Standing in a pool of golden afternoon sunlight with a gentle mechanical whir filling the air, visiting book artists Peter and Donna Thomas held up a single translucent sheet of freshly pressed paper. The crowd of students surrounding the artists passed around the dewy and pale pink sheet, silently admiring its fragile strength. On Monday, McCabe Library hosted Peter and Donna Thomas for a papermaking seminar. This demonstration served as a culmination for the Library’s ongoing exhibition, “Peter and Donna Thomas: The Work of 40 Years.” The show will be on display until Oct. 7 in the McCabe Library Atrium.
Old friends and collaborators, Peter and Donna Thomas have worked together to hone their craft for four decades. Their artwork centers on bookmaking, a multifaceted craft that combines papermaking, woodworking, bookbinding, illustration, printmaking, and a host of other arts and crafts skills.
As this dizzying array of requisite abilities sounds extremely intimidating, it is extraordinary that the Thomases work on every aspect of their books rather than outsourcing what could be viewed as more tedious tasks such as binding or papermaking.
“I think the fact that they’ve been making books for so long and that they do everything themselves is pretty unusual. Most book artists focus on one or two aspects. Some book artists do every part of it, but there are very few that still do it that way. A lot of the time, they’ll hire a binder to do the binding for them, or a box maker to make the box,” said exhibition curator Amy McColl.
McColl was also impressed by the fact that the artists had taught themselves such an intricate and precise craft.
“But [Peter and Donna Thomas] are involved in every aspect and are largely self-taught. They did take classes but started out just with interest. It’s really kind of inspiring that they’ve been doing this for so long and have made their livelihood out of it.”
The Thomases cofounded a printing press, the Good Book Press, in 1977. This venture heralded the course their career would take over the next forty years. Soon after starting, their press printed several volumes of poetry. From the very beginning, poetry has played a huge role in the development of theme and language and serves as inspiration for a large proportion of their books. Many of the Thomases’ works combine poetry and visual imagery to create a richer and more compelling narrative.
“Donna and I talk of ourselves as book artists, and that’s pretty much in contrast to someone being a publisher. Book artists make books like painters make paintings and sculptors make sculptures: to create an aesthetic experience for their audience,” said Peter Thomas.
Thomas believes that books have the potential to transcend the dimensional limits of other media like movies.
“The book has so many great potentials because of the fact that it is more than just 2-D or 3-D; it’s got the way that the 2-D and the 3-D combine with the story. It’s like a movie, but a movie is not physical. You can’t hold it with you. So the book has all these wonderful opportunities to express yourself as an artist,” said Thomas.
Many of their artworks not only combine visual imagery and typographic content to tell a narrative, but also involve medium and even surface to enhance that story. Their work “The Alder” is based on a William Everson poem with the same title. The poem describes an act of destruction, of chopping down a tree to burn it, but this harsh utilitarianism is all but absent in the Thomases’ visual rendition. Pale blue hues and sepia-toned browns underscored by rich blacks generate an aura reminiscent of standing in a clearing on a calm, crisp fall morning, watching the leaves at the edges of the forest around you tumble to the ground. Roughly bound between thick, golden-hued slabs of wood that the Thomases salvaged from a fallen tree, “The Alders”, as a monument to creation, itself contrasts Everson’s poem about destruction
“As we have come to understand Everson’s poem, through the process of creating this book, the poem’s alder tree represented for Everson his own lost potential. In the poem the poet fells an old and stately tree, but only to use it as firewood. Everson was at the height of his career when he was working on this poem, and had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. Like the alder, he was cut down in his prime, no longer able to create the work he previously thought possible,” read an exhibition placard.
While Peter and Donna Thomas are undoubtedly committed to the quality of their work, they are not solely focused on individual projects and their own work. Committed to and passionate about bookmaking, some of their works have an educational component, spreading awareness of and teaching others about the techniques they have amassed over their extensive career.
“[Peter and Donna Thomas are] also really into papermaking, and [“Paper from Plants”] actually focuses on that,” said McColl.
“It features paper made from all different plants. You can see the textures, and in some cases, you can actually see the leaf as part of the page… [The book] also shows the technique. [Peter and Donna Thomas are] very interested in sharing their knowledge that they’ve gained over the years, and how there are a variety of ways to make paper. Usually paper is made from cotton rags, scraps of fabric; in this case, they’re using plant fibers. I think it’s an educational book in some ways, but it’s also a beautiful book.”