That Time I Made A Tarot Deck (SID 8)

(I wrote this first part while in the air, and it stopped when my internet ran out, so it’s not complete. I couldn’t publish it until we got internet in our new apartment, which just happened a few hours ago. There’s plenty more I could say about the whole experience, but sometimes things are better left unfinished. Maybe that’s not the case this time. Not sure. Not really for me to say, I guess! Either way, enjoy!)

I’m writing this from the air. I’m probably above Pittsburgh right now (HI PITTSBURGH!!!!) and it feels so weird to say that I “used to” live in NYC. I thought I’d have all these entries finished before I left. But I also thought I’d have finished the second draft of my novel by now. Look how things just don’t go as we planned!!!

Thirteen years ago, I left Portland, OR for NYC with two suitcases. Today, I left to return to Portland with two suitcases. And two cats. And a husband. (And a moving truck full of furniture and other sundry crap, but it sounds much more poetic to talk about the full-circle-of-two-suitcases).  I’ve returned with the two cutest cats and the most wonderful husband ever. YOU’RE WELCOME, P-TOWN!!!!

Nine years ago, I thought it would be a great idea to make a Tarot deck.

Actually, that’s not how it happened.

Nine years ago, I was doing open mics every night and reading Tarot for the underground arts scene to raise a little extra money. Often, I read in bars where it was so loud that I would have to scream my readings at people: “YOU SEE THIS GUY IN THE PANTALOONS WITH THE BIG PENTAGRAM??? THIS  REPRESENTS YOUR BOSS!!! HE’S ON COCAINE AND YOU NEED TO FIND NEW EMPLOYMENT!!!!” I was also trying desperately to write a novel, the one that would make me incredibly rich and embarrassingly famous, but I’d only get three or four pages into it before I’d quit because I didn’t know what else to say. All the while I tried to write this novel, this idea for a Tarot deck nipped at the heels of my tattered mind.

That was also about the time I took my first trip to Ireland. My digital camera died just before I went (yes…..that’s how long ago this was…..) and I didn’t have the money to get another one in time. While I was in Ireland, I got the message that it was time to stop talking about this idea I had for a Tarot deck and actually do it. My rationale: if I just get this Tarot deck done, I’ll finally have the concentration room to finish my novel–whatever novel that was. I no longer remember.

There were two problems: 1.) I can’t draw and the artwork on a Tarot deck is the most important part. 2.) I didn’t have a camera. A friend who came to Ireland with me offered to do the drawing, but I would need to send her pics to work from. #neverthelessipersisted.

Because I needed pictures and couldn’t take them, I asked my friend George if I could borrow his camera. I knew him through the Art Star scene. He took pictures of everyone and he had a very nice camera. He not only obliged, but offered to take the pictures for me.  It was then I realized he was the perfect model for the first card in my deck: The Seeker.

My first concept was of a young person getting off the train in Grand Central, ready to start their new life in NYC. George posed for me while I took a hundred pics with his camera. We couldn’t actually get a pic of him stepping off the train because taking pictures of a train is against the laws of Homeland Security (we got in trouble while we tried). It didn’t matter. The pic of him inside the great Grand Central Terminal was much more lovely than the dark, dingy background of getting off a train in real life.

Our second shot was of Reverend Jen Miller, one of the hosts of the open mic scene in NYC and a great friend of both of ours. She was the embodiment of the Queen of Wands: a woman who lived for art and had complete confidence in what she did, every moment that she did it.

More and more friends heard about the project and came forward to see how they could be involved. I saw first-hand how people could love art and want to be involved in art simply for art’s sake. In the past, doing a theater production meant that people might be willing to be in it for their own exposure. I’m not sure anyone really cared if George and I ever finished the Tarot deck. They just wanted to be a part of it because they liked the sound of it. As RevJen said, “Nothing is more important than art.”

Meanwhile, there was the pesky business of figuring out how to turn the pictures into Tarot cards. The first friend I asked to help felt, after a time, that it wasn’t the right project for her. The second artist was a guy I’d dated for a while, but fired after a spectacular fight. The third artist stared the work and suggested I change tactics. “These photos are fantastic,” he said. “I can’t improve on Picasso and I can’t improve on these pictures. Why don’t you just use photography?”

Therefore, I did.

Art comes to you and makes you think you’ve had an idea. It’s a sneaky little bastard that way. You become so happy that YOU’VE had an idea, it’s not until you’re mired in the middle of it, frustrated and confused, that you realize you’ve been had by the idea, itself. The idea wants to make its way into the world and just so happened to pick you as a conduit. Things will not go according to plan. You will want to quit. You will wonder why you started it. You will hate yourself and most people, too. And then one day, it’s done. And you will love it. And you will forget most of the pain that went into it.

I’ve written two books and creating a Tarot deck was far more difficult than either one of them. It was expensive, first of all. Shoots needed materials. Our models worked for free, but we needed to at least offer them a bottle of wine or a pot of flowers to say thank-you. I took a second job and slept very little. I worked on that deck nearly every day for two and a half years. I got angry most days. It’s so cute that I thought I’d have it done in a month. Every day, I said to myself, “Let me find one thing to move it closer to the end.”

Lots of people brought their ideas to the project. Some were great, others didn’t fit the concept. People get mad when you don’t take their ideas. Others get mad that you did the project, period. Toward the end of the project, someone who had once been a good friend turned on me. This person became vicious and I didn’t have a clue as to why. Another friend told me that person was jealous of the success of the deck. Jealous of its success??? It was costing me a fortune–in personal hours and in money. I didn’t have much of a social life. I spent it all on art. Through all of this, I had no idea if anyone would ever buy the deck. What in the world did anyone have to be jealous of??? I guess it doesn’t take much for some.

That deck, as frustrating as it could be, gave me a lot of gifts. I spent my twenty-seventh birthday in a limo with Moby, doing the King of Coins shoot. I traveled to the UK. I made incredible friends through the process. I watched as people who had no interest in Tarot but great support for me and my collaborator come out of the woodwork to buy copies of the deck. I got fan-notes from people all over the world, including one person who was incarcerated and working with the deck, saying it gave them life. I’ve done so much written work and yet that process is very different than seeing something visual in your mind and having it in your hands at the end. Seeing the protocopy of the deck was the most rewarding and yet terrifying artistic moment of my life. It was there–it was done. It was in my hands. Would the world love it? Would they take to it? Would they see what I had wanted them to?

As a matter of fact, many did.


  • Denise says:

    Courtney, I just want to tell you that I’ve been reading your post by post memoir and I love it! I look for the next installment…I’m super impressed that you wrote this last one AS you’re actually moving. That’s impossible! Anyway, just want you to know I’ve loved your writing…and I hope this isn’t the end of the series! What happened next??? Good luck in Portland!

  • Courtney, I recently acquired this deck (Tarot of the Boroughs) in a purchase from a fellow magician. I stumbled upon this thread while researching your deck. Thanks for the insight into the creation of this deck. This enhances my appreciation and enjoyment of it. The one I have is # 45 and is signed by George on the front of the box. It makes a great addition to my modest Tarot collection. Best of luck in your future endeavors in Portland! All my best, Steve Gardner–Magician-Discovery Park of America

  • Steve Gardner says:

    By the way, is this deck still available? Thanks!

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