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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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Fashioning Dreams

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Hello again, Urban Tarot supporters. It's been a little while since we've spoken, but it seems like a great deal of life has happened in the intervening time. 

I feel inclined to apologize for the long break since the last update, and to provide some kind of explanation for what I've been up to. But the truth is, the last few months have been such a monumental storm of major life changes and emotional upheavals, I've just been in no state to really focus on my art. It's been difficult, and while there's still a lot going on in my world right now, I'm finally getting back to a place where I'm ready to work again. So instead of coming back with an apology for things I cannot expect to control, I'll instead come back with gratitude and with a renewed commitment - thank you all so much for sticking with me and with this project. It wouldn't exist without you. This deck continues to be my first priority and primary focus, and whatever delays life sends my way, it will get done. And soon -  only 7 more cards still to go...

The Princess of Cups: The Costume Designer

Having one foot in the dreamy world of Water, and one on the solid surface of Earth, the Princess of Cups has the power to crystallize the stuff of imagination into beautiful reality. A kind and gentle dreamer, the Princess embraces the most positive aspects of the element of Water and then uses them to fuel her creativity. She is a lover of romance, of wonder, and of grand stories. 

The Princess of Cups: The Costume Designer
The Princess of Cups: The Costume Designer

There is, of course, a danger in becoming too wrapped up in the world of dreams. Lacking the clarity of Air or the passion of Fire, The Princess needs to keep herself grounded to the real world, or she might find herself trapped in a castle in the sky built of her own imaginings.

I want to thank backer Susan Goodell for both modeling for this card, and providing the primary inspiration for its direction. When I initially interviewed Susan back at the beginning of this project, she told me about how much she loves Broadway shows, and how she plans every trip she makes to New York around which shows she can get tickets to see. It occurred to me that, if we could describe New York as having a dream life, its dreams play out each night on the theatre stages of the city. I decided that I wanted my Princess of Cups to have a role in building those dreams, so I imagined her as a costume designer, helping to transform imaginary characters into reality through their clothing. 

I imagined my Princess working out of a tiny, basement level studio, crowded with materials and bits of inspiration, right in the heart of the theatre district. In reality, her surroundings are meager, but in her imagination transforms it into center stage. The costume she has just completed will soon glitter under a spotlight, playing a part in a fairy tale that is retold before a new audience every night.

Happily Ever After

One of the many exciting developments of the last few months was the birth of my roommates' healthy baby daughter. Little Amelia Rose is just six weeks old now, and we're delighted to have her around. Shortly before the big day, I took the happy moms out for a quick photo shoot. Jennifer and Sarah will be the primary figures for my 10 of Cups, coming up soon. Here's a quick preview of what's in store for that card.

Jennifer and Sarah Salenger
Jennifer and Sarah Salenger

Shattered Hopes

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A troubling card, with troubling feelings attached to it. I mentioned in the last update that I was still working on a complicated setup for this piece, involving a multi-person photo-shoot. As you'll see, I've changed my approach a bit since then. I ended up not photographing any models and instead wound up buying, smashing, and then photographing a lot of porcelain and glass to create this card.

The Five of Cups: Disappointment

The fives are always trouble, of course. Midway through our journey in each suit, we will find the place of opposition, where the guiding element encounters it's natural opposite and risks losing everything it has gained. The optimistic planning of Air hits the punishing reality of Earth, and meets Defeat in the five of Swords. The passion of Fire meets the complexity of personal feeling in Water, and leads to Strife in the Five of Wands. The stable promise of Earth is shaken by the mortal fears of Air, and creates Worry in the Five of Disks. Finally, in this card, we see that perfect relationship we began in the Two of Cups come crashing down around us. The dream of Water has been caught up in the spiraling chaos of Fire.

The Five of Cups: Disappointment
The Five of Cups: Disappointment

Disappointment feels like such a mild word for so much pain. What does it mean, when you are disappointed by someone close to you? What does it feel like to know that someone you love is disappointed in you? It can be a crushing, lonely feeling. There is grief there, and anger, and certainly fear. Is your relationship a lie? Has the person you trusted betrayed your trust? Have you lost everything you'd been working so hard to achieve?

The feelings we see in this card are hard to pin down, but if you have known love in your life, you have certainly also known the pain of disappointment. You had high hopes for what could have been, for who that person you put your trust in was, for who they were capable of being. You have learned something, but it was something you hoped never to learn. Perhaps someone you put your trust in was not worthy of it. Perhaps it was you. Perhaps it was inevitable. Perhaps it was obvious to everyone but you. In this moment, does it matter?

What happened to lead to the scene we see here? A break up? A divorce? The discovery of infidelity? An act of violence? Death? It could by all of the above, or something else entirely. The point is less the specifics of the narrative, and more the feelings involved, and the aftermath of their expression. What we hoped would last has been shattered. Whether it can be repaired or not is another question.

In piecing together an image for this card that spoke to me, I admit I was up against one large obstacle - I'm a really big fan of Pamela Colman Smith's version of this card. That solitary, black figure elegantly conveys such a powerful and immediate sense of grief, I was tempted to simply try to recreate that scene in a modern context. I was originally going in a more funerary direction with my vision of this card, but I was bothered by something. The grief of mourning, while overwhelming, can imply a "cleaner" kind of sadness. Death, at least, is a definite kind of ending, and I don't think we have that satisfying sense of closure here. Fitting this card into the context of the suit of cups, I wanted something more turbulent, implying anger, grief, shame, and all the other messy kinds of pain that can come with the ending of a relationship. A friend of mine suggested "broken wedding china" to me, and I realized those three words were the perfect symbol.

The Five of Cups, by Pamela Colman Smith
The Five of Cups, by Pamela Colman Smith

Speaking of symbols, the flowers on the floor are intended to be marigolds, and the china pattern on the dishware features pinecones. Both choices were somewhat deliberate, for those who care about such details.

And yes, by the way, that is a raw steak in the background. I first used that texture on the Death card, but it was fun to bring it back and make it a bit more prominent. I wanted that broken china hutch to feel like an open chest wound.

Wedding Night Sex

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I hope you've all had a lovely weekend, and a happy holiday if you've recently gotten to enjoy one. I'm not usually a fan of Valentine's Day myself, but this card has had me in a particularly romantic mood. 

Once again, you'll note, I'm skipping over the somewhat-troublesome five for the time being, in order to get to the simpler six. The five will once more require a multi-person scene, and some extra photo reference that I'm still working out. In the meantime...

The Six of Cups: Pleasure

The four sixes, to quote Aleister Crowley in regards to the Thoth tarot, are "representative of their respective elements at their practical best". When we reach the six of each suit, we have passed through the early, uncertain steps of the ones through threes, hit that intial successful plateau of the four, and then fallen into the trouble and strife of the five. We have passed through that, and found a new kind of harmonious balance. As we pass on to seven, each element begins to have problems within itself, and becomes overexpressed, but in the six, we have everything working the way we want. 

The Six of Cups: Pleasure
The Six of Cups: Pleasure

The Six of Cups represents Pleasure, and yes, it's certainly the sex card. But the cups are not concerned with simple physical pleasure - the element of water is about the emotional dimension, and the power of the bonds we form with each other. So this card is not just any sex, it's perfect sex. It's the kind of sex that brings you closer to your partner, that deepens and renews the love between you. This card often has connotations of fertility, and kindness and innocence, and I see that as all part of the same idea. The Six of Cups represents sexuality without guilt or shame, the sex that you can feel entirely good about. It is perhaps best imagined as that idealized wedding night sex, on clean white silk sheets. 

I've chosen some long-stemmed white wine glasses for this card (well, actually, I bought one glass, then took photos of the light shining off of it at several different angles). Going with a different kind of cup for each card in the set has certainly been additional work, but I'm happy I went with it. Creating the illusion of all that transparency has been tricky, but fun.

Thank you to Jay Powell and Katherine Molina-Powell for their excellent hand modeling work. I was honored to serve as one of the groomsmen for their wedding on a beach in the Dominican Republic a couple of years ago. Jay has been a model in the set already, when he posed as the Prince of Swords many years back. Looking back, I used the exact same natural paper texture for his skin then, and was apparently just as fascinated with Jay's long fingers and interesting, wrinkly joints. 

If you'd like to see some behind-the scenes shots of how I posed them, and what's actually happening outside the frame of this card, you can check it out here: https://plus.google.com/photos/113639566912606521037/albums/5923985194245029393?authkey=CMq4mOSqjLyMuwE

Jay and Kathy pose for the Six of Cups
Jay and Kathy pose for the Six of Cups

Composition and Balance

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Hello, Urban Tarot followers, I hope your new year is looking up so far. Thank you for sticking with me as the project continues to develop. It's been while since the last update, but we're on the move once more. Holiday travels, combined with some major shifts around our household have interrupted my progress, but I'm setting into a new office now and looking forward to tearing into the last ten images still remaining in the set. 

Since my last update, our roommates of 8 years, Jessica (who modeled for Jusice and Strength) and Chris (The Hermit), have moved out to a new house of their own in Pittsburgh. Soon after, following a lot of uncertainty and worry, my wife and I were delighted to welcome a new couple into our home. Sarah has already been a model for me recently (The Nine of Disks) but you'll be seeing both her and her wife Jen in one of the remaining cards.

The Prince of Cups: The Filmmaker

Representing the calm air over the sea of troubled water, the Prince of Cups approaches the world of emotions with a careful, sometimes cold, distance. While he may contain a deep sea of emotional complexity himself, he tends to be guarded about letting others see his vulnerability. Instead, he externalizes that conflict, and looks for ways to evoke those emotions in others. 

The Prince of Cups: The Filmmaker
The Prince of Cups: The Filmmaker

Will this scene make his audience understand real pain? Will this particular phrasing convey the full force of love? Can this photograph evoke profound loneliness and despair? Each move is measured, calculated to produce a specific effect. The Prince is a master of the emotional sea, but appears to walk above it, keeping a careful and professional distance. Sometimes there can be a kind of cruelty there - is it art, or cunning manipulation? Are his emotions ever genuine, or simply perfectly designed to look genuine? 

The Queen of Swords: The Painter
The Queen of Swords: The Painter

Compare our Prince of Cups to his twin, the Queen of Swords (actually the second image I created for this set back in 2003, with Ms. Debbie Trencher sitting for me as model). Both are the combination of Air and Water, and I've portrayed both as artists of a sort. Our Queen of Swords is a Painter, and her work requires the skill, patience and forethought of Air, but she is fueled by Water in all she does. When she paints, it is because she feels and the work follows her feeling. Perhaps it conveys those feelings well, perhaps it is incomprehensible to others, but what always comes across is the emotion she puts into it. The Prince of Cups, by contrast, works for his audience. His work is driven by the need to evoke, to beguile and to charm. He is happiest when people see themselves in his work and he, the creator, is completely forgotten. Not satisfied with simply portaying personal truths, the Prince strives to touch something universal.

I won't hide the fact that I associate pretty strongly with the Prince of Cups myself. If I were to pick one of the 16 court cards to most often represent myself, it would be this one. But the obvious question is, how do I want you to feel about that statement? :)

Many thanks to backer Rob Burke who flew out to me and modeled for this card back in July of '12. I know it was a long time coming, but I hope you're happy with how the final piece came out.

Getting Comfy

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A Happy Thanksgivnukkah week to the American Jews on the list. My wife and are looking forward to a fun hybrid feast this Thursday. I'll be attempting a batch of apple cider sufganiyot with cranberry jelly filling, accompanied by some Manischewitz Ice Cream. Should be interesting.

The Four of Cups: Luxury

With each of the fours, we reach a place of stability and of security. In the realm of emotions represented by the suit of cups, stability is both highly prized and a bit worrying. We all want to know where we stand, to have someone else that we know can rely on for support and let our guard down around. But when our relationships become too comfortable, they can also become suffocatingly stale. 

The Four of Cups: Luxury
The Four of Cups: Luxury

The relationship that began at first sight in the Two of Cups has lasted past the honeymoon phase of the Three and has entered that space where you and your partner can enjoy comfortable silences, where you can watch tv together, enjoy cookies and milk in your underwear, and simply relax in each other's presence without even interacting directly. We have a life of luxury - not a luxury borne from material wealth but from having all we need emotionally within easy reach. We can rest, knowing that we are supported and loved by someone who has known us at both our best and our worst. There is still a richness of love here, but it's lost the sense of exciting newness it once had. My wife put it exactly right when she told me this card represents a relationship where people are no longer afraid to fart in front of each other.

Comfort and stability is an essential part of any healthy long term relationship, but if you get caught up in it, it can become the start of a long downward slope towards the end. Without risk and excitement, without romance, it's easy to fall into a rut that you never pull yourselves out of.

A big thank you again to Eblyn Felix and Shawn Roberts for posing as my couch-surfing couple for this card.