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Interview with Joanna Powell Colbert

An Interview with Joanna Powell Colbert

1. The art for the Gaian Tarot is breathtakingly beautiful. From where did you draw inspiration when creating this deck?

I moved to a small rural island in the Pacific Northwest just before I started work on the deck. It was the first time I had ever fallen completely and utterly in love with a specific place. I was receiving so much spiritual nourishment from the landscape that it just naturally found its way into my artwork. I was also inspired by my spiritual community of people who live their lives as best they can to honor the earth and hold it as sacred.

2. You already have a following for your art; is most of your work similar to that of the deck?

Yes and no. Yes, in that I have always used real people as models for archetypal and mythological characters. I love seeing the numinous expressed in the faces and bodies of everyday women and men. It's as if our deepest, most wise selves step up to be seen. I love facial expressions and hand gestures in particular. But I used to work almost exclusively in pen-and-ink, sometimes with a watercolor wash. In the late 1990s I studied a technique called colored pencil painting, which is well-suited for photorealism. The artwork in the Gaian Tarot is done in this medium. I begin a piece by taking photos of models, then work out the composition in Photoshop by adding the background and other elements. I make a line drawing based on my photo collage, and then I start laying down the color. The richness and depth of the artwork comes from layering color over color, pencil stroke by pencil stroke.

3. Where did you get your start as an artist?

In church, actually! I was a born-again Christian for most of my 20s, and I illustrated the church newsletter and other printed materials. I perfected my pen-and-ink technique using photographs of models during that time. I always thought of myself as a writer first and an artist second, as my education is in literature, not art. I'm a self-taught artist, although I have taken many private workshops and classes over the years.

4. The deck is in the Rider-Waite-Smith tradition, but deviates in the imagery. Why did you decide to differ in this fashion?

Why re-invent the wheel? There are already so many beautiful and clever decks available that follow Pamela Coleman Smith's imagery. I wanted to bring something new to the table. I especially wanted to create a contemporary, multi-cultural deck that honors the earth. Many of the cards pay homage to Rider-Waite-Smith, even when the image is quite different. For example, the dancer's red scarf in the Gaian Sun card is a reference to the red banner in the RWS Sun card. The stone wall and sunflowers are there, too. Other cards are more radically re-envisioned, especially the Minor Arcana cards. I followed Teresa Michelsen's number system (see her book The Complete Tarot Reader) and used the pure elements of Air, Fire, Water, and Earth as the suits. So for each card, I meditated on the quality of the number and how it might express itself in a particular element. The Aces, of course, are new beginnings, so they show animals (butterfly, snake, salmon, fawn) shortly after birth. The 10s in this system are cards of transition, so they show the cycle of death and rebirth in a particular element. We see the fall migration of wild geese, a forest fire, dying and spawning salmon, and a decaying log with young ferns growing out of it.

5. The Gaian Tarot was nine years in the making. Why so long?

A number of reasons, the first being the time-intensive nature of the medium I chose (colored pencil). There are fifty to one hundred hours in each card, including ten-twenty hours on each face alone. I completed the Majors first, and the originals are around 13"x19". I worked smaller for the Minors, at about 10"x15". I wasn't able to work full time on the artwork, as I had to earn a living and have a personal life as well. For a few years, I worked at my web design business and took care of my elderly father as he was failing. I didn't get much artwork done during that time, even though there was always at least one piece on the drawing board. In retrospect, I think that the depth of my life experience during those nine years found its way into the deck and made it all the richer.

6. What can users of the deck expect from the Gaian Tarot?

They can expect to recognize themselves in the images, and to see the bonds of community and friendship. They can expect the Green Ones of the forest and shore to speak to them. They can expect to see many symbols in the suits and not just one (like swords or cups). They can expect to be delighted—and perhaps challenged—by the gender reversals in many of the cards. They can expect to see radically re-visioned Emperor, Hierophant, and court cards. They can expect to internalize the cycle of descent and return as mirrored in the Moon and Wheel cards, and in the structure of the Minors. They can expect to find a vision of hope and healing for themselves, and for our beloved Mother Earth.

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