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The Wandering Book Artists

Traveling book artists Peter and Donna Thomas travel across the country in a rare form of transportation: a gypsy wagon bookmobile.

The lime-green and electric-blue wagon with painted designs of flowers and birds takes its owners around the nation to sell their handmade books and teach others how to make books of their own.

Peter Thomas said traveling in the wagon helps people understand the difference between an artist’s book and a regular book.

“See, in our gypsy wagon, it really helps people get it,” he said. “What do you see in a regular trailer? Nothing.”

He said the gypsy wagon inspires people to think about fairytales and imagine what it would be like to be wanderers themselves.

“It’s such a pleasure to travel in because it’s so beautiful. People just smile,” he said.

The Thomas’ permanent home is in Santa Cruz, Calif., but they’ve been on the road since March. Their first trip in the wagon was last April and lasted until October.

The couple will be giving tours of their gypsy wagon at two free workshops in town this week. The first will be Tuesday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at the Vail Public Library, and a few spots remain for that workshop. Reservations also can be made for the other workshop, slated for Thursday from 1 to 4 p.m. in Edwards at Colorado Mountain College.

“We’re giving back to the art form that’s given us so much,” Peter Thomas said. “It’s brought so much fulfillment to us as artists. We’re just hoping to share that with other people.”

The workshop on Thursday is intended for high school students, but Susan Mackin Dolan, a friend of the couple and fellow papermaker, said if 10 kids do not sign up for it, the event will be open to adults, as well. The registration deadline for the workshop is today, but she said Tuesday would be OK, too, if there are still spots available.

“What they’re doing is really special, unique, obscure and rare,” Dolan said. “I think people will really enjoy the opportunity. I want other people to be able to experience it.”

Peter Thomas also said people can get a tour of the gypsy wagon or peek their heads in the workshop even if they are not actually taking the class.

The workshops will introduce participants to new, innovative book structures and teach them how to make their own miniature books.

“Miniature books are perfect for a part of an idea,” Peter Thomas said.

The Thomases also will have a collection of their own handmade books on display.

Miniature books, fine press books, ukulele books and even book jewelry are included in the artists’ craft. They hand-make the paper used in the books and use well-known quotes as content, as well as their own text.

“(Famous authors are) really good at their writing, so it’s fun to work with their words,” Peter Thomas said. “There’s so much more pleasure working with high-quality material.”

Peter and Donna Thomas got started in the artist’s book craft by chance because they wanted to be involved in a Renaissance fair. They started making blank books in 1977, moved on to fine press printing with words in the ’80s and then made their books more conceptual in the ’90s.

“We made so many, our hands just got good,” Peter Thomas said. “The more you do a thing, the better you get if you’re applying yourself.”

He said making books can be simple or it can be as complex as the Holy Bible done all in cartoons. You don’t have to be able to do all of the things required to make it yourself; you can use other people’s help and put the parts together like a collage, he said.

“As an artist, you start thinking about it as a sculpture. The materials you choose and the words you put inside can touch people in different ways,” he said. “You can create moods and experiences through words and imagery.”

As they travel, Peter and Donna Thomas hope to raise awareness about the art form.

Currently, there’s a transition happening, Peter Thomas said, that involves the computer taking over the book’s role of conveying information.

“The book is being freed up to be an art form,” he said. “So many people haven’t seen that possibility yet.”

Lori Barnes, the librarian at the Vail Public Library said, “As much as we’ve got technology, books are still so important. It’s a very personal experience.”

She said a lot of people have been asking questions and showing interest in the workshops.

“It’s a wonderful opportunity,” she said. “We’ve never done anything like this before.”

Courtney Riley is an intern at the Vail Daily. Email comments about this story to cschnell@vaildaily.com.