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The Crimson Tarot is a series of mixed media collages based on the 22 Major Arcana of The Tarot, a powerful and esoteric set of cards representing a system of ancient, mystical wisdom using archetypal symbols.  The Crimson Tarot is an art deck of just the 22 Major Arcana.  A full deck of Tarot consists of the 22 Major Arcana, or Trump cards, and 56 Minor Arcana divided into 4 suits, from which playing cards are derived.  The Major Arcana represents cosmic principals and its symbols serve as guidance to help the viewer find self-knowledge and a connection to Divine Source.  
For this art deck series I have used oil pastel, acrylic paint and two dimensional found object collage on cardboard pieces roughly 25”x30”.  The imagery of The Crimson Tarot is based on the ideas of ancient archetypal symbolism, multiculturalism, feminism and the spiritual belief in a change for the better in human kind.  Throughout the nearly ten year process of creating this series, not only have I learned a lot about the Tarot, its history and symbolism, the occult, spiritual growth, and the creative process, I have also learned a lot about myself.  It is my hope that in viewing The Crimson Tarot that the viewer will not only enjoy the visual richness, but will learn about themselves and perhaps be guided in their own spiritual growth.


My journey with making The Crimson Tarot started nearly 10 years ago in my studio apartment in Albuquerque , New Mexico while attending graduate school in Art Education at the University of New Mexico .  I was spontaneously inspired to create a mixed media collage with supplies that I just happen to have lying around.  After I was finished I realized that I had made The Fool card in the Tarot, which is the zero card, or the first card of the 22 Major Arcana.  The Fool represents the hero, or the self, embarking on a journey towards self- actualization or self-knowledge, which is in turn represented by the World or #21, the last of the Major Arcana.  So, The Fool set me off on the beginning of my own journey of completing a series of the all 22 Major Arcana of the Tarot.  Each subsequent card I worked on was a journey in and of itself.  As the Fool chose me to create it, the other cards randomly chose me to create them as well.  As I researched, meditated on and delved into the meaning of each card, I realized the essence of the card was pertinent to where I was at that time in my life or there were special lessons to learn from that card at the time. 

I worked on each card in my spare time while studying in graduate school and through my first years as a high school art teacher.  The life of a graduate student and a beginning teacher does not afford much time to make art, but the impulse to work on the series was always present.  I never worked in an artist studio, but rather in my “studio” apartments (in Albuquerque , Santa Cruz and finally Oakland ).   Thus, I was living with my art, dabbling on it and able to peruse and self critique throughout my daily routines.  Furthermore, for the collage portion of the series, I would collect 2 dimensional found objects that struck my fancy from my day to day wanderings: ticket stubs, maps, letters, stamps, match books, bottle caps, flyers, loteria cards, newspapers, packaging, fabric scraps, etc...  So, I was always thinking about the series in the back of my mind somewhere.

I would start creating a card by doing research in Tarot books, taking notes and meditating on the meaning and symbols of the card I was about to create.  I would then make many sketches in my sketchbook to figure out the look I was after and the best composition.  In order to keep the series cohesive, I intentionally kept similar elements in each piece: female figures (for the most part) done in oil pastel, crimson red acrylic paint background (thus the name The Crimson Tarot), acrylic gold highlights, light blue oil pastel highlights, found object collage, and borders.  Part of the planning process was to arrange these elements in a different way for each piece. Sketching out the human figure was a big part of the initial stages as well.   In the beginning I based my human figures on found photos from various sources; newspapers, magazines, flyers.  In the later years I was better able to sketch out figures from ideas in my head. 

When I was happy with the basic idea, I would then first sketch the central figure in pencil on a roughly 25” x 30” piece of cardboard.   I used cardboard primarily because it was handy and inexpensive.  Also because I enjoy the texture it creates when using oil pastels.  One of the main inspirations for using cardboard was Toulouse Lautrec.  On my inspirational tour through Europe’s museums in ‘88/’89, I noticed that Toulouse-Lautrec used cardboard for some of his oil paintings and pastels in the Musee D’Orsay in Paris. I wanted to emulate the texture that came through from the cardboard in Toulouse-Lautrec’s art.  Another reason why I am drawn to the use of cardboard is that I am fascinated by using recycled materials in art and recycling in general.  While living in New Mexico in the mid 90’s I was influenced by the Recycled Re-seen show at the International Folk Art Museum in Santa Fe , chronicling ingenious recycled art from around the world.  Cardboard may seem an odd choice of material, but to me its use was a purposeful and aesthetic decision. 
After sketching the central figure on the cardboard, I would fill it in using oil pastel.  I have long enjoyed using pastels, both chalk and oil, and prefer to work with them on colored backgrounds or paper with tooth or texture.  So, to me cardboard is a perfect match with oil pastels.  The figure’s skin tones are a diffusion of different colors: I laid down many colors with oil pastels then blended over them together with white or a light color.  This has much significance.  Firstly, I was influenced to use this technique of using lots of colors for skin tone and visible brushstrokes by the Impressionists painters, such as Degas, Monet, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec whom I studied extensively.  Also, I was aware that in many traditional Tarot decks fair skinned European figures dominated the imagery, so I consciously set out to make my figures culturally ambiguous (and female, more on this later); to me they seem to be a mix of cultures.  I felt I could show this by using a rainbow of colors for the skin tone.
After I was satisfied with the central figure, I would then fill in the background or negative space, with a rich crimson acrylic paint, almost a Chinese red.  I was inspired to buy this paint along with an interference acrylic gold one day long ago at the Lenz art store in Santa Cruz from a divine suggestion from one dear yet anonymous salesperson.  Somehow she knew just what I needed! She said the two particular colors, red and gold, went so well together and I agreed!  I just happened to have the tubes of paint around when I was working on the first card, The Fool, so many years ago.  The flat crimson red background I felt was a nice contrast to the colorful texture of the oil pastel figure and found object collage.
The next step, after the acrylic crimson red background was finished, was to move on to the collage section of each piece.  I sorted through my “files” of 2 dimensional found objects I had collected in my daily meanderings and chose items that felt right for the specific card I was working on, often in a certain color scheme that would match the rest of the imagery. 

When selecting an item for the collage section, I would tune in to my cosmic source, holding it up to the rest of the imagery and get an instant yeah or nay.  Once I had a good “palette” of collage elements to choose from, I would piece together the collage elements like a patchwork quilt basing each element on how it “fit” with the surrounding pieces. I chose some collage elements that connected well to the theme or meaning of the particular card, but mostly they had no connection; they were simply a play with color, line, shape and texture.

The piecing together of the found object collage is not only reminiscent of making a quilt, but of mosaic tile work.  During my travels I was fortunate to be impressed by the bedazzling mosaic tile work in the architecture of Antonio Gaudi in Barcelona and the similar stimulating and colorful mosaic tile work in the sculptures of Nikki de San Phalle.  Of course, Nikki de San Phalle’s Garden of the Tarot sculpture garden in southern Tuscany was a big influence on making my own Tarot deck as well as the impressive art deck series of etchings on the Major Arcana by Kathleen Morris, which I discovered at The Turner Carroll Gallery in Santa Fe , New Mexico .  Speaking of being influenced by wonderful artists, I was fortunate enough to work with a dear artist friend, Jan Goldman, in his California Sierra mountain home in the early ‘90’s on a mosaic tile staircase.  Jan was a genius artist and I was a young artist influenced by his improvised technique of mosaic making.  Meanwhile, his wife, Penelope Critchlow was making colorfully ingenious found object hand made weaving.  Jan, and his step daughter and my friend Veda Ozelle, also made impressive collages from magazine images.  I learned a lot from this incredibly creative family and I was lucky to be exposed to so many impressive artists on my travels.

The last few steps in creating each of the art cards were to work on the border and background elements, usually done in oil pastel, and adding highlights of interference gold acrylic paint. The interference gold paint is fun to use as it can be used on its own or on top of another element. I enjoy using it on top of the oil pastel. Depending on the light or the angle of the viewer you can see the gold or it is hidden. This sparkly effect is also complimented by the use of metallic papers in the collage section of each piece. Thus each piece looks different depending on the play of surrounding light. The contrast between the expressive figurative drawing and more two dimensional decorative elements can be traced to the influence of Gustav Klimt’s painting which I studied. Klimt used flat gold and design elements to compliment his beautiful and expressive female figures. These ideas also come through my work.

This was the basic procedure and general creative process I went through in making each of the 22 Major Arcana art cards over a nearly 10 year period. Often I am asked how long each piece took to create. That depended on how busy I was at the time. Often it took several months. For a brief period where I was not in school or teaching and could devote my time to art making, the quickest it took to create one card was about a month from start to finish.
Working on the Tarot series seems to me a natural extension from the body of work I was creating previously. Often people commented that my compositions reminded them of Tarot cards. As an undergraduate studying art history I was fascinated with symbolism in art. I was drawn to the ideas of Carl Gustav Jung and archetypal symbols from the collective unconscious. The myriad of symbols in Tarot cards are often called archetypal. I based my final project in Art History on the iconic symbolism in art throughout the world and my final art show in printmaking in my senior year was entitled “Symbols from Within.”  Furthermore, I was seriously influenced by my travels and studies in Art History in Italy during my undergraduate junior year abroad. I spent most of my time in Florence and Northern Italy , where evidence of the first Tarot decks can be traced in the Middle Ages.  The use of gold and much of the symbolism is based on influences of Medieval and Renaissance art. Much of the art of these time periods often used gold leaf and rich, noble colors as well as borders, architectural elements and human figures. Furthermore, the art from these time periods in Europe was full of religious, spiritual, classical and archetypal symbolism, as is the Tarot imagery.

In my studies in Art History, I have always been fascinated about the notion that artist’s work often reflects or is influenced by the zeitgeist of the time and place.  (Zeitgeist is a German word meaning the spirit of the time; the taste and outlook characteristic of a period or generation.)    In any period of history, in general, most artist’s work resembled their contemporaries.  Artwork can have a Classical style, Renaissance style or Impressionist style.  Artists who made masks in Papau New Guinea  in the 1800’s generally made then in a similar style, with individual characteristics. Similarly, Abstract Expressionist artists working in New York in the 1950’s all worked in a similar style with individual discrepancies.

I realized after noticing the artwork being made by many of my contemporaries that my artwork fits into a certain zeitgeist of our times. The collage element is the most obvious zeitgeist.  Collage is a 20th Century invention and is still prevalent and evolving today.  In my art classes, when I teach collage, I often relate it to the world around us and other art forms.  I give my students a homework assignment to fine examples of collage in everyday life – not only by fine artists, but in design, advertisements, television, videos and also music.  Many of my students are into hip hop which often samples or incorporates bits and pieces of music from other sources or utilizes found object sounds from everyday life and mixes them into the beat. 

Mixed media is also a more contemporary way that artists are choosing to work.  Instead of just being a painter or photographer or sculptor, many artists are choosing to use all three together to make one mixed media piece, for example.  Any mixture of a variety of media can be used including computer technology in mixed media artworks.  My mixed media series mixes oil pastel, acrylic paint and collage.   The mixed media images in the popular book series Griffin and Sabine by Nick Bantock influenced my mixed media work. 

Collage, hip hop and mixed media to me are examples of Postmodernism. In Art, Postmodernists typically mix influences from all periods and styles, using several media in a given piece in a random fashion – like a medley of styles.  So I suppose The Crimson Tarot is an example of a postmodern zeitgeist, or as some say “po mo.”

Furthermore, I intended The Crimson Tarot to reflect that we live in a  multicultural society, or a mix of cultures.  I suppose that this is a postmodern idea as well.  The mostly female central figures are a mixture of colors and cultures.  In collecting the items for the found object collage – I unconsciously chose many items from other cultures: stamps, money, newspapers, maps, packaging, cards, images, text, etc.  Eventually I put them together on purpose to create a metaphor for the times we live in – that the world is getting smaller and understanding multiculturalism is important and that this can be a beautiful thing!   To me being exposed to other cultures makes life more rich and interesting.  Sampling different, food, music, literature, art and ideas from other cultures expands our horizons and makes us more open to other ways of life, creating a positive atmosphere to dispel ignorance and racism.  This is one of the reasons that compelled me to move to Oakland , California , one of the most culturally diverse cities on the planet.  It is my hope that in viewing and thinking about my artwork that people will become more aware of these issues.

From the start I set out to make the central figures in my Tarot series female.  One could call The Crimson Tarot feminist.  In The Crimson Tarot nearly all the central figures are female, some are androgynous and a few key characters are male: The Emperor and figures in The Lovers and Judgement.   Initially, I purposefully intended to make all the central figures in the Major Arcana  female, in response to most decks representing primarily male figures.  The more I researched, however, I discovered the belief that Tarot symbolically represents the Wisdom of the Goddess, or the Sacred Feminine.  The Sacred Feminine refers to the representation of the mystical power of the earth and mother goddess or the eternal aspect of the feminine.  It is my belief that our salvation depends on embracing the Sacred Feminine.

Since its beginnings shrouded in history, the Tarot has always been suppressed by the patriarchal church authorities.  The Tarot has been called by those fearful of and threatened by it since the middle ages as “the Devil’s picture book.”  Evidence of the early Tarot decks can be traced to the Middle-Ages in Europe , a period when the church set out to repress all non-Christian and non-patriarchal forms of religion and spirituality.  Many believe the Tarot is a book of esoteric wisdom in symbol form that represents an integration of the knowledge of the ancient, pre-Christian world.  The Tarot therefore is a pictorially camouflaged belief system.  The knowledge had to be kept hidden or secret in the face of the oppressive and militant church.  The word arcana, as in Major Arcana, comes from arcane meaning hidden or secret or occult

The imagery of the Tarot can be traced back to the Gnostic cults of the early Christian era.  Gnostic is a Greek word that means “knowledge” or  “someone who knows.”  This knowledge refers to a self- knowledge or self- awareness that one is intimately connected to God, the Divine Source or the Great Spirit.  This knowledge generally had to be attained through participation in initiation rites or mysteries.  The Major Arcana of the Tarot can be seen as a visual representation of the journey of an initiate (The Fool)  on the way to gnosis or self-knowledge, also called enlightenment in Eastern spirituality.  Later in the eighteenth century secret societies, such as the Masons and Rosicrucians that incorporate initiate rite ceremonies “rediscovered” and utilized the Tarot.  The early Christian Gnostic cults blended some Christian doctrine with elements of Greek philosophy, Jewish mysticism, Indian and Persian metaphysical teaching, Egyptian mystery rites, alchemy and astrology; all which can be considered the occult.  The occult because they had to be hidden and kept secret from the dominant and oppressive church that wanted to retain its power over the masses mostly through lies, violence and fear, such as in the Crusades and the Inquisition. 

The church could not easily wield its power over someone or a group of people who has self-knowledge and a connection to the Divine!  This idea of people with self power was a major threat to the church’s authority.

One of the main tenants of occult philosophies, pre-Christian or pagan religions and metaphysical teachings was the presence of the Sacred Feminine.  God or the Great Divine is not solely male or masculine as in Christianity.  Nor is it just Feminine.  Usually it is a blending of masculine and feminine, both are of equal importance are both are needed to be whole.  It is a balance that is represented by the yin yang symbol.   The Ancient Egyptian, Greek, Roman and Indian pantheon included both male and female gods and goddesses.  With the rise of the Judeo-Christian and Muslim religions there was only one powerful male God and thus many attempts to repress the threatening old or pagan religions and spiritual ways of thinking that believed in many deities, including women.

Women, too, in general have been repressed in many ways under patriarchy and have been considered threatening to the patriarchal church.  The idea of the Sacred Feminine has surfaced in the recent controversy over the popular novel and film, The Da Vinci Code, by Dan Brown, which reiterates a belief that Jesus and the early Christians, too believed in the Sacred Feminine and that she was represented by Mary Magdalene.  This notion was repressed by church authorities and it is believed it was not included in the Bible on purpose.  Thus the idea of Sacred Feminine also had to be kept hidden and secret or in the occult realm.

Therefore, The Crimson Tarot also represents the Sacred Feminine.  Many believe we are in a transitional time in history - the end of male dominant rule and oppression from the patriarchy and that we will see a rise of the Goddess again and the Sacred Feminine to restore a much needed balance.  To me this does not mean the Sacred Feminine’s dominance over the masculine, but female and male energy working together, a renewal of harmony.  In choosing predominately female figures for my Tarot series, I wanted to encourage this awareness of the Sacred Feminine.

1. Answers.com
2. Gearhart, Sally and Susan Rennie, A Feminist Tarot, Persephone Press, 
Watertown , Massachusettes, 1981.
3. Jayanti, Amber, Living the Tarot, Wordsworth Editions, Hertfordshire , England , 2000.
4. Walker , Barbara G., The Secrets of the Tarot: Origins, History and Symbolsim, Harper San Francisco , 1984.
5. Wikipedia