its neighboring villages change from being remote and insular, primarily agricultural rural villages, to becoming the home to commuters and vacation home owners, where often people no longer even know their neighbors' names.

Afterward we went down to the local pub where the papermakers had always gathered, to have a pint and talk things over with our collaborators: Steve and Penny Cox, Gillian Fulford, and George Collings.

George shared a few interesting items he had in his memorabilia collection:

Monday, May 15, 2017

Wandering around Tuckenhay

We arrived in Tuckenhay several days early so that we could walk the little paths that the papermakers walked, eat and drink in their pubs, and in general get a geographical sense of the place that we had lived in for years through their stories, but in reality we had only visited briefly, once or maybe twice, and that was over 20 years ago. Let us share what we found...

The first day we walked through Tuckenhay, Cornworthy, and Ashprington

The start of the path from Tuckenhay
The path to Ditisham
The end of Corkscrew Hill near Cornworthy
The church in Cornworthy
Detail of wood work in church.
11th century font

The Waterman's Arms at Bow Bridge, where Tom grew up
Bow Bridge
The stepping stones to Ashprington
The Harborn River below Bow Bridge, at the Tuckenhay Quay
The Maltster's Arms, the papermakers nearest pub

We also went to Dartington, Dartmoor, Dartmouth, and Totnes


Inside the Willow Cafe
Art in Dartmouth

Saturday, May 13, 2017

Wandering to England

Do you wonder why we wandered to England? Well, on Saturday May 13 we are going to have a gathering at the Tuckenhay Mill to celebrate the completion of our book The Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper.

Click to see link to event!
How did two American book artists come to be involved in such a project? Peter will tell the story:

There was a commercial handmade paper mill in Tuckenhay,  near Totnes in Devon England. Paper was made there by hand continuously from the early 1800s until the mill went bankrupt in 1970. As a self-taught hand papermaker in the 1980s I wanted to know how apprentice-trained hand papermakers had made paper,  specifically I wanted to learn the exact motions the vatman used when dipping the mould thru the water. This desire circuitously led me to Tuckenhay where, in 1988, I met Cyril Finn, who had apprenticed and then worked as a hand papermaker at the Tuckenhay paper mill. I recorded him, his wife Joyce, and his half-sister Kitty Cox, as they reminisced about their lives working in the mill. 
Left to right: Kitty, Peter, Ray Tomasso, Carol Herd, Gillian Spires, Cyril  and Joyce Finn
They introduced me to other retired papermakers from the Tuckenhay Mill, and in 1988, 1990, and 1994 Donna and I returned to England and recorded their stories too. When the mill went bankrupt, the owner, who was also a solicitor, was so bitter about it that he had the workers scrap all the metal equipment and burn everything so that no one could profit from his loss. Respecting his wishes, perhaps fearing reprisal, all the people we interviewed made us promise not to publish anything until the mill owner had died. In 2007, Kitty’s grandson, Steve Cox, contacted us because he was building a historical website for the mill. He offered to help transcribe the interviews, which because of the accents and poor recordings were almost unintelligible. We considered reviving the project, however, found the mill’s owner was still alive, and so had to let the project continue to gather dust. In 2013 the time was finally right. One of the University of Iowa's graduate students who who specialized in hand papermaking visited our studio, surveyed what we had collected, and saw it was valuable primary source material in a field where few historians had worked. She encouraged us to publish the interviews. This time we found the mill’s owner had passed away, so we were free to proceed.

The Tuckenhay Mill (from the road to the millpond) date unknown. Photo courtesy of this website.
I was really just lucky to collect these papermakers' stories. I didn’t mean to. My initial goal was simply to learn how to improve my own papermaking. I just wanted to watch Cyril work and that way learn how to properly perform the vatman’s shake. But as I spoke with the retired papermakers I found I wanted to know more about their lives and growing up working in the mill. I was not trained as an investigative reporter and did not know how to conduct an interview properly. I did not always speak slowly and clearly. When I became interested in another line of questioning, I would cut off their responses in mid-sentence. Sometimes there were two or three people talking at the same time. The results, when transcribed, were choppy and hard to follow. To resolve these problems, for the final text we decided to remove my voice and turn the interviews into first person stories. First we sorted the transcriptions by speaker, then by the subject, then we rewrote the information integrating my questions into the replies, merging what was duplicated, and editing what was left to create a first person story for each of the eight people we interviewed.

The Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper

The Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper
Those stories led to the creation of a finepress artists’ book titled The Tuckenhay Mill: People and Paper. For us it is a reliquary, holding stories, audio and video recordings, and bits and pieces of handmade paper. The interviews are included as a digitally printed book titled: They Made the Paper at Tuckenhay Mill,  which gives a short history of the mill, then tells my story of meeting Cyril and recording the interviews, and finally presents edited versions of the papermakers’ stories from the interviews. A flash drive holds the original audio recordings and complete transcriptions allowing a scholar to hear and read exactly what the papermakers said. A video recording of Cyril making paper at Wookey Hole is also on the flash drive, to help the reader form a better picture of the equipment and process the papermakers are talking about in the interviews. Finally the paper samples are housed in a folder, placed there give the reader a tactile way to understand the raw material.

The lower village area of Tuckenhay taken from one of the public pathways leading to and from the village.  Many papermakers 'commuted' (walked) to the mill from Cornworthy, a couple of miles to the south, along this beautiful trail.

Friends, if you would like to read more, we are posting little snippets on our Facebook page: Wandering Book Artists. We are trying to do this daily when we are on the road.  Check it out!