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The Urban Tarot Deck's video poster

The Urban Tarot Deck is an illustration series that is nearly 10 years in the making. It is about magic, truth and the city. Read more

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This project was successfully funded on April 19, 2012.

The Urban Tarot Deck is an illustration series that is nearly 10 years in the making. It is about magic, truth and the city.

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The Cups Runneth Over

The suit of cups continues, with the three complete, and a photoshoot for the four. 

The Three of Cups: Abundance

We will pass through every stage of a relationship as we tell the story of the suit of cups. Still early, here in the three, we have entered what has sometimes been called the "honeymoon period." We have found joy, and pleasure and fulfillment without limit. Life is a celebration, and every song is sung for you. This is the time we wish could last forever, although we know of course it can't. 

The Three of Cups: Abundance
The Three of Cups: Abundance

This card represents the feeling of joy that comes from knowing that you are surrounded by those who love you, who support you, and who want only the best for you. It's a birthday party on New Year's Eve, and a toast in your honor. It's a kiss at midnight, while the sky explodes, all for just the two of you. It is an abundance of joy, of love, of camaraderie and warmth.

Thank you to my friends Anthony Bamonte and Ilan Norwoord, and my wife Amy, for lending their hands for this image.

As positive as this card is, it has a warning as well. Midnight is only here for a moment, and the fireworks will be gone as suddenly as they appeared. We cannot sustain a relationship on that initial, honeymoon energy, any more than we can live on champagne and cake alone. Trying to live only in this moment of pleasure and celebration will lead you to selfishness, hedonism and eventually disaster.

Shooting the Four

The next card in the set will show us some ways that a relationship can suffer from an over-abundance of comfort and ease. Shawn Roberts and Eblyn Felix agreed to be my model relationship for this card. They managed to capture the pose of lazily lounging around on the sofa with such grace that I suspect they may have practiced it before.

Click to see the rest of the photo shoot on G+
Click to see the rest of the photo shoot on G+

At First Sight


We return this week to the suit of Cups, our last suit, with Love.

The Two of Cups: Love

In each of the aces, we saw the element that they represented expressed in its purest, most abstract form. The Ace of Cups represented a singular, pure idea of love that had no specific object. With the twos, we see that idea in its simplest concrete expression. Love here has a focus - it becomes more real by being shared. 

The Two of Cups: Love
The Two of Cups: Love

The Love this card represents is a young love, a newborn love that hasn't yet been tested by hardship or struggle. It's that immediate, overwhelming infatuation or crush. It's Romeo and Juliet. Of course, we know that in the long run Romeo and Juliet don't do so well (spoilers), but that's all still ahead of them. While there are darker cards to come in the story of the cups, right now, in this moment, it's all pink clouds and warm feelings.

I imagined this scene being about two strangers meeting one morning at a coffee shop (my "Green Lotus Coffee" logo is meant to suggest a more well-known and ubiquitous brand). While checking their respective emails, they reach for their mugs at the same moment and happen to touch, and notice each other. Thanks again to Dev and Laura for modeling this moment for me.

A note on the pips, and how I'm planning to handle the suit of cups: In the rest of the set, I've stuck with a consistent pip design (the disks, wands and swords) which appear on each of the numbered cards. I had originally planned to use the same crystal goblet across all ten cards of the suit, but I decided to break with my previous style a bit and use a different kind of cup for each card, returning to the crystal goblet one last time with the ten. 

The Princess' Story

I finally got an opportunity to meet and then photograph backer Susan Goodell recently. She flew into New York to take in some Broadway shows and pose for me as the Princess of Cups. You may recall that I began taking some reference shots for this card over a year ago, when my mother-in-law helped set up a scene with a dressmaker's dummy and sewing machine. It was delightful to meet Susan after all this time, and thank her for being the backer who pushed this project over the initial goal. 

Susan Goodell as The Princess of Cups
Susan Goodell as The Princess of Cups

With Susan's photo shoot complete, I have only one more photoshoot to schedule for backers at the "Join the Cast" level, which we'll hopefully complete by the end of this month.

Of Storms and Soverigns

A lot of work since my last update - I'm finally at the point at which I've got a pretty solid plan for the remaining cards in the set. With the completion of the Emperor, I have only 14 cards still to complete out of the 78-card set, and I've already done photo shoots for four of them. I have the last two photo shoots for my top-tier backers coming up in October, and I'm excited to get to them. As I walk around NY now, it is with a little bit of regret, because now that I know everything that I'm planning to depict with the remaining cards, I also am aware of all of the cool buildings and neighborhoods and statues around the city that won't ultimately make it onto a card. 

The Emperor

This is among the most straightforward of the trumps when it comes to meaning. The Emperor represents law and order, the safety of social structure and the power of government. He can be good or bad, a tyrant or a noble guardian, depending on the circumstances. But ultimately, the emperor is Father, and has all of the associations with the paternal role just as the Empress is Mother and the representation of maternal power. In the context of the city and my tarot, the Emperor is the mayor of New York.

I had my father pose for this card, in what I imagined as a combination of our mayor Michael Bloomberg, Winston Churchill, and Balon Greyjoy (a reference that only fans of Game of Thrones are going to understand). I see him standing proudly on the East River, giving a speech under the shadow of the Brooklyn Bridge in the midst of Hurricane Sandy's pummeling stormfront, refusing resolutely to surrender to mother nature's fury.

My father, Elliot Grossman, is in reality pretty far from the stone-faced lord of the city I portrayed him as here - the hardest part of the photo shoot was getting him to stop being goofy long enough to get a serious expression. I asked him to read sections of Churchill's speeches from 1940 while gesturing forcefully to get him in the right frame of mind:

Shooting the Cups

I've done a couple of photo shoots this past week for the minor cards of the suit of cups. The next card I'll be working on will be the two, subtitled "Love". Adorable married friends Dev Purkayastha and Laura Simpson posed on request for me at the local Starbucks:

Assembling the Spreadcloths

A large box has recently arrived to my apartment from Spoonflower, containing 100 yards of printed cotton silk fabric, with my subway-inspired spreadcloth design printed 300 times across it. My amazing wife Amy (who you can see being an invaluable assistance in both of the above photo shoots; not to mention every other part of this project) has taken on the task of turning that into 300 finished spreadcloths, stitched around all four edges and attached to a purple fabric backing. Expect some progress shots of that as we get underway on that soon.

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Angel of the Waters

I think I will enjoy the headspace that the suit of cups takes me to. Since I embarked on this kickstarter, I've passed through the realm of passion and idealism, and then into materiality (the suit of pure reason having been completed back when I was an undergrad, years ago). But now I'm entering into the world of reflection, insight, emotional intelligence, and pure love. I like it here. I'd never considered it to this very moment, but I may have left for last the suit where I feel most at home. And on we go.

The Ace of Cups

This is the card of pure, elemental water. It is the root of everything that water reflects and embodies, the eternal wellspring, the calm pool, the cool rain. I like to think of the aces are each a beginning to a different kind of story. If the ace of swords is the beginning of a theory, ace of wands the beginning of a movement and the ace of disks the beginning of a company, then the ace of cups is clearly the beginning of a relationship. So imagine this card as that chance romantic encounter, an unexpected meeting that seems full of promise. To drag up a well-worn romantic cliche (which I'm sure will not be the last we'll see in this suit) this card is love at first sight, or rather, it is that first sight which holds the infinite potential of love.

Since I now have all four aces complete, I thought it might also be fun to see them all side by side for the first time. There's a pretty startling evolution in style from where I started, but I hope  in the end they all still feel like a natural part of the same set.

As each of my four aces centers around a different piece of New York public art/architecture, I've chosen here to depict the famous Bethesda fountain in Central Park, on the shore of The Pond. The fountain, I'm sure, has been the location of many first meetings, and on any nice day in the summer you're find at least one couple decked out in their wedding attire, taking photos by the water. But in addition to it's romantic atmosphere, the location also has an important connection to the history of water in New York. 

By the early 19th century, New York was already a growing metropolis, and it was struggling to provide clean drinking water to a growing population. The fountain was constructed to commemorate the 1842 opening of the Croton Aqueduct, which brought unpolluted water into the city from Westchester. Emma Stebbins sculpted the fountain, which she titled Angel of the Waters, making her the first woman to be commissioned for a major piece of public art in the city. At the dedication ceremony, Stebbins drew a connection from between the new aqueduct and a biblical pool, quoting John 5:2-4: 

Now there is in Jerusalem by the sheep market a pool, which is called in the Hebrew tongue Bethesda, having five porches. In these lay a great multitude of invalid folk — blind, halt, withered — waiting for the moving of the water. For an angel went down at a certain season into the pool and troubled the water. Whosoever then first stepped in, after the troubling of the water, was made whole of whatsoever disease he had.

There is a tradition in the tarot of placing a dove above the cup on this card, to indicate the sanctification of the Holy Ghost. As I'm inclined not to use specifically Christian symbols in my own thinking, let us say that my angel simply represents Pure Love. I hope that many of my Christian friends would agree that this is a difference that makes no difference. The towers in the background are the lovely and much sought-after San Remo apartments, which are indeed overlooking Central Park West, but are not directly visible behind the angel as I've placed them here. 

Minor note on technique: in order to get all the detailed shapes of the trees and falling water, I've used my wacom tablet much more here than I usually do. For the most part,  I draw every shape in my art with a mouse and a polygonal selection tool, click to click to click. I tend not to like the shape that digital brushstrokes have, and being a bit of a perfectionist about these things, I prefer to draw my own shapes rather meticulously. In this case though, outlining each droplet and leaf seemed like an endless and unrewarding task, and the digital brush allowed me to create some lovely stippling marks. 

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The Throne of Water

I'm back with new art, and feelin' good about it. I'm now on a new computer, and chugging away. Her name is Pixie, after Pamela Colman Smith's nickname. My former desktop, Lovelace, has sadly passed away, her final moments being marked by a burst of sparks and smoke from her motherboard.

The Queen of Cups: The Therapist

Those of you who have been following along since the beginning may recall that I shot the reference for this card back in July of last year. I've made this the first card from the suit of Cups, so as to get it done in time for the model's 80th birthday party this weekend. Happy birthday, Marcy!

The Queen of Cups represents the role of water in the context of water; the emotional center of the court cards. She is kind, affectionate and comforting. She is perfectly accepting - receiving others without judgement of any kind, and stands for calm reflection and introspection. She is the queen of the still pond, the surface of which is a mirror. The Queen's own nature is hard to grasp, for when you gaze into her depths, you only see yourself.

Representing this card as a therapist was an easy decision, and I'm happy to be able to honor that role in my set; without the help of a therapist in my formative years, I would not be the relatively well-adjusted man I am now. The surrealistic direction that I was drawn to, in bringing the koi pond into the office, feels appropriate to the dreaminess that is an essential part of this suit. I'd like to continue that theme throughout the Cups, where appropriate. This color palette, full of warm brown and cool blue also feels like a good starting place, as we depart from the strong greens and golds of the suit of disks.

I'm particularly struck with this card, remembering all of the strange little private stories that each texture I use carries. The wood of the tray is a scan of my grandfather's old desk. The printer is the aluminum case for a Palm V organizer I owned in the late 90's. The base texture of the water comes from some shampoo I photographed for a friend's website design many years ago. The textile pattern I dressed Marcy in is from origami paper that my wife bought for her own papercraft projects, her blouse is a photograph of some whipped cream I spread in a baking dish earlier this week for just this pupose. Sometimes it feels like the palette I'm using is the half-remembered bits of my own strange life, and I like the thought that those odd details of my recollection live on in this new form, totally unrecognizable from where they began.

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