The Wandering Book Artists Come to Bloomington

Bookmakers Peter and Donna Thomas are traveling the country in their gypsy wagon spreading the word about the book arts.

  • Visitors to the gypsy wagon examine the miniature books

    Image 1 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    Visitors to the gypsy wagon examine the miniature books

  • Donna Thomas showing Song of the Open Road

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    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    Donna Thomas showing Song of the Open Road

  • Detail of Song of the Open Road

    Image 3 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    Detail of Song of the Open Road

  • The Thomas' miniature books on display

    Image 4 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    The Thomas' miniature books on display

  • Peter and Donna Thomas in front of their homemade gypsy wagon

    Image 5 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    Peter and Donna Thomas in front of their homemade gypsy wagon

  • More of the Thomas' miniature books

    Image 6 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    More of the Thomas' miniature books

  • Undergrad Telecom major Rita Cripe and theater major Yessenia Jarza check out the miniature books

    Image 7 of 7

    Photo: Adam Schwartz

    Undergrad Telecom major Rita Cripe and theater major Yessenia Jarza check out the miniature books

It’s a strange sight: At noon on a recent Wednesday, a white Dodge Ram pulls a colorful, nineteenth century-style gypsy wagon around the traffic circle that surrounds the Showalter Fountain. It comes to a stop in front of the Lilly Library and the wagon’s makers, Peter and Donna Thomas, step out.

“We made it,” says Peter.

The Santa Cruz couple is touring the country showing their handmade books and single-sheet broadsides and giving classes in the book arts. Bookmakers for 35 years, they call themselves “the wandering book artists.”

“We’re book artists traveling around the country showing our books to people and talking about what the book arts,” Peter says. “Because it’s a new form of art that not everybody is completely aware of,” he says.

They started this trip a few months ago from their home in Santa Cruz, stopped in Vermont, and are heading back “in a roundabout fashion,” says Donna.

‘These are amazing

The wagon’s interior has a warm feeling provided by dark woods—the ceiling used to be the inside of a water tank—and everything is tidy and in its place. These artists may be free spirits, but they’re organized. A small kitchen area contains a sink, range, and fridge. In the front of the wagon under a window, a raised platform bed lies beneath a shelf lined with books.

The wagon quickly fills up with students—mostly undergraduate women between classes who were drawn to the wagon by curiosity.

Undergrad Telecom major Rita Cripe and theater major Yessenia Jarza look around in wonder.

“This is one awesome mobile home,” says Cripe with a laugh.

On display today are a collection of single sheet broadsides and two collections of miniature books. The Thomases made the books entirely by hand—from the paper the text is printed on to the book bindings.

The miniature books—small enough to fit in the palm of your hand—elicit sounds of amazement from the visitors.

“Oh, they’re so tiny!”

“These are amazing.”

“These are your books? Wow!”

“Go ahead, you can pick them up,” Donna encourages us.

She hands me a three inch by three inch version of Walt Whitman’s Song of the Open Road. Each page holds a small reproduction of one of her watercolor paintings. Printed on Peter’s handmade paper, the reproductions retain the look of the original watercolors.

Like Gutenberg in the fifteenth century, the Thomases printed the little books with a letterpress. The process gives the letters depth you can see and feel with your fingertips. Printing on letterpress is a painstaking process, but Peter believes the extra labor is worth it.

“There’re limitations with letterpress,” he says. “You only have a certain number of fonts you can use, they have to be laid out in a certain way to actually get them to print. So it creates a different aesthetic.”

Michael Truran, a master’s student in library science at IU, “loves” the miniature books.

“It’s not so much the miniature format I think I like,” he says, “but I’m really enamored with the idea of books as a vehicle for artwork, rather than just being a medium to contain artwork.”

The Ukulele Book

In addition to the miniature books, the Thomases make “artists’ books” that don’t look anything like books. They’ve created them in such shapes as a steam locomotive, a camera, and an old Woody station wagon.

For a book called The History and Dangers of Flight, they took a gas-powered toy airplane from the 1960s and printed the text on scrolls in the plane’s nose and tail.

They even made a book you can’t read unless you partially destroy it. It reprints the first paragraph of John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row and put the text inside a sealed tin can.

Peter takes out of the wagon what he calls his “ukulele book.”

“We always carry our ukulele book with us, on a little ledge, like where our gun rack would be,” he says. “Because we figure, ‘We don’t have to scare people, we just have to entertain ’em and everything will be fine.’”

Standing near the entrance of the wagon, he strums and sings his version of “Has Anybody Seen My Gal?” with his own book-themed lyrics:

What’s a book
I used to know
But things they’re really changing, so
Has anybody seen a book?

Y’know, some have pages
Others don’t
Some will tell a story your mother won’t
Has anybody seen a book?

Now if you want a book
That’ll look like a book in days of yore
(That’s like Babylonian times, right?)
If you want to see ’em
You got to go to a museum
Or get yourself to an antique store

The books are five by two
The screen is blue
They got more story than a public library in it too
Has anybody seen my . . . book
(Do you think it’s a computer? No!)
Has anybody seen my book?

When the song’s over, he performs his signature trick: He opens a clasp on the uke and lets an accordion-style book fall out. It’s a book he and Donna made called A Brief History of the Ukulele. Peter has made a series of such ukulele books, buying up old ones, sawing them in half, and installing hinges.

“A regular book is just information,” he says. “It’s really about the thing inside—the words, the information. But an artists’ book is really about the whole experience of looking at the thing. It can be a book that can’t be opened. But it can be about the beauty of the cover, or the cover could just tell the story itself.”

I ask them if, when they started out years ago, they thought they’d be wandering the country in a gypsy wagon.

“How would you ever imagine doing something like this?” Donna says, and they both laugh. “But you know, our career has always taken us on really fun adventures, so we might’ve dreamed it.”

After Bloomington, the next stops for the wandering book artists include the University of Louisville, where they’ll give the talk, “Books as 4 Dimensional Art,” and the John C. Campbell Folk School in Brasstown, North Carolina, where they’ll present “Small-format Artist Books”—wowing twenty-first century students with fifteenth century bookmaking technology.

Learn more about the Thomas’ books here.

Read the Thomas’ blog here.

 

Adam Schwartz

WFIU Arts and Culture Producer, Editor "Directions in Sound"

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