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....

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!


Rhan Wilson said...

What a wonderful story about a wonderful book. Thanks, Peter and Donna.

vintagerockchick said...

Wow, now that is a coincidence to beat all spooky coincidences! I have recently moved to Norfolk (in the UK) and have a friend staying. We are both 'arty/crafty' people and were talking about various things, including papermaking (I've 'dabbled' in lots of hobbies in the past) I was telling my friend about a course I'd been on in Devon with a lady whose name I couldn't recall, who made paper from NZ flax that she grew. I went into my sewing room and found the papers I'd made (a feat in itself given the amount of stuff I have, plus the fact that I only moved in September.
Anyway, amongst the delicate papers I made on the course, was a printed sheet of instructions, with the name Gillian Spires at the bottom - so that was obviously the name of the lady who ran the course.
I searched on the Internet to see if I could find out if she is still working, and found just a few references to her, dating back to 1994, and the only current reference was your blog - written yesterday!
I ŵonder, is Gillian Spires still around, and is she still papermaking?
Sorry for the rambling, long winded story, but it was just so odd how this unfolded - small world or what?!? Gill

Tony Phipps said...

My great grandfather and grandad worked here. They were papermakers in Kent but moved down to Devon in the late 1800s. There are pictures with my grandfather on the cover of the books.