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The Urban Tarot Deck is an illustration series that is nearly 10 years in the making. It is about magic, truth and the city.
The Urban Tarot Deck is an illustration series that is nearly 10 years in the making. It is about magic, truth and the city.
346 backers pledged $33,595 to help bring this project to life.

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Strange Alchemy

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The penultimate card in the series. I'm speaking to my printer this week, and getting a sense of what my timing will be in terms of finally getting these decks out to you. After the last card is done of course, I'll be putting together the overall design for the set and the box, as well as finishing up the design of the card backs. My goal at current is to get everything packaged up and off to the printers before the beginning of June.

The Art

The fourteenth trump of the tarot is another place where interpretations vary quite a bit, and I've ultimately decided to take it a direction of my own and use it to talk a little bit about the process of creating the series itself, as you'll see.

The Art
The Art

Older decks call this card Temperance, which was once a more commonly-used term for the practice of mixing wine with water. The image for this card as it appears in the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, under the title "Temperance" features somewhat centrally in my piece in the form of a mural on the wall. The interpretation is often about the idea of temperance in opposition to extremism, seeking a middle road and mixing your anger and passion with calm and rationality as water is added to wine.

With the Thoth deck, Crowley kept the idea of mixing opposing elements but made this trump symbolic of the practice of alchemy, an aspect of what he called The Great Work. Crowley saw that one could mix and combine opposing elements; water and fire, red and white; and rather than diminishing both or canceling out their energy, it was possible to create from them something wholly new, with power unique to it's elemental parts.

The Thoth deck calls this trump Art, and so do I. It speaks about taking opposing pieces and finding a way to harmonize them, mix them, combine them into a new and unique whole. 'Solve et coagula' as the old alchemists say - dissolve and combine. 

As an artist nearing the end of a very long series, I look back on what I've done with this deck and I see what I've done as a kind of creative alchemy. I've taken elements of what has come before, the old and the modern, ancient symbols and modern architecture, and sought to combine them in ways that bring those elements new power through juxtaposition. Art, as any artist can tell you, never grows in a vacuum. Creating new work is as much a process of learning to see, absorb, and process what others have done as it is about creating something new from whole cloth.

I make no illusions about what I've borrowed from those who've come before me, and try to give credit to those who contributed to the pieces I put my signature on. In this piece specifically, I've sampled the beautiful line work of Pamela Colman Smith's original Temperance card, and incorporated it into a modern setting, side by side with the work of dedicated (but anonymous, at least to me) graffiti artists who decorated the particular corner in Chinatown that I used as reference. Chandra Jessee, who modeled for this piece, also contributed quite a lot creatively to the evolution of the card's look. Part of that contribution was by way of providing all of her own costume elements, including a gorgeous pair of white feather wings who were made for her by yet another talented artist. And beyond that, any number of the textures and photos I make use of are stock images captured by hands that are not mine. As much as I am a creator, so too I am an alchemist, taking a pinch of this and a dab of that, putting mysterious components together in a pot and waiting to see what emerges.

The next update you'll be getting should be telling you about the very last card in the series. Prepare for the coming of the Universe.

Hey, don't worry

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At the End of the Rainbow

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Hello, tarot folk. It's been a little while since my last update, sorry if I've kept you in suspense. With this card, we finally complete the set of the Minor Arcana, leaving us only two more cards from the Major Arcana to go. I admit, I may have put a little extra time and effort into this one, I wanted it to be something special.

The Ten of Cups: Satiety

And finally, with the last step in the story of the Cups, we reach that fabled Happily Ever After. If the Nine represented a single moment of pure Happiness, the Ten represents that Happiness stretching from this moment forward far into the future. This card speaks of love's ultimate dream, of happiness and home and family, for the rest of your days. It is joy, and peace, and the hope of the next generation.

The Ten of Cups: Satiety
The Ten of Cups: Satiety

I have a bit of a personal theory about this card, as it was illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith in 1908 for what is generally called the Rider-Waite Tarot. So I apologize, as I'm about to get a little long-winded here. 

I've spoken once or twice in my updates before about Smith, and how much I adore her illustrations for that most recognizable tarot set. She was a woman of mixed heritage, born in London to an American father and a Jamaican mother. She went to school for illustration here in New York at the Pratt Institute, and went on to work with Bram Stoker and William Butler Yeats, among others. It was Yeats who eventually introduced Smith to the Order of the Golden Dawn, and to the man who would commission the tarot she designed, Arthur Edward Waite.

Pamela Colman Smith never married, and in fact I don't believe there exists any solid evidence of romantic entanglements of any kind in her life, at least not any she was very public about. It is known that she had many colorful friends within the theatre scene, but her only long term relationship seems to have been with a female companion with whom she lived for many years, and to whom she left her entire estate. 

The Ten of Cups by Pamela Colman Smith
The Ten of Cups by Pamela Colman Smith

Given the above bio, perhaps you have already drawn the same conclusions that I (and many others) have. Now of course, we cannot say with any certainty that Smith was gay, but I think there are quite a few reasons to suspect she may have been. With that in mind, take a closer look at the Ten of Cups she drew. In it, she depicts a pair of figures embracing, with rolling fields before them and a small farmhouse sitting pleasantly in the distance. There are two children playing, dancing in a circle to one side of the adults. At first glance, it's easy to assume that the figures are a mother and father - indeed, one wears pants while the other is in a dress. But the more I look at them, the more sure I feel that I'm seeing two women. Additionally, one can see that the woman on the left, and the two children, are the only figures in the set who are clearly colored with a darker skin tone. 

I'm aware at this point that I'm making a bit of a leap here, but I've long believed that Smith deliberately inserted herself into the set in this card, and that what we are seeing is a depiction of her and her partner living together as a family, with two children of their own. Perhaps that farmhouse is the home that Smith retired to in Cornwall towards the end of her life. Although I can never prove it, I strongly believe that what we are seeing in this card is the impossible dream of a happy same-sex marriage, drawn by a queer woman of color, over a century ago.

Here we are in 2015, and gay men and women can now legally marry in 37 out of 50 States in this country at last count. I am myself one half of a legal same-sex marriage, and I am very thankful to be in a part of the world that recognizes both my union and my gender. My wife and I share our home with another same-sex couple, Sarah and Jen Salenger. They have been married since 2010, and legally recognized as such since 2011, when The Marriage Equality Act was passed here in New York.

I wanted this card to be an homage in part to Pamela Colman Smith, and to that impossible dream which has finally become reality for so many. In the foreground, I've depicted Sarah and Jen, as they appeared just a short time before their daughter was born. Their daughter actually appears a second time in the piece, being held aloft by yours truly. The lady with her arm around me is naturally my lovely wife Amy. I've also included someone else from a previous card here - Tobin, my model for The Sun has his back to us, while he watches the Pride March with the rest of the crowd.

Although I've used thematically appropriate cups for each of the other cards in this suit, with this card I've used the exact same goblet I used for the Ace. With each ending, we come once more around the circle to where we began.

Next up: The Art

Just two more cards to go, and I've already done all the preliminary work for the next one. Chandra Jessee came to my home carrying a fabulous pair of white feather wings for her modeling session last month, and I'm looking forward to getting started on her piece very shortly. If all goes as planned, I'd like to have the first run of decks printed by June, as I'm hoping to have them on hand for a few events I'll be attending this summer.

Chandra Jessee
Chandra Jessee

Tidings of Comfort and Joy

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Hello tarot folk,

I hope you're having pleasant holiday season, whichever holidays you recognize in this season. Our next card is all about the warm feelings of home, family and good food.

The Nine of Cups: Happiness

The pursuit of Happiness is important enough to us that we wrote it into the declaration of independance here in the US, as an inalienable right. What is that perfect happiness? A single moment without care, surrounded by family and friends, knowing that you are loved and safe. With the Nine, the Love that began our journey through the suit of cups has reached it's full expression and become an all-encompassing fulfillment. This is what we strive for. From the moment we first held hands, through all of the ups and downs and painful setbacks, this is the vision that has driven us, a happiness that knows no fear, no doubt, no reservation.

The Nine of Cups: Happiness
The Nine of Cups: Happiness

It is, like all the Cups, a shimmering dream just out of reach of our mundane reality, but one worth pursuing. There is a sense in this image of a scene too perfect to be real, like a memory seen through rose-tinted lenses. Aleister Crowley referred to this card as "a dream within a dream." There's nothing cynical about that - even if true happiness exists only in the mind and the heart, that makes it no less real and powerful for us.

I had some fun with mixed media in this piece; you'll see a lot of textures scribbled in with crayon and paint, but sitting side by side with more sharply defined details. The scene is set in Fort Washington Park, with the impressive arcs of the George Washington Bridge reaching across the Hudson in the background. In the summer months, the picnic tables along the river are abuzz with families gathering around the public grills, and the smell of food drifts through the park.

One last card from the cups still to go, and that will conclude the minor arcana entirely. After that, there are just two cards left, and I've been looking forward to them for quite some time.

Laziness or whatever, I guess...

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Hi tarot people,

I want to thank everyone who contributed to the Daughters of Mercury project last month. Thanks to people like you, the project was fully funded, and I'm looking forward to being a model, a few months down the line.

And so we come to the 74th card,

The Eight of Cups: Indolence

After the initial honeymoon phase we saw in the first three cards in the suit, the relationship story told in the Cups has suffered through some difficult times. With the four, we faced the dangers of getting too comfortable and stale. In the five, we dealt with betrayal and disappointment. Although the six brought us once more to pure joy, the seven immediately found itself overindulging in that pleasure, and becoming corrupted by it. With the eight, we see perhaps the ultimate threat to any relationship: when someone simply stops caring enough to make it work.

The Eight of Cups: Indolence
The Eight of Cups: Indolence

We all know the signs when someone has stopped putting in the effort. Maybe they are waiting to be dumped, because they don't have the courage to leave. Maybe they're just killing time at their job, waiting to be fired because they haven't the motivation to quit. There is a siren call, which we have all heard at one time or another, that tells you to give up, stay home, phone it in and just stop giving a crap. Goodness knows I've answered that call more than I'd like to admit.

This card represents a toxic morass of procrastination, distraction, depression and sloth; a ever-deepening pit that we dig for ourselves. The longer we stay in it, the harder it becomes to climb out again. It takes the strength of will that allows us to speak honest, painful truths, and the emotional courage we sometimes need to stand up and simply walk away. 

Ah, but perhaps that can wait another day, right? There's this show I've been meaning to see...

I had been imagining this card originally as being set at the desk of some anonymous cubicle farm, where a lazy employee was drinking on the job and playing solitaire rather than working. But I decided to get a little more personal with it, and depict my own workstation, and put my own self-recriminations for laziness right up on the screen. One big blank rectangle in Photoshop - the empty canvas is a scary thing for any artist to contemplate. It's funny how much work indolence took to capture though; there's a lot going on in this composition, and I went back and forth on a lot of the details over the last week before I was happy with it. I certainly had some fun making little creatures out of office supplies and building pyramids out of shot glasses though. Seemed odd at the time to think that what I was doing was actually work.

I'm already well into the next card, the Nine of Cups, so I'm hoping to show that to you soon. Grey skies are gonna clear up...