Favorite New Tarot Decks Purchased in 2011

Not all these decks were first published in 2011, but all of them were purchased, found, or gifted to me in this calendar year.    More and more, I am buying decks directly from artists (though I still keep an eye on the major publishers — because many are still able to surprise me.)

My deck collection is up to a number far too embarrassing to say out loud or put into print — and I am finding that my criteria for choosing one deck over another (and especially my criteria for leaving certain decks out of my collection) has become more direct and easy to explain than in previous years/decades.

Let me tell you what my judgements are NOT based on:

  1. The “quality” of the art.  Yes, beauty, interest, cleverness, and style all matter to me.  However content and the intention of the artist always trumps it.  I much prefer a primitive or naive artist’s style with meaning and clear intention, over slick, schooled style that has nothing to say.
  2. Commercial popularity.  In general I use a different deck of cards for every reading I do.  I have a few favorite “reading decks” that I use because the artwork, content and symbols on each card are accessible to a wider range of people.  However — I don’t just collect cards to read.  I also collect cards the way many art collectors collect art, regardless of the medium — because there is something new and interesting there.  Or because the art “speaks to me.”  Or because it provides a window into the mind of an artist I would like to know and understand.  Simply being popular or easy to understand is not enough.  There has to be some thought or idea there.  Something I want to see and to know.
  3. Being highbrow –or not.   HIGHBROW in tarot decks doesn’t really mean the same thing as HIGHBROW in — say — entertainment.  I’m not looking for classical ballet.  But neither am I looking for bawdy trouser-leg humor.  Among tarot artists and collectors (and readers), there is a kind of divide between modern decks and classic decks.  Or — between cute-and-kitschy decks, and very serious or occult decks.  I don’t seek out the cards promising the mysteries of the universe; but, I am also not looking to find (or avoid) the rare “Hello Kitty” of the tarot world.  And, yes.  There is a Hello Kitty deck, which — except for its inherent “collectability” is probably not useful.  In general, I am not a fan of the Japanese and fairy cartoon big-eyed OR button-eyed illustration styles.  But that’s just me.  And I do have a few of both.
  4. A good book.  At this point in my life, I’m not really looking for a good how-to book on the tarot, playing cards, or art in general.  I already own or have read more than my share of all those.  In the last 10 years, I have found exactly 1 book included with a tarot deck that was really interesting to me (Emily Carding’s book that accompanies her “Transparent Tarot.” — it is full to the brim with useable insights into symbolism and metaphor of the tarot.)  Most LWBs (little white booklettes) and accompanying books are either written by someone other than the artist who created the cards, or are assuming that the purchaser of the deck is starting from scratch/absolute zero and knows nothing about these decks of cards.  Either way, if an included book is useful, it is usually an accident.
  5. Magic.  I am not looking for magic.  Magic is in the people, not in the cards.
  6. Answers to Life’s Difficult Questions; The Secrets of the Universe; A Sneak Peek into the Afterlife; Turkey Soup for the Soul; or the Owner’s Manual for the Human Mind.  Even if I can survive the cloying hyperbolic preciousness of those over-used marketing gems — I still am not looking for that kind of jingo-in-the-box.  I’ve met all kinds of people who claim to know THE SECRET — and yet I’ve never met one who actually knew any secrets at all.

As for why I have chosen to leave a few decks OUT of my collection — the reason is nearly always the same:  the total lack of human intention — except possibly the intention of making a fast buck by selling people something worthless.  I have been around long enough to know that some people consider the act of conning folks out of their money, or lying just to see how many “stupid rubes” they can fool before somebody catches on — as a game.  Something to be savored.  Cheating/lying as an artform does not interest me — and it ALWAYS shows up in the art.

Tarot decks are a lot of work for one artist to create — and take many hours of serious effort and thought to produce.  Okay, there is one BIG exception in the deck called “The Minute Tarot” — which was basically produced like a bar bet — “I bet you can’t draw all 78 cards in less than 1 minute per card!” — but the result LOOKS like it took the artist 1 minute to draw each card.  And for what it is, it’s a pretty cute little deck of cards!

As much work as a deck of cards turns out to be, I am automatically skepticle of artists whose names show up again and again and again on decks by the same publisher — and none of them presents a memorable or even slightly different style of art.  They may change the color palette, the symbolism they employ, the format of the deck, or the “theme,” BUT THERE IS NO UNIQUE OR DRIVING THOUGHT in those decks.  They are just cards mass produced by a stable of starving artists who found work.

There are, of course, notable exceptions to my rule about artists who have created several tarot, divination, or playing-card decks.  Ciro Marchetti comes to mind first — he is one of a handful of geniuses in the field of computer art who have leaned their talent into making cards — among many other things.  His artworks have been used by Adobe to demonstrate just how much is possible in the medium — and each of his decks is stunning.

In the end, I would much prefer a photo collage by somebody who can’t draw a circle, to an art-schooled commercial artist’s picture-book illustrations.  But the real finds are those decks of cards with an agenda and a purpose all their own.

*****   *****   *****

Enough explaining.  This year (2011) I bought just over 40 decks of cards.  Here are my favorites:

1.  Tarot of the Silicon Dawn by Egypt Urnash

This is a deck published by Lo Scarabeo in 2011 — however, the deck (or parts of it) have been around for many years.  Egypt Urnash has had an in-progress website with many of these images  up for more than a decade.  If I remember correctly, this deck could be purchased as a 1-sheet poster of uncut cards for at least 4 years.  I never bought one, but I wonder how those card images compare to the final product.

With Lo Scarabeo, the finished product is tight, polished, and of exceptional printing quality — which would be a MUST since the artwork is so stylized and precise.  Colors have the appearance of having been block or screen printed, but the overall style is dependent on contrast and tone.  Color is my field — and I see in every card the amount of thought and deliberation that was put into color selection. — which makes me appreciate the deck even more.

A really interesting deck — with 97 cards instead of the traditional 78.  The extra cards are additional cards added to each suit, plus an entirely new suit which is almost impossible to show on a computer because it is printed black-on-black, where the only difference is in texture and between high-gloss finish, and a slightly less glossy finish.  Not only are the images dark and nearly impossible to see — but their meanings are just as dark and hidden, representing something not too far from Carl Jung’s shadow.

As you can see from the Moon trump card, the symbolism is familiar (moon, scorpion, maiden, dog, etc) — yet slightly twisted.  Far far far from the Pamela Coleman Smith / Rider Waite art.

*****   *****   *****

2. Fire Tarot By Floreana Nativo & Franco Rivolli

One of my biggest complaints about card publishers is that so many of them reduce the size of the image on the card in order to make a border/frame/matte for the image.  Lo Scarabeo does this a lot — but not all the time, as seen in the previous deck which gives every morsel of the artworks as much chance to be seen as possible.

The Fire Tarot (also published by Lo Scarabeo, has the border, but unlike most bordered cards, the frame of color actually enhances the images, rather simply wasting valuable real estate on the small format artworks — or even visually distracting from them.

The Fire Tarot is full of hot colors — oranges, golds, bright yellows, flaming reds, wines, maroons, and blood colors.  The images are dynamic, and there are at least 18 cards in this deck with images I have never seen on tarot or divination cards before.

I especially like the five of swords card in the Fire deck — because the imagery is not only unique, but offers some choices for otherwise “flat” interpretation when laid out with a constellation with other cards.  There are so few decks that view this particular card from a woman’s perspective, or even in a way that can be used in womens’ unique situations, that I especially appreciate the thought and creativity that is represented by this card.

Additionally, this deck hits one of my own personal hot buttons when I first look at a new deck of cards — the card-backs.  In the majorty of my decks of cards — especially those published by the 7 biggest commercial publishers — there are just a handful of card-back designs shared by dozens of decks.  Even though this deck is published by one of those major companies, it’s card-back design is unique, and specific to this pack of cards.

If I found a Fire Tarot card lying by itself anywhere in the world — I’d still recognize it and know where it had originated. — and this is a good thing.  I have had one, lone, 8 of pentacles sitting on a shelf for over 11 years, because it was somehow separated from its box.  The artwork is by a contemporary artist but is not so unique that anyone I know can identify where it belongs.  Plain vanilla art + plain vanilla back = lost card and frustration.

*****   *****   *****

3. Tarot of the Red Jester by Beth Sellonenred-jester-78-08266

This little deck reminds me of of several similarly simplified decks — like the Stick Figure Tarot, and the International Icon Tarot.  All three depend on a  familiarity with the tarot — and thus are not particularly useful for beginners.  Often, however, these very simple and low-key decks are excellent “breaks” from the sometimes cramped appearance of art reduced to fit on such a small format canvas.  I really like the light and uncomplicated feel of this.

*****   *****   *****

4.  Contemporary Magic: A Tarot Deck Art Project

This one came as a surprise.  There are a lot of unique and not-your-mother’s-tarot-decks out there if you just search hard enough.  Tarot decks of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are evidence that the confines of the deck itself force creativity and inspiration from what could have been a very small stone — but this one, coming from New York artists and fashion designers is it’s own kind of special.  The deck and it’s illustrated guide — barely boxed in a badly put-together box — are actually the printed catalog from an art exhibition where each of the contributing artists was asked to create a specific card for the deck.

The exhibition at the Andy Warhol Museum is where the deck caught my attention — with an upside down image of Warhol himself featured as the Major Arcana HANGMAN.

Every card is a new style — from scribbles to watercolor to photograph to collage to screen print to cartoon to pin-up art to porn.  Still, each card recalls the Rider-Waite imagry.  Okay — nearly every card.

You might have to look at the deck with Wikipedia or some other pop-culture reference index close at hand to really appreciate some of these images.  Not all of them are great art.  In fact, some of them smell faintly of being tossed off like a bar bet by some overly pompous (is that possible) artsy-fartsy type.  And yet — there are a few that just might fall into that delicate category reserved for unabashed inspiration.  Take as a whole, it is one surprise after another, and that alone is worth the price of admission.

Ao — hold on tight.  The art exhibit is in your hands with this deck.  Also — be prepared for the price ($150) because it reflects the NY art gallery origins, instead of the average cost of a US Games or Lo Scarabeo deck.

Each card carries the suit/name/number, plus the artist’s name.  The box will need some tape or glue to hold together — but the cards themselves are beautifully produced.

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