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....

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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Tucson, sky prevailing (more art today)

Paloma in Catherine and Rob's garden, Tucson

As you can tell, I love it when there are what seem to be coincidences and magic that happen in my life. Like running into Barbara at the library "coincidentally", someone I had never met before, but who was in Peter's book making class today. Or the Jerome gypsy wagon vortex thing, or the completely out of the blue allowing of the caravan to be hauled through the campus to the art museum even though fire marshals and security people said it couldn't be done. When I am traveling I notice the magic much more. Well, we are living at the edge, we don't always know where we will sleep, where we will get enough sun for the solar panels to keep our fridge and lights and computers going, or if anyone will attend the talks we give. We are depending on the goodwill of a lot of people to pull this trip off. And the people we have met have been top notch people. 
Catherine Nash, a paper and book artist is hosting us here in Tucson. She and her husband Rob Renfrow have built a very functional and beautiful workshop space next door to their home. They take turns teaching book, paper, encaustic painting and photographic arts as Desert Paper, Book and Wax, and have guest teachers too. It is their living, yes, but it is much more. They believe strongly that we are all artists and our expressions have relevance and importance and can bring joy and meaning into our lives! Their classes bring together people looking to enliven and add color to their lives, and many have formed friendships out of taking those classes together. I admire their service.

Today Peter taught a class here in making scroll books. A friend from long ago, Mabel Dean, showed up at the class, surprising me! She and I attended calligraphy retreats in the 1980s together. How great to hear all that she has accomplished: you should check out the organization she created: Paperworks

Peter taught the scroll book making and Catherine and I worked on a collaborative piece to add to our broadside collection. Oh, I haven't really described that yet, right? Where we are able, we are printing a broadside or paper work that will all be gathered into a collection or book when our trip is through. What we printed in Phoenix (poem by Alberto Rios) and in Los Angeles (International Printing Museum) started the project. Catherine and I made a piece titled, "Sky Prevailing",  which is done in an encaustic (beeswax and resin) monoprint process.

So, Tucson has been full of magic, creativity and good friends. Oh, and warm weather, in the high 80s. Tomorrow we head out to the desert again, to visit some places of natural beauty. I plan on spending my time painting, so blog posts will be less frequent. And we will be open to more magic and wonder and connections.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Ukulele + books + gypsy wagon = ART!!!

We need more art in our lives, right? We want to feel connected to our creative natures. And what is better than to visit the art museum with a bunch of your friends on a hot spring afternoon, where some wandering book artists have carefully manuevered a gypsy wagon into the courtyard and are now playing music on a ukulele book? I tell you, this is a celebration of the artful life!!
The museum: University of Arizona Museum of Art. The event:
A program in conjunction with a current show: Sculptural Books: Memory and Desire.

The uke book artist: well, you know who that is.

We braved the heat long enough for everyone to tour the wagon and look at books, then went inside for a panel discussion about the artists' book. Peter and I are so pleased that artists' books are now being shown in art museums. There were so many years when we would show our books to museums and they would say, "Um, that's nice, but it is only a book, not art." Now there are lively discussions and all varieties of artist's books in art museums like this one at the University. The curator, Lauren Rabb really had vision when she put together the show and program, and we were in the right place at the right time so were invited to participate. The community showed their support today by filling every available seat and asking hard questions, mostly having to do with definitions of the artists' book. A common thread through the day: we all love books and see a need to continue to make, hold, read and enjoy the real thing.
oh, and one more thing: got a note from an admirer of Paloma: "Looking at your blogspot helped me re-focus on some of life's important little things (major things, really), essentially to be a bit more creative and stay close to Nature.   I have the Nature-part down pretty good, but the creative aspect seems to be lagging a bit at times..."
Yes, we find much meaning and fulfillment in living a creative, artful life.....

Monday, April 26, 2010

Ocotillo moon

The moon is waxxxxxing!!! 

We ended our stay in Paradise Valley (near Phoenix) with a "Letterpress Express" party at Karla and Jim's. 30 artists and poets sat around a huge long table for dinner, then were entertained by Peter's "book arts folksongs". Since Peter was singing to people who know about books, they understood all the silly puns and jokes, and their mirth was enhanced by beer, wine and excellent food so all were laughing! 
Catalina State Park, just outside of Tucson, was our destination the next day. Peter set up the solar panels keep the battery charged, and we walked at dusk among the blooming ocotillos and cactus. I can see how people fall in love with the desert, especially after a wet winter and the blooms are vivid against the muted colored desert. 
One more photo shows the "first visitor to our caravan while dumping at a toilet dumping station." He didn't even notice me doing the job while Peter showed him around Paloma. He is planning on making one to live and travel in.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

"In about five year this place is going to be a museum for books"


      We spent Tuesday and Wednesday at Arizona State University talking to the letterpress and artist book classes taught by John Risseeuw (Cabbagehead Press). Much serious thought about questions like "what is an artist book?" and "who is a book artist.?"

On Thursday we went to the Phoenix Public library to show our books to rare book librarian Gladys Mahoney. We include for your pleasure pictures of the exterior and entry of this amazing building. When we were in the lobby we saw a show of artists books. Looking at them Donna said, “Hey there is one of our books!” at just the same time another lady standing in front of the case said, “Hey there is a book by the people I am going to take a class from next week.” Crazy. She is taking the class in Tucson. Then as we were going up the elevator to the fourth floor and the rare book room, which is right next to the teen center in the library, a kid in the elevator said to his friend, “I bet in about five years this place will be like a museum for books.”

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Where do you get your ideas?

That is the most commonly asked question when we show our books. Yesterday at the book arts class at Arizona State University, a graduate student asked the question. Basically I said that I get ideas by looking for meaning in what I see and hear and feel in life, and I realized that because the question is so common, we must all have a deep desire to be creative people. We need to feel connected to a creative flow that creates beauty or meaning or connects us to our his/her/story. The answer to the question gets super complex because really, if I knew, I could bottle it and sell it, right?

One thing I know, though, is that if you are engaged in a creative life, you probably live in a very beautiful and interesting house. In Alhambra, CA, our friends Janet and Robert have restored their 1900s house with vintage wallpapers, antique light fixtures and even the doilies on tables look cool. In Jerome, AZ, Nancy and Mike revamped their miner’s shack beautifully with vivid colored walls and quirky antiques like a rusted child’s wagon for a coffee table. Nan and Dave are transforming an ugly motor home with corrugated tin siding and bright red paint. Our hosts Jim and Karla here in Paradise Valley (Near Phoenix) designed and built a house in the 1970s that because the materials and design were so artfully considered, their home does not have that dated 70s feel. We are parked in their driveway beside the creosote bushes that are in full bloom with yellow flowers. Quail are scuttling around and calling out to one another all over the yard. Karla has dedicated a portion of her yard for growing a papermaking fiber plant, which she says makes a fine strong paper like the paper mulberry (now that is an awesome example for sustainable art, yes?). The house is long and open to the outdoors with floor to ceiling windows, the door handles are all of wood and Jim has made a lot of the furniture of naturally shaped slabs of wood. We eat off ceramic plates made by a local artist. We visited the studio of architect and artist Paolo Soleri yesterday and loved the curvy and surface decorated walls and bronze bells. I am inspired by all of these folks. Gosh, where DO they get their ideas?

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Jerome Gypsy Wagon Vortex


Have you heard of the “vortexes” around Sedona, Arizona? We vaguely remembered that pilgrimages are made there and other places like Mt. Shasta, California to benefit from the energies there. But we found a different kind of vortex. It’s the “gypsy wagon vortex” and it occurs in Jerome, Arizona. It happened like this:

After spending the night in Prescott National Forest on the side of a dirt road at 6000 ft., we drove on to Jerome. Now I had heard of this little town, we think a friend of ours at some time lived here or lives here now, but we can’t remember who that friend is. Anyway, the streets are very narrow and winding, so taking the caravan through town was slow and tricky. Peter measured our whole rig the day before, because a highway sign posted that no vehicles over 40 ft. were allowed through. We are 39 ft. long. OK.

Jerome was a mining city, built on the side of a mountain, kind of like where I grew up on Manor Hill in Fairfax, California, only without the downtown flat part. Only on the hill. The town boomed and housed mining families until the mid last century. Mines closed, it became a ghost town, then hippies/artists moved in and now it’s a wonderfully funky cute tourist/artist town. That’s enough history.

We found a place to pull over to have a look around and like other times we have stopped, a curious crowd develop to look at the caravan. Only this crowd was special. First it was Cranston, who has lived on the road for 25 years in a motor home who knows someone who is building a caravan in Sedona. Then comes Dave, who happens to be riding by on his motorcycle and has 2 gypsy wagons in his yard about 45 minutes away. Then a woman from Germany stops and admires the wagon and says she lived in a gypsy wagon in her home town for awhile. Then Nancy and Mike drive up. Someone in town saw us drive through and told them they had to find us. They own Hillside house B and B in Jerome with an authentic bow top vardo parked in the front yard!

This all happened in the span of about 20 minutes. Peter and I were talking to different people as they arrived, so we didn’t know the extent of the vortex until everyone left!  We jumped in the back of Mike’s pickup and went up the hill to see their wagon.

Instead of staying in Sedona like we had tentatively planned, (the Sedona story is this: I was shocked to find one of nature’s best canyons in Arizona sprawled with mini mansions and fast food joints. I am so thankful that folks had the vision to preserve Yosemite and other national parks) we parked Paloma in Jerome, drove the truck to Sedona and visited Red Rocks State Park and Slide Rock State Park up in the Oak Creek Canyon.

We talked to Theresa at Crystal Magic in Sedona about the wagon she is building, but unfortunately we didn’t get to see it cause she worked late that night. She did tell us about another wagon in town, so we drove to it and took photos. (alert: Peter has a book in mind: “Gypsy Wagons around the Country”, so he is taking lots of wagon pictures….)


We had dinner at Quince with Mike, Nancy and a bunch of their friends from Jerome plus an author Jana Bommer who loves researching Arizona history and just published an historical novel. We then spent the night at Mike and Nancy’s in Jerome and had a great visit.

I don’t know if we just happen to meet the niceist folks around, or if gypsy wagon people are the niceist. On our way to Tempe we stopped at Dave and Nan’s and loved talking to them and seeing their wagons. This is all gypsy wagon magic at its best!


Saturday, April 17, 2010

3 days in Joshua Tree National Park

Three days in Joshua Tree National Park, among the cholla and ocotillo and yucca, and of course Joshua Trees…and the mighty natural fortresses, or castles, or just big rocks, depending on how you choose to look at them. The wildflowers were in bloom, miles of brittlebush daisy like yellow standing over blue phacelia, lupine and bluedicks. It seemed so normal until you realized all around was desert and there was no water so where did all the flowers come from? Donna painted two books of desert wildflowers and one of landscapes.


Friday we dropped down to the Salton Sea, dead fish on the shore, orange water, signs and displays everywhere saying how clean and safe and normal it was. We stayed a day at Slab City, a tract of empty land outside of Nyland, where RVers can stay forever (but most only spend the winter) for free. We followed the yellow brick road up Leonard Knight’s religious mountain, then drove into the city, fairly vacant since it is late in the season.  -Peter

We’ve just left Slab City, “the last free place in America.” (That’s what the sign says as you drive in.) You might have seen the place if you saw the movie, “Into the Wild,” where the main guy visits the family in the RV camped out in the desert, with tons of other RVs. This is what it is like: dusty, hot, scrubby brush. Campers trying to hide under minimum shade of low trees. Peter describes the people here as “living on the margins, kind of hard around the edges, people who by choice don’t want to live in the mainstream and a community is created by people who don’t have many options outside of this place.” Their skin is leathery brown and prematurely wrinkled, their days are filled with figuring out how to survive the summer heat, feed themselves, keep their water tanks full and dump their sewage. Entertainment is self-provided. They play music on a cast-off decorated stage on a cement slab on Friday and Saturday nights. We attended a punkish band set last night, where bass, guitar and flat yelling voices were miked through inadequately powered amps. The crowd was having a blast, dancing, drinking and voicing loudly any complaints about the sound system. We stayed long enough to know that the music was not going to get better, then walked back the ¼ mile to Paloma. Just inside, the music was faint enough to ignore and we fell asleep. This is not a place I am comfortable in. I am happy now to be back on the road, just now passing the Imperial Sand Dunes, the buff colored undulating hills blooming with purple sand verbena.  -Donna


Friday, April 16, 2010

Joshua Tree

Joshua Tree National Park had no internet available, so we instead got to enjoy 3 days of rocks, cactus and wildflowers.
Today, we are visiting the Salton Sea, where I have access to the internet for a few minutes in the visitor center. I'd rather be looking at the birds, so back outside I go!
We'll be posting with pictures ASAP!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

where do gypsy book artists bathe?

Things you may take for granted, like flushing toilets, electric lights, refrigeration and hot showers are things that the gypsy book artist must take into consideration all the time. Luckily, librarians like Judy Harvey Sahak was thoughtful enough to think about these things for us yesterday. She had a parking spot arranged for us when we got to Scripps Denison Library. Peter learned how to parallel park with a trailer, and when we were in, instantly a crowd gathered to see inside Paloma. I think the visiting parents enjoyed the wagon more than the prospective high school students! The books were shown to the librarians in Claremont Colleges, then they arranged for us to spend the night on the streets of the college! Security were very curious about the wagon too, and "checked" on us all evening. In the morning, we had passes to the gymnasium for showers! (Now that was WAY NICER than the sponge bath of the last 3 days). Two pics show us parked at Scripps.
On Sunday morning, we taught a book arts class at Otis Art Institute. Well, really they took a field trip to Paloma and we had 6 students and teacher inside the wagon! Peter talked, sang ukulele book arts songs and generally talked about the wonders of this penultimate art form, the book.
They were thoughtful enough to bring us drinks and muffins and scones!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

International Printing Museum!!

You've got to check this place out if you live anywhere near. We have spent the day here at the Printing Museum, playing with the WONDERFUL collection of type, typecasting machines, presses, and most of all, with the knowledgeable, fun and QUIRKY  people who love all this stuff.
We didn't finish the broadside we started, but Peter gave one of his better talks out the back of the wagon! He sang a few of his "book arts folk songs", which are remakes of well known songs like "What's a book" to the tune of Five foot two, and "Tiny type" to the tune of "Tiny bubbles". You are really missing out if you haven't heard them.
Tomorrow we will finish printing the broadside, which features a linoleum cut of the gypsy caravan. If time allows, we hope to visit the Renaissance Faire and see old friends.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Obama was an undergrad here.

In case you haven’t noticed, this is honestly a business trip. We were up at 7 and off at 8 to meet with Dale Stieber, the rare book librarian at Occidental College in Eagle Rock, CA. and then at 10 we gave a talk to the book arts class. They all enjoyed our new accordion book and a song on our ukulele book.

Last night we slept on a city street in Alhambra after visiting our friend (and wonderful chanteause) Janet Klein. To spend the night we had to go to the police station to get overnight parking permits. As we were filling in the forms the person helping us said you will have to tell me what your license number for your trailer is so that the parking officers can identify it. Right. It is the Dodge Ram pulling a light green GYPSY WAGON… don’t get confused, it’s not the blue one….

We were eating lunch at Occidental when we were surprised to see our friend Marni Zimlin from the Pale Moon booth at the Renaissance Fair. She had seen a gypsy wagon parked on the street in front of the college and knew there couldn’t be another that looked like ours. (Take that, parking people in Alhambra.) She pulled out her laptop, went on Facebook, found our blogspot, then found we were meeting with the librarian, then found us. Yippee! Technology really IS fun sometimes!!!

The photos: Peter "lecturing" at the Book Arts Class.

Donna carving a linoleum block in the driveway of Bill Steier, Julie's dad.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010


On Monday afternoon we drove down the narrow streets of Isla Vista, dodging bicycles and walking students and Peter almost darn near expertly backed the wagon through a narrow gate opening into the yard of our friends and book art colleagues Harry and Sandra Reese. Harry teaches art at UCSB and Peter was scheduled to teach in his class on Tuesday. We arrived a day early to hear a poet, Sam Hamill, give a reading on Monday.

Sam is a poet who is deeply engaged in the movement to end America’s involvement in ANY war. He started the organization, “Poets Against War” after refusing to go be a guest of the White House Bushes. He read poems that describe the mysteries and beauties of this life and poems that talk of the crazy injustices. Listening to him, I ask myself about my part in this picture. Hearing about statistics like, there are more children dead in Afghanistan than soldiers as a result of the war, stirs up anger and disbelief in me. I have to do what I can do. Our gypsy wagon is called Paloma.

There were many great suggestions for a name for the wagon, like “Luminista”, which means “little light” in Romani, and “I-Plod”, for the slow moving, bookish plus tech-y nature of our adventure. But Paloma is the bird of peace and maybe this colorful wagon embodies the hope of peace as it rolls along.

In the photo on the left, Donna is selling her favorite one-of-a-kind books to a collector in Santa Barbara. On the right, Peter talks shop with Harry and Sandra at the Turkey Press.

Monday, April 5, 2010

California green

We departed on Saturday morning to a crowd of cheering friends and family, after christening the gypsy wagon with good Whitlock Red wine! We passed by the Harbor where the ukulele crowd was playing and probably 100 ukers in easter party hats filed in and out of the wagon in 10 minutes!

Pinnacles National Monument was the destination for the day- a nice short drive- and the scenery out the windows was long green waving grasses under the new-leaved spreading oaks. We actually were so exhausted after the last few days of pushing to be ready to leave that we took a nap before heading out on a walk up the arroyo from the campsite. Goldfields, lupine, ranunculas, wild cucumber, poppies, Chinese pagodas and larkspur were just a few of the many blooming wildflowers we saw on the walk. I was also so happy to see children running wild in the tall grass in the oak forest. How free they were, not a sight I see much at home, where parents are too worried to let kids out by themselves.

On Sunday morning, the grass was icy outside, and the only noise was the turkey vultures unfolding their wings and readying themselves to rise back up to the ridge where they will spend the day riding the updrafts off the arroyo. After tea and granola, we expected to go walking in the park again. But our neighbors stopped by and in a fashion we expect to occur many times this trip, we got to talking about the gypsy wagon. Tim is a photographer with a lot of Photoshop knowledge, so he was able to teach Peter how to create a panoramic photo by merging three photos into one. So above you see the gypsy wagon interior.


We expected to drive clear down to Carrizo Plain, but with another interruption by curious folks in the one-house town of Lonoak (the other photo above), by lunchtime we had gone so few miles, a fraction of the total distance. Rain came next, and we decided to plunge into the next plan of the trip, which is to beg for a place to park the wagon for the night. Peter is so much braver than I. I stayed in the truck and peered at him talking to a landowner who just happened to drive up to her driveway as we decided we didn’t want to drive much further.

As a result of Peter’s fearlessness, we are now camping in a pullout at the top of a hill on a one-lane road, with a view for miles of oak grassland and round bumpy hills. The rain is falling on the roof, we are dry and out the window a family of quail is scuttling around in the wet grass.



Thursday, April 1, 2010

The Road is Calling

We've decided to leave on Saturday morning at 9:30 AM. Do you want to celebrate with us? Please come to our house at 260 15th Ave. We will figure out some kind of gypsy ritual to perform to fire us up, then you can watch Peter maneuver the wagon out of the driveway and wave goodbye!
Thanks to all of you who are sending the good thoughts...