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Special Report

On the Road

Wandering Book Artists Peter and Donna Thomas spread the word, one handmade page at a time By Tom Bentley Tom Bentley has run a writing and editing business out of his house for more than ten years. He has published many freelance pieces—ranging from first-person essays to travel pieces to more journalistic subjects—in newspapers, magazines, and online. He is a published fiction writer, and was the 1999 winner of the National Steinbeck Center’s short story contest; he has also won some nonfiction writing awards. He also maintains a writing-related blog.

Book artists Peter and Donna Thomas, proud owners of the gypsy wagon bookmobile. Photo courtesy Peter and Donna Thomas
An interior view of the bookmobile. Peter Thomas plays the ukulele for his guests.Photo courtesy Peter and Donna Thomas
The gypsy wagon bookmobile stopped at Indiana University’s Lilly Library last year. Photo courtesy Peter and Donna Thomas

These digital days put a premium on speed. It seems that entire careers can be launched with a blog post or a flurry of tweets. So when Peter and Donna Thomas spent three full years building their “gypsy wagon bookmobile”—their book art studio-on-wheels—you know that their interpretation of time and of books is of a different measure.

From April through September of 2010, the Wandering Book Artists took their art on the road, piloting the wagon across the country and teaching classes on a range of bookmaking arts at various stops along the way. The gypsy wagon was both supply house and shelter, holding the couple’s papermaking and bookbinding tools for their work, and lodging them—often parked on the property of fellow bookmakers and artists. And this month, the seasoned bookmakers are breaking any remaining icicles off the wagon and beginning a new cross-country trek.

The Thomases seem to embrace the old saying about life being a journey, not a destination. The couple spent their early years exhibiting papermaking and bookbinding techniques at California Renaissance Faires. From running a private press, to experimenting with and producing a rich range of museum-quality handcrafted books, to being gypsy artists, it has been a long, and not always straight path for them. “You know the Tarot? I think my card is the Fool, or the Wise Man and the Fool, two steps forwards and one back. Or Mr. Magoo, walking along and walking off a bridge but landing on a moving truck, then being dumped into a river, landing on a barge,” joked Peter Thomas. “When I began I never attempted—or was tempted—to imagine the future. I was too busy doing what I was doing. Learning to make paper. Learning to print better. Gaining my aesthetic voice. Now that I am in the future, I am just trying to make things that are beautiful and bring joy to the beholder,” he added.

“Over the years, we have met most of the actively practicing book artists in the country.”

In their making of beautiful things, Peter and Donna trade ideas in the conception phase of the book’s production. Once the notion takes shape, Peter makes the paper and sets and prints the type, and Donna provides the illustrations and handwriting. They both design the bindings, but Donna does most of the production binding. Cotton T-shirts provide some of the raw papermaking materials, and Peter also obtains “half-stuff,” the papermaking pulp, from an Ohio company. Donna is learning to tan leather for books whose covers employ that medium. The couple own a turn-of-the-century Pearl letterpress and a Vandercook press from the 1950s, a couple of giant papercutters, and lots of old lead type that Peter has picked up from various sources.

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