Community artists create new UCSC art award

In the mid-1970s, Peter Thomas was introduced to the art of making books by William Everson, then the newly hired poet laureate for Kresge College at UC Santa Cruz. As one of Everson's crew of five students, he would help turn out "fine press" works of literature on an old Ben Franklin-style platen press.

Student Winners Tour Santa Cruz Book Arts Studio
That early experience made quite an impression on Thomas and in 1976, along with his wife and fellow book artist Donna, he established a private press in Santa Cruz. Since then, the Thomases have been creating artistic books that are exhibited across the country and have been purchased for collections around the world. Now they hope to inspire a new generation of students by establishing a brand-new award program at UC Santa Cruz.

Last month, the Thomases selected two art students to receive the 2003 Book Arts/Artist Award and invited them to visit their studio in Santa Cruz for a tour. Although each award comes with a check for $100, the ultimate goal is to give the students an opportunity to meet with working artists and encourage them to explore the book as a medium of artistic expression.

"We created the award because it can make a big difference in your life when you are recognized for something that you've done," Donna explained. "I had been thinking of a wonderful art teacher who inspired me to pursue my art."

The Thomases attended open studio events at UC Santa Cruz, looking for fresh ideas and inspiration, as well as the work of two students to receive the inaugural awards. But they deliberately examined a variety of media that went far beyond the traditional concept of book arts.

"We looked at the whole department--painting, sculpture, drawing, installations," said Peter, who graduated from the university in 1978 with a degree in aesthetic studies. "We were looking for works that have booklike qualities, not necessarily work designed as a book."

Michael Selby's art project--a series of five painted antique ironing boards which told a visual story of his family's past--fit into the Thomases' definition of a conceptual or triptych/shrine book. They found that moving from one painted object to another incorporated the element of time, and was very much like turning the pages of a book.

"I had lost my father and was going through my photo albums, grabbing photos and painting stories from them," Selby said of his inspiration for the piece. "I was interested in where you are in a moment in time. Looking at faded photos is like looking at a history book."

Katie Frank's striking, yet simply-bound book--consisting of transparent overlays of sign language graphics upon photographs of her friends making the signs--also caught the eye of the Thomases. Frank's award certificate noted that the book's strength lies in "the juxtaposition of the photographic images with the American Sign Language diagrams for the animal they represent."

Both students said they were thrilled to be selected for the award, which took them completely by surprise. They also expressed their appreciation for the opportunity to tour the Thomases' studio and see their work.

"It was nice to meet the people who were offering the award as opposed to just receiving a piece of paper and that be the end of it," Selby said. "It was such a personable experience to be able to talk with Peter and Donna about their art and how it related to ours."

The Thomases continue to produce several miniature and full-size book editions each year. Peter has recently been constructing a series of books out of old ukuleles and accordions, cleverly modifying the musical instruments into a variety of book formats and sculptures. Donna's latest projects have been miniature, one-of-a-kind books about nature that incorporate calligraphy text, original watercolor illustrations, and tiny leather picture onlays.

More information about the work of Peter and Donna Thomas can be found at their web site: