Thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview!
How long have you been reading tarot? What got you started?
I started reading tarot in 1996 when I was a newbie pagan. It was a period where I was trying out everything–tarot, herbs, crystals, totems, etc. My first deck was the Shapeshifter Tarot, because I liked the concept of being able to assume the forms of other animals, even if only in spirit, and the artwork was lovely. In 1999 I discovered Ted Andrews’ Animal-Wise deck, and it was love at first sight. We worked out our own directional/elemental spread together, and it’s been my main form of divination since, more from a totemic perspective than a strictly tarot-based one.
Coming back to the tarot through the Tarot of Bones has been something of a homecoming for me. I’m older and more experienced, and I have a more nuanced and personal view of the cards and their symbolisms. Early on, I stuck mostly to the books; I was especially fond of P. Scott Hollander’s “Tarot For Beginners”. Now I’m reforming my own relationships with the tarot cards, and while I follow some of the common themes, there’s a lot of personal interpretation.
I love what you say on your website about your use of Bones, especially the part, I hope you don’t mind if I quote, “Through bones we can speak with our evolutionary ancestors; through divination we create patterns that help us make sense of the world around us–and the worlds within.” What started your wonderfully morbid hobby of collecting and creating art with bones?
I’m not sure I’d call it “morbid”, though it certainly is wonderful! When I was a kid I was always bringing home little natural treasures–feathers, leaves, bones, etc. These were unfortunately lost when we moved from one place to another. However, in my late teens I found myself with a pickup truck and a small income, and so I was able to go to craft stores, antique shops and the like to pick up hide scraps, old fur coats, and so forth. In 1998 I began creating and selling artwork made from these remains, first small projects like pouches and necklaces, and then more elaborate costumes and other pieces.
It’s an intensely spiritual practice for me, always has been. I wanted these remains to have a better “afterlife” than being a trophy or status symbol, and I wanted to care for the spirits that were still within them, even if they were just haunts or impressions. So everything I create, even if it has a seemingly mundane purpose, is sacred. Everything gets a ritual purification with prayers once complete, and I make offerings through donations to nonprofit organizations that benefit wildlife and their habitats. These are our relatives, even if somewhat distant, and they deserve care and attention like our human ancestors.
They’re also a constant reminder of the world beyond our human-centered habitats. We keep thinking in terms of “natural” and “artificial”, when in actuality we are just human apes and everything we do is an extension of the big brains we evolved as a survival strategy. Yet we make decisions as though we are the only ones who matter. My hides and bones, especially my skull collection, help remind me otherwise; they’re sort of a council that I consult.
What other items besides bones are you drawn to as tarot and art mediums?
Honestly, I mostly stick to making art with animal remains and other natural and recycled materials. I have drawn on a wide set of skills in creating the Tarot of Bones assemblages–painting, sculpting, adhesives, design, etc. And I do use these skills in my more general artwork, but it’s more along the lines of using acrylic paints to decorate a leather pouch or animal skull necklace, rather than creating an acrylic painting on a canvas as is more traditional. This is the first tarot deck I’ve designed, so I don’t know what I’d use for a medium if I created another one, but I do have a few ideas on the back burner.
I use a lot of recycled and reclaimed materials. Every one of the backboards for the assemblages came from a thrift store as did many of the other materials, from paints to faux flowers. Even a lot of the hides I work with in my artwork are secondhand or salvaged. Most of the bones were bought new or found out in the great outdoors; a lot of that is because I was very particular about which ones I used, both with regards to species and condition.
I know many readers also fall into the subcultures of vegan and animal rights activism while others simply feel uncomfortable with using animal curios. What reactions have you received over your deck?
I actually haven’t taken much flak for the Tarot of Bones in specific; I think the information on the website helps a great deal, particular where I do explain why I chose bones as opposed to other materials. Bones tend to cause less consternation than, say, fur, and I even know a few vegan pagans who pick up bones from the woods for their altars. I have gotten some negative responses for my art in general over the years, ranging from nasty comments online to, well, nasty comments in person. They usually follow the same few patterns–trying to convince me to stop my art, telling me what a horrible person I am and how someone should use my bones in artwork, etc-
-so I’ve come up with some stock responses over the years, and I try to keep the conversation brief and civil since arguing is pretty pointless. It happens to everyone who makes hide and bone art, unfortunately, and too often the people who come in swinging aren’t interested in hearing anything that doesn’t toe their party line. So I try to keep the conflict to a minimum in situations where we aren’t able to have a more constructive conversation.
My hide and bone art is part of how I am an environmentalist; it helps remind me and others that there is more than just the human-centered world we live in, and brings a more nature-centered energy to homes otherwise filled with drywall, furniture, computers and other human things. I reclaim a lot of materials in my art, and I make sure everything gets a use–even tiny scraps end up as pillow stuffing. I donate part of the money I make to environmental nonprofits, and because I have a flexible schedule I can do some volunteering locally, too. And a lot of the vegan alternatives to my materials are pretty bad for wildlife and their habitats; plastics are almost all made with petroleum, crystals and metals are often mined with very polluting methods, cotton and other plant fibers are grown in massive monocrops that destroy habitats and poison animals through pesticides and fertilizers. Never mind that everything you buy at, say, Michael’s was made in China by underpaid, often abused labor, and was sent to the U.S. on ships that pollute the ocean with oil and other unpleasant things. I try to minimize my use of these supposedly “cruelty-free” materials, and buy them secondhand as often as I possibly can.
Without giving away your trade secrets of course, how do you purchase or find or gather your bones?
I have a few different hide and bone dealers whose sources and methods I trust for legal and ethical reasons; Custom Cranium and Frozen Critters are two of the main ones, and for resin replicas I like Arctic Phoenix and Bone Clones. I used to have more access to wild land where I was able to collect bones on my own, but these days I have neither the resources nor the time. And since I share a small apartment with two other people and we have no yard, bone cleaning isn’t really an option so I have to stick to pre-cleaned bones. But I’d rather be making art with them anyway, so it all works out–I get to support small businesses, and I have more time for what I really love doing.
Why did you decide to create permanent pieces rather than ones that you could move around and change between photos for the tarot cards? I understand this decision raised the cost of creating the tarot deck for you?
First, I’m an assemblage artist, not a photographer, when it comes to the Tarot of Bones. So my primary art form involves putting the items together into a completed piece of artwork which will then be ritually purified and sent off to its new home. The photo is just what’s necessary for translating that assemblage into an easily replicable format–tarot cards. And a lot of what I do to the materials in the process of putting together the assemblages permanently changes them, like painting them or adding a sculpting compound, so it wouldn’t make sense to make them temporary anyway.
From a spiritual perspective, creating a permanent assemblage rather than a temporary one seals the energy in more thoroughly. A photo is not the same as the real deal, though it can convey some of the power. These assemblages are shrines, both to the spirits of the bones within them, and the spirit of the cards themselves. I wanted them to have a long-term form, rather than an ephemeral one. Honestly, I can’t wait for the official release party where I plan to have all of the assemblages on display in someplace that is NOT my apartment!
Yes, it did cost a lot more, to be honest. I could have just cycled through a few dozen skulls and bones and other materials in varying combinations with temporary assemblages, with many of them appearing in more than one card’s artwork, and saved a lot of money. But I had a grander, more elaborate vision than that, one that involved individual species and the symbolism of different bones in the vertebrate body. Since I needed to have a lot more bones for that purpose, why not just have bones for each unique assemblage?
Will you be selling any of the finished pieces?
They will all be for sale once the Tarot of Bones is officially released, though I want to keep one or two for myself. I love having them around, but they take up a LOT of space; most of the free wall space in the apartment at this point is covered in them, and they need to do the equivalent of growing up, moving out and getting a job. Plus the money I’ve crowdfunded has all gone to materials, perks, and other costs. Selling the pieces will help me pay myself for the time and effort I put into designing the deck in the first place. I’m fully self-employed, after all, and every hour I put into the Tarot of Bones was an hour I wasn’t able to put toward more immediate income to pay my rent and bills–but I had to have a place to live and food to eat all through the process anyway. So selling the pieces will help me get back my initial personal investment in the project.
You are currently ahead of schedule, if you stay that way can we expect edits to the current image releases or anything surprising before the release date?
Well, the pictures you see on the website right now are just quick snapshots saying “Hey, look what I made!” They’re not the final photos for the card art. So after I have the assemblages done I’ll be setting up a better photography studio in my home and taking the final pictures and then editing them with GIMP. I may go back and tweak a few of the assemblages before then, but the production schedule probably won’t get moved up too much. The printing will take a while, and I want to hire a professional editor for the book and they’ll need time, too.
Can you tell us a little about the companion book? Will it be a basic tarot cards defined or will it be just as unique as the cards themselves?
The Tarot of Bones companion book is not meant as holy writ or the final word on what each card means. But it’ll give readers more of an idea of why I created each card as I did, why I chose specific animals, etc. It’s a guide to the Tarot of Bones in specific, and while you can certainly use other books and your own interpretation when you use the deck, there’s a lot of valuable information that may help you navigate the deck as its own individual entity. I won’t be going into the basics of tarot; there are TONS of books that do that. But I will likely be including some unique spreads along with my card interpretations.
What is your favorite piece so far?
That’s a tough one. I think my perennial favorite is still the Magician. I really like how the design turned out; it best illustrates my personal style as an assemblage artist. But I also have a deep, abiding love for the Four of Wands, the second assemblage I ever created. And I’m tempted to keep the Hermit for myself, too.
Why did you choose crowdfunding for your tarot deck rather than the more traditional route of going through a major publisher?
Honestly? Creative control. I’ve published books with a couple different publishers, and while they’ve let me have a fair bit of control, this is a deeply and intensely personal project. It is the product of almost two decades of art and writing experience, and it draws together all of my skills into one Magnum Opus. I’m outsourcing very little with the Tarot of Bones; I hired Narumi of Lotus Lion, who has done several graphic design pieces for me, to create the back design for the cards, and again I’ll have an editor for the book. But I’m doing everything else–the photography, layout, etc.
Also, in doing a bit of research, it’s harder to get a publisher for a photo deck; they tend to prefer other sorts of art. Since I wasn’t willing to morph the photos of my assemblages into computer-generated designs, I just decided to do this on my own. It’ll be my first major foray into self-publishing, so I’m drawing on my experience in the publishing industry to help me along. And I’ll be getting some mentoring with some of the skills I’m less familiar with, like the photography.
Were there any surprises in the crowdfunding process?
Yes: the amount! The IndieGoGo campaign last spring met its initial goal in four days, and doubled the amount by the end of the six week campaign. I was incredibly surprised and honored that that many people wanted to back the Tarot of Bones. It just made me want to make even more sure that the final deck and book will be amazing. I also was wowed by the emotional support people gave throughout the project, all the cheering and high-fives I got. I mean, I have some of the best supporters and fans in the world, so the quality doesn’t surprise me–but I was amazed by how many people came out to help! At this point I’ve pre-sold 250 deck and book sets just through that one campaign. And again–thank you to everyone who contributed.
Speaking of crowdfunding, there will be another IndieGoGo campaign in early 2016, for those who missed out on the first one?
While the spring 2015 campaign paid for all the materials and some related expenses, a lot also had to be factored in for perks, upcoming shipping costs, and the like. So I’m far from being in the black on this, and this second campaign will primarily be for the purpose of covering printing costs for the deck and book. The IndieGoGo campaigns are NOT my only source of funding; I’ve also been drawing funds from my art and book sales once rent and bills and other expenses have been paid. But I had a lot of people say they were unable to support the last campaign due to finances or finding out about it after it ended, so this is a win-win situation: they get a second chance to pre-order the deck and book and other goodies, and I get another healthy shot of funding so I can stick to my production schedule and the planned Summer 2016 release.
What advice do you have for those out there thinking of creating their own tarot deck?
Do smaller projects first. This has been a HUGE investment of my time, skills and energy, to say nothing of money. If you’ve never undertaken a big art project or written a book before, I don’t recommend this sort of thing as a starter project. Smaller projects will help you hone your skills to a finer degree so that you’re more prepared physically and mentally when the time comes to get started on your tarot project.
Once you are ready, make sure you have a solid concept. You don’t have to design all the cards at once; I went into most of these assemblages only sure of what card it was going to represent and what bones I was going to use. But those two factors–the bones and the meaning–were the common thread I had to work with throughout the entire project, and they helped to tie them all together. So make sure you, too, have at least one solid thread that binds your cards into one deck.
Also, don’t take my production schedule as something to measure yourself against. Remember I’m self-employed and I’m already in my studio almost every day. So I’m working on the assemblages and the book manuscript in between working on other projects throughout the day. I have the luxury of getting this put together relatively quickly because I’ve done this sort of thing before on a smaller scale, and I’m already immersed in a creative setting much of the time.
Will there be a release party online or off that fans can attend?
There will definitely be an in-person one in Portland, and likely some pieces in galleries after that as well. I’m not entirely sure how to pull off an online party, but I’m sure something can be arranged there, too. I want everyone to have the opportunity to celebrate with me, even if they can’t be with me in person.
What amazing creative projects can we expect from you in the future?
Wellll…a lot of them are currently secret projects under development. I don’t like to announce things until I have a pretty solid plan, because I don’t want to let people down. That and I am a VERY busy person, and unfortunately I just don’t have the time to enact everything at once. So while I have several books bouncing around in my head, some other elaborate art projects on a similar scale, and some new avenues unrelated to anything I’m doing now, I need to maintain my focus on the Tarot of Bones until it’s out and everyone’s gotten their packages of goodies in the mail.
That being said, I do have a new book coming out from Llewellyn in January, Nature Spirituality From the Ground Up: Connect With Totems in Your Ecosystem, which I’m really excited about as it talks about land-based, bioregional totemism in a lot of detail. You can always keep up on my progress with the Tarot of Bones and if you’d like to see what else I’m up to head on over to The Green Wolf.