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Peter and Donna Thomas are book artists from Santa Cruz, CA. Since 1977 they have worked both collaboratively and individually; letterpress printing, hand-lettering and illustrating texts, making paper, and hand binding both fine press and artists’ books. Inspired by the archetypal quest for beauty and perfection, and informed by the potential of word, image, shape and texture to create an illuminating or transformative experience, their initial aim was to create limited edition fine press books made of the finest materials and produced to the highest standards of quality, in both full size and miniature format. This aesthetic continued to guide them through the 1990s as they worked in new formats made possible by personal computer technology, exploring non-traditional book structures and shaped book objects as both limited editions and one-of-a-kind books. Their 2002 book “More Making Books by Hand: Exploring Miniature Books, Alternative Structures and Found Objects,” is a manual describing how to make the book structures they developed during the previous decades’ explorations, their 2000 “Ergonomics of Hand Papermaking” video documents and demonstrates production papermaking techniques re-discovered visiting European hand papermills, and their 2012 editorial work for “1000 Artists’ Books" created a system to categorize artists' books by physical characteristics. From 2010-2020 they traveled the USA as the “Wandering Book Artists” giving talks, workshops and demonstrations to both academic and community-based audiences. In 2017-18 twelve university libraries hosted shows of their work to celebrate their 40 year anniversary of making books, and the University of Wisconsin - Milwaukee mounted a bibliographical digital exhibit of their books. In 2021 The Legacy Press published their bibliography: Peter and Donna Thomas: Bibliography, 1974–2020. This is a complete listing of all their books. Each book is described and most descriptions are accompanied by photographs. The book can be purchased by contacting The Legacy Press.

Major collections of their work can be found at: Stanford, University of Iowa, University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, and Yale. Extensive collections are held at Baylor University, The Huntington Library, Indiana University, Koninklijk Bibliotheek, Princeton, Swarthmore College, Texas Christian University, Temple University, University of California Berkeley, University of California Los Angeles, University of California Santa Barbara, University of California Santa Cruz, University of Kentucky, University of North Texas, The University of Vermont, and Vanderbilt University.


Workshops taught by Peter and Donna Thomas




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Excerpt from the introduction of Peter and Donna Thomas' 1992 bibliography, Good Books:

The first thing everyone wants to know is, "How did you get started?" It’s not a simple story, but life is that way. In high school I was on the pre-collegiate track, which did not allow much time for art classes. But I was interested in writing fairy tales, having long hair and wearing funny clothes. Perhaps these interests were what lead me to the Renaissance Pleasure Faire, where as a modern Don Quixote I found my destiny. When in college, I became got involved in the Faire as a volunteer actor, and with a couple of thousand other people I played a part in recreating an Elizabethan market village. What does this have to do with book arts? For me it was the beginning. Actors slept on hay bales and craftspeople had booths. I wanted a better place to sleep so I needed a craft. The only thing resembling an Elizabethan craft I could do was write fairy tales, so I applied for a booth where I would write and print a fairy tale with four beginnings, four middles and four endings, and teach the visitors how to bind it into a book. My proposal was accepted. I wrote the story and got a friend to print it at his fathers print shop. Then I had to learn how to bind books.

I went to the library, to the 600 section, to find some books on bookbinding. Of course I got distracted and found myself reading a book titled, Papermaking: The History and Technique of an Ancient Craft by Dard Hunter. When I read that the first papermill in England was built in 1492, I thought to myself that papermaking would be even better than bookbinding as a craft at the Faire. But since I had already committed to bookbinding I thought, "I’ll just learn both." My early follies make good stories to tell on long evenings, but now I will only say that as I taught, I learned.

I had as my goal to be able to make paper and bind books as they did in the sixteenth century. I don’t know how I actually learned to make books. Mostly it was just doing it, being prodded on by the childhood memory of my neighbor saying again and again, "If you are going to do something, do it right." One day, between teaching classes, I made a few blank books. They sold immediately and so I made more, and more, and more. An old bookbinder stopped by and shared with me his wisdom, "You can’t buy experience." I didn’t buy it, my customers did.

At the same time Donna was attending Sonoma State University, taking art classes. She was roommates with my sister and together they came to the Faire to help me out, teaching papermaking and selling my blank books. I taught Donna how to sew books. She learned so fast that before I knew it, she was binding books with me.

I continued my eclectic studies at UCSC. In the McHenry Library foyer stood an old acorn shaped iron handpress. William Everson, master printer and poet laureate of Kresge College who dressed in buckskin and bear claws, taught students to use the press while printing fine press books. I didn’t know what "fine press" was, but thought to myself, "Since I am making books and paper, I should know how to print." With several other students I worked as an apprentice. No questions were asked and no answers were given. Everson led us through the mysteries of the Black Art in silences broken by cries to the gods for mercy. In the end we knew typography and printing and the desire for perfection.

I bought my own press and with Donna’s help I began to print; first a broadside and then when we had enough type, a book. Everson encouraged the printing of books, "It is by ephemera," he said, "by keepsakes, that both the amateur and the professional are today most easily seduced from the true end of printing..." We did not use a press name for that first book. But our second book, The Tale of Cara-sou and His Magic Word, had The Good Book Press on the title page. One of my favorite childhood fairy tales was The Good Sword. In this story a poor shepherd, with his dying breathd bequeaths his son the sword which hangs over thier doorway, saying it will never fail him in time of need. We wanted a press that would never fail us and so we called our Challenge MP15 proof press the Good Book Press. The name also stood to remind us of our goal: to make good books. With this in mind we printed the following announcement: It is with great pleasure that we take this opportunity to acquaint you with the work of Peter and Donna Thomas who produce books and paper under the imprint of The Good Book Press. Were one to ask them what makes a Good Book, they might reply, "Beautiful paper, crisp printing, a binding that opens easily..." It is their goal to create books in the tradition of the great private presses: deluxe, limited editions, made of the finest materials, produced with the highest standards of quality. Peter makes the paper from cotton rags. These are pulped in a hollander beater, then mixed in more water. Using a mould & deckle the fiber is separated from the water. It is then couched onto a felt, pressed & hung to dry. Donna cuts linoleum for illustration or ornament. Together they set the type which is letterpress printed on a hand operated printing press. They also hand bind the books. Pages are folded and sewn together using a needle & thread. The bindings are leather or other quality materials, constructed in traditional methods which insure the book will open easily and lay flat. They employ their skills making miniature books (under three inches), larger books, and broadsides (posters with type and illustration). Because they execute every aspect of manufacture, all their work is unique and each piece can easily be recognized as another fine product from The Good Book Press.

In 1980 Donna and I made a small book, Yotan’s Vision from scraps of English handmade paper salvaged from the Lime Kiln Press’s Granite and Cypress. I showed it to Muir Dawson who I had met through our mutual interest in papermaking and the coincidence that his son was in my graduating class at UCSC. He was not very interested but suggested I show it to his brother. Without much hope I showed it to Glen Dawson. He looked at the book, pulled out a ruler, measured it and said, "If you can make it a quarter of an inch shorter I will buy twenty." I was in shock. Luckily we had not bound the whole edition, and although we didn’t want to trim the perfectly proportioned margins, we made him twenty books. We were now miniature book artists and our lifes were changed forever.


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© 2002 Peter and Donna Thomas