Peter and Donna Thomas
I first encountered the work of Peter and Donna Thomas when I was a young librarian at the University of Delaware about 30 years ago. I was just beginning to develop ideas about artists’ books and about the book arts generally, and I was deeply impressed by the Thomases use of paper, structure, scale, binding, type, the evenness of their printing, and Donna’s simple but evocative illustrations. Their work was refined, yet rustic at the same time, still bearing the influence of their early Renaissance Faire days.
I am now an older librarian and have established something of a specialty in the book arts. That expertise rests on long experience and research, building strong relationships with book artists, seeing lots of work, making work myself, and teaching students. Over the years, I have followed the careers of Peter and Donna Thomas, seen most of their publications and collected quite a few, engaged in many conversations with them, and even reviewed a couple of their more elaborate book productions for Parentheses. I continue to be impressed and influenced by their body of work and idiosyncratic approach to the book arts. They too are older, more experienced, expert, and refined, and yet that rustic influence of their early days still manages to echo from their pages.
2017 marks the fortieth year of their remarkable collaboration together. This online bibliographic exhibition, covering all of their editioned work from 1977 to 2017, offers an intimate window not only into the scale and scope of their production and their evolution as distinctive American book artists, but also into the development of their lives as a couple, as parents, and as colleagues and professional partners.
Their collaboration indeed begins in the Renaissance Pleasure Faires of the mid-1970s with original printed illustrations by a young Donna Millar and letterpress and handmade paper by Peter Thomas, who used the moniker Peter Papermaker throughout the 1970s. They began as The Good Book Press, because, well, they made good books, but by the late 1980s they opted to use their own names, Peter & Donna Thomas or P&D Thomas, as their permanent imprint name.
The 1980s saw other changes, not only in the development of their distinctive style in miniature books, but also the birth of their daughters Tanya and Suzanne, who would leave a marked impression (pun intended) on their book production. Barely beyond Tanya’s ability to talk and Suzanne’s first steps, the Thomases began an ongoing collaboration with their daughters, beginning with Two Sisters in 1986 [A37]. The 1980s also saw the development of a more sophisticated typographical approach, as well as the origin of a tradition for the press, Peter’s “secret” birthday books for Donna, beginning with A Fairy's Story in 1981 [A14]. The first books relating to their research in papermaking also appear in this decade, beginning perhaps with 1985’s Rags Make Paper [A34], but most certainly with Beater Time Tests in 1987 [A44]. Also in 1987, the Thomases published The Poet Is Dead [A45], the first collaboration with their friend and mentor, the poet and fine-press printer William Everson.
The 1990s introduced innovations in miniature-book structures, such as the use of the scroll and dowel, beginning with John Muir’s A Thousand Mile a Walk to the Gulf in 1994 [A75]; the case-bound fold-out accordion, such as Muir’s Climb the Mountains in 1995 [A79]; the “flap book” beginning with Forty, a miniature book made by Peter for Donna’s 40th birthday in 1997 [A87]; and the nested accordion binding, beginning with John Muir’s Song of Creation in 1999 [A94]. The Thomases continued to produce several more works on their papermaking research (eleven titles in all in the 1990s). The end of the decade also saw the increasing use of Donna’s watercolor illustrations in reproduction, as well as the beginnings of Peter’s fascination with the ukulele, both seen in 1997’s A Brief History of the Ukulele [A89].
In the 1990s, the Thomases increased the number of titles using texts by their favorite wandering wilderness prophet and philosopher, John Muir. The use of these texts not only continued into the 21st century, they also seemed to serve as inspiration for the Thomases’ own peregrinations. These excursions would serve as the bases for many books through the rest of their career, beginning with their many, extensive backpacking tours in California, especially to Yosemite and the Sierras, and ultimately with their motor tours around the United States in their hand-built wooden caravan as “The Wandering Book Artists” (see especially the text for the entry on Kenneth Grahame’s A Gypsy Caravan printed in 2009 [A137]).
Their most recent productions are a culmination of the long, forty-year road Peter and Donna have travelled together, especially as manifested in the innovative structures for some of their larger works, including the “Folder Binding” for their 2011 collection The Wandering Book Artists’ Collaborative Broadsides [A146]; the layered, five-scroll reader housed in a scale-model locomotive for The Train Comes to Wichita produced in 2004 [A121]; the spring-loaded, “steam punk” paper-pulp printed scroll reader for Naomi Shihab Nye’s poem Sometimes I Pretend printed in 2014 [A152]; and the masterfully engineered, laser-cut and barrel-hinged wooden-frame structure for the deluxe copy of the Thomases’ deeply-heartfelt homage to their departed friend William Everson in The Alder of 2012 [A148B].
As I write this, I realize that Peter and Donna’s influence on my understanding of the book as art may be more profound than I have given thought to. In every semester since the early 1990s, I have introduced book arts concepts to students with a quote by Peter Thomas from the late 1980s: “Because of the computer . . . the book has been set free from servitude to information.” So many ideas are encapsulated in that sentence that it’s almost all that needs to be said. But of course, much more will always need to be said about this most misunderstood of art media. As 2017 marks the fortieth anniversary of book production by Peter and Donna Thomas, it is my hope that this online exhibition, along with its accompanying printed catalog and bibliography, will add considerably to the dialogue.
Head, Special Collections
University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Libraries