New Book Arts Exhibit and Presentation: Peter and Donna Thomas

Self-proclaimed “wandering book artists” Peter and Donna Thomas made their first book in 1978, and they have been traveling throughout the country in their “gypsy wagon” to share their passion for this art ever since. This year they are celebrating their 40th anniversary in bookmaking with shows in a dozen libraries throughout the country, including right here in St. Louis. The Thomases will be giving a presentation on bookmaking on Sunday, October 21st at the St. Louis Mercantile Library at UMSL’s fall event: “The Book as Art: Making Physical Books By Hand in the Digital Age.” Please see the Mercantile’s events page for more information and to purchase tickets.

A Story of a Life (1994). A miniature book by Peter and Donna Tomas.

Celebrating 40 Years of Bookmaking with a Special Exhibit

In honor of Peter and Donna Thomas’ forty years of bookmaking, and their presentation at the Mercantile Library, the Julian Edison Department of Special Collections is hosting a special exhibit of some of their works, currently on display in the gallery space beside the entrance to Special Collections. The exhibit shows samples of their extraordinary work in paper-making, bookbinding, and miniatures, as well as photographs from one of their visits to Olin Library.

Peter Thomas playing the ukulele at an event at Olin Library.

Donna Thomas displaying her books at a past event at Olin Library.

Attention to Material

One of the things that makes the Thomases’ work so compelling is their incredible attention to the materiality of the books. The detailed work that goes into creating the right binding, paper, and illustrations for each text is truly astounding. In The Alder: A Poem, pictured below, you can see a perfect example the lengths Peter and Donna will go to to marry the form of the book to the content of the text. In the poem, William Everson discusses cutting down an alder tree in Kingfisher Flat, so for the binding the Thomases went and got alder wood from this exact region.

The Alder: A Poem by William Everson. Artist book by Peter and Donna Thomas (2012).

Becoming Paper Makers

Peter and Donna Thomas are so invested in the look and feel of their books that they even make their own paper. Although Peter started out as a bookbinder, he stumbled upon some books on papermaking in the library one day, and he has been crafting his own paper ever since. Peter sets out to make paper using the same techniques that have been used since the sixteenth century, but trying out new fibers and materials. The image below is of their book Paper From Plants (1999), which features 30 papers by different papermakers, each featuring material that is local to them. In the display case, you can see the book open to a page made from ginko leaves.

Paper From Plants (1999). Compiled and bound by Peter and Donna Thomas.

Paper from Plants was created as a companion piece to Peter and Donna Thomas’ earlier collection A Collection of Paper Samples from Hand Papermills in the United Stated of America (1993). For this book, the Thomases worked with 27 papermakers and papermills to compile samples of papers being made in America, along with artist statements about each paper. These samples represent the finest work of these mills, and were handbound by Peter and Donna. The image below shows a sample of one of the papers from this book that has particularly brilliant coloring.

A page from A Collection of Paper Samples from Hand Papermills in the United Stated of America (1993), printed and handbound by Peter and Donna Thomas.

Working with Miniatures

The Thomases are known for their miniatures. They often give talks on the history and impact of miniature books on the artists’ book movement, and demonstrations on how to tailor book bindings to the miniature size. The book photographed below is done in a “flag style,” in which each page is attached to a rotating rod. This enables the book to display two different quotes, depending on which way the pages are turned.

Time I$ (2003), a miniature book constructed by Peter and Donna Thomas.

More on the Book Arts

If you are interested in artist books, we highly recommend you check out not only the Peter and Donna Thomas exhibit by Special Collections, but also the Forms of the Book exhibit currently on display in the new Newman Tower. You can also check out our previous blog posts on Contemporary Female Book Artists and Maureen Cummins. And of course, please make sure to see the Thomases in person at the Mercantile on the 21st!

About the author

Rose is a PhD candidate in English and American Literature at Washington University in St. Louis. When she is not working on her dissertation on post-1945 asylum novels or blogging about the amazing materials in Special Collections, she fills much of her time reading, writing, gardening, and wrestling.