Caitlin Keegan’s The Illuminated Tarot: From personal project to being published

Today I want to share an interview I did with Caitlin Keegan, author and illustrator behind The Illuminated Tarot. We’re focusing on how Caitlin took her idea that stemmed from a personal project, into one that’s published by Clarkson Potter (available on Amazon).


The Illuminated Tarot is beautiful! You mentioned that the idea behind it stemmed from an interest in learning about tarot symbolism and archetypal imagery. Could you tell us a little more about how your project began?

I’ve been interested in tarot since I was a teenager because I felt drawn to the imagery, but I always felt skeptical about the “fortune-telling” aspect. Much later (in my early 30s) I had a therapist who suggested discussing images as a way to ease into bigger conversations. That led me to think of tarot in an everyday, non-psychic context and inspired me to learn more about it. I read about the parallels and historical connection between playing cards and tarot and decided it would be an interesting challenge to make one deck that could be used for both purposes.

Since a playing card deck has 52 cards, I realized that I could create one card per week and have a fully illustrated deck by the end of the year. To make it more fun for myself, I randomly drew a card to illustrate–so every week I would have a surprise “assignment” to look forward to and I would learn something new about tarot.

 

 

Having worked on the Illuminated tarot cards as a personal project – what would your advice be to other creatives who are looking to take their personal project to another level?

Be very realistic about how much time you’ll want to spend on something. I’m amazed and impressed when artists do daily projects because I know I could never accomplish that on top of other work deadlines. I would feel stressed and that would remove any enjoyment I was getting from the project. Then I would give up and feel bad about giving up– and that becomes a vicious cycle! For me, a weekly project is ideal. For others it might be bi-weekly, monthly, etc.

My advice is to know yourself and your work habits and don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind. You want the project to stay fun because that’s the best way to stay motivated and do your best work.

How were you able to take the Illuminated Tarot from a personal exercise in creating something new every week, to the deck of cards that you now have for sale? How did it go from a personal project to one that’s now publicly available for purchase?

I originally thought that at the end of the year, I would pull together the card images into a book proposal. But I was lucky that Jay Sacher, who I was in touch with through his work for Chronicle Books, saw the illustrations as I was posting them to Twitter. At that time, Jay was an editor at Clarkson Potter, the imprint of Penguin Random House that ultimately published the deck. I’m thankful that he liked the project and could see the potential in publishing it, and I’m thrilled with how the printed deck turned out.

My advice is to know yourself and your work habits and don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind. You want the project to stay fun because that’s the best way to stay motivated and do your best work.

I’ve noticed that you’ve used different mediums in your work – colour pencils and digital renderings. Could you tell us when you use one or the other, and why did you opt for creating digitally when it came to the tarot deck?

This is kind of a boring answer, but it has a lot to do with timing! It’s quicker to work digitally.

A less-boring answer is that I was really inspired by a book I have about E.A. Seguy, a textile/pattern designer from the early 1900s whose work is often grouped in with Art Deco. I just love the use of color in his work and I thought flat, bold color would be a good look for this deck. It has the look of a printed textile and also seems semi-psychedelic, which I see as a nod to the 1960s tarot decks I liked as a teenager.

I’ve since figured out a half traditional/half digital way of working and I’m excited to do more work like that. It’s a less time-consuming way to partake in one of my favorite pastimes: obsessive pencil shading.

How important are personal projects to you as an illustrator?

For me, they’re essential for staying motivated and inspired.

Has working on the project impacted your work in any way?

I think because tarot deals with universal themes, it’s particularly challenging to try and do something new with it. Modern tarot decks very often are reinterpretations of the imagery in the Smith-Waite deck–probably because those images are so ingrained in the memory of anyone who is familiar with tarot. I really wanted to break out of that as much as possible and find my own way of communicating.

Working on The Illuminated Tarot was like a lot like having a weekly editorial assignment. I would break down the card meaning into the simplest possible terms and then illustrate that idea. The process of doing this every week–while also trying (for the most part) to avoid traditional tarot imagery–really pushed me to develop my vocabulary as an illustrator.

I personally think that it’s a very exciting time for artists and illustrators, as they are able to take their ideas and run with it as opposed to waiting for others to collaborate with (which is how a lot of illustration jobs are like). What are your thoughts about that?

Certainly, with social media, it’s much easier to get your work out to an audience. That’s why I hope that we (especially we in the U.S.) will be able to stop those who want to privatize and further corporatize the Internet. Net neutrality is essential for the open exchange of ideas–for culture in general, not just for art. In terms of art and illustration specifically; right now almost anyone can be published online and I think that’s a good thing. The culture moves forward when more of us can be heard.

What’s next for you? Are you taking this project any further?

Right now I’m working on something involving dream symbols and interpretation. I’d love to do more tarot or oracle decks in the future too. I’m also keeping up a weekly surface pattern design project I started in 2016. I post a new repeat pattern every week to Instagram and many are inspired by my visits to museums and botanic gardens around NYC.

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You can check out more of Caitlin’s work on her website, and you can get a copy of The Illustrated Tarot on Amazon

How to be Everything by Emilie Wapnick

I’ve been a long-time fan of Emilie’s Puttylike blog that talks about being a multipotentialite (read: people who have multiple interests/skills/preference to excel in two or more different skills). Her new book How to be Everything has just launched, and I’m really thrilled. So while you might say I’m biased because I was featured on her TED talk in 2015 (and I’m also in chapter 5 of the book) – reading her blog and talking to her made me realise that I’m not as weird as I thought I was; and instead, being able to straddle a few different industries with a varied set of skills meant that I could build a career that could play to my strengths.

To celebrate the launch of her book, I set up an interview with her to find out more about the book, and what it could mean to you.

Congrats on your new book! I’ve always been a fan, and when I found your website, I realized that I’m a multipotentialite myself. When did you figure that out for yourself?

In my late teens/early twenties I began to notice my tendency to jump between different disciplines and projects. I actually worried about it a lot at that time. I was afraid I would never be able to stick with anything, and I was afraid I’d never find my Thing. Plus the idea of making a living was terrifying to me because I thought I would either have to jump from job to job to job and have no financial stability or choose a single path and deny all of my other passions.

Why the label? Why is it important for people to recognize that they’re a multipotentialite?

Labels can be empowering or restrictive depending on who’s using them and for what purpose. I’ve found that many multipotentialites grow up feeling like there’s something wrong with them. They internalize messages from the culture that warn us of the perils of being a “jack-of-all-trades, master of none,” or a “quitter” or “dilettante.”

Learning that you are a multipotentialite–that there’s a name for it and that there are many other people out there like this, some of whom are incredibly successful–can be a huge relief and help you feel proud of your plurality. The term multipotentialite also brings a positive spin to the idea, whereas “jack-of-all-trades,” usually has negative connotations.

So the book – tell us how you got to being unsure of what you wanted to do, to broaching this big subject that you’ve brought forward through your website and the TED talk?

In my mid-twenties I made a personal declaration of sorts: I decided that if this was how I am wired, I was going to find a way to make it work. That’s when I started my blog, Puttylike. I wanted to create a space where I could learn from other people who were doing many things successfully and share what I was learning. My vision was to create a community of people who don’t just want to do one thing so we could share resources and figure this out together.

Over the years, I noticed that there are a handful of books about the phenomenon of people with many passions, but none of them go into much detail about how to make a living. And then there are a ton of career planning guides out there that help you whittle down your aptitudes and passions to that one perfect fit. Where was the work advice for multipotentialites? That’s how the idea for How to Be Everything came about. I saw a real need for something practical, specifically for multipotentialites.

I believe that great artists are multipotentialites in some form or way. Could you give us a few examples of creative people you researched when you were writing the book?

I agree. There are a lot of famous artists/creatives who have worked in multiple disciplines. Everyone from Bowie to James Franco to the Charles and Ray Eames. In my book, I really tried to focus on more relatable examples though. I wanted to make it clear that you don’t need to be well-known or some kind of genius to make this work.

I interviewed a percussionist named Mark Powers who performs, teaches, runs workshops, writes children’s books, hosts TEDx events, and travels all over the world creating records with a philanthropic purpose to them. I also spoke with a digital media artist named Margaux Yiu who works at a company that is open to her stepping out of her job title. So over the course of her 16 year career, she has done design, web development, photography, video editing, and writing.

But yes, I think the reason that great artists tend to be multipotentialites is that artists are curious people who draw inspiration from domains outside of whatever medium they happen to be working in. It’s not really about the medium anyway; the medium’s just a tool to express a deeper idea.

What does being a multipotentialite mean in this day and age? How can they make the world a better place?

This is a really good time to be a multipotentialite. It’s now possible to work from anywhere and get your work out to the world without the help of gatekeepers who have access to distribution. You can self-publish a best-seller, crowd fund an invention, or teach people on the other side of the globe! There are infinite opportunities to express your creativity and design a career that really works with your multipotentialite nature.

Embracing your many passions doesn’t just lead to personal fulfillment, it’s also about social contribution. Multipotentialites are creative, out-of-the-box thinkers who can see multifaceted problems from several angles, make connections between disparate subjects, and relate to people from all walks of life. It’s no coincidence that the great artists, scientists, and innovators throughout history were (and are) multipotentialites.

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Thanks so much Emilie!

Her book is now available on Amazon, and in bookstores near you!

Julia Soboleva’s portraits of Ellis Island immigrants

Julia Soboleva is a Latvian-born illustrator currently living and studying in Manchester, UK. A few weeks ago she sent me an email about her personal project inspired by the Ellis Island immigrants, and my curiosity was piqued.

For 60 years (from 1892 to 1954), Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbor, located within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, has been a portal for over twelve million immigrants to enter United States. Augustus F. Sherman captured photographs of more than 200 families, groups, and individuals of immigrants while they were being held by customs for special investigations.

My curiosity led to an interview with Julia to find out more behind her project, and I hope you’ll enjoy reading – I felt that the subject is so very relevant, especially given our current political climate.

Hi Julia, tell us how you got started with the project.

Initially the current project wasn’t suppose to be a project at all. During my maternity leave while caring for my newborn son, I was always carrying a little sketchbook in my pocket. So each time my baby was asleep, I was trying to do at least one doodle. I stumbled upon Augustus F. Sherman’s photographs of Ellis Island immigrants. Those portraits were full of character, they showed humans from all over the world wearing their traditional costumes, with the vulnerable gaze and the eyes full of hope. Mesmerized by these portraits, I started drawing them in my sketchbook using just pencil, without any ambition for further development. At that time, being a new mum, it was really convenient practise for me as it didn’t require any special equipment and it was portable and accessible any time. Later on, after doing some research on the history and context of Ellis Island and thinking how relevant the issues of immigration are nowadays I realized that my drawings have a potential to be developed into a project.

Tell us the story about the people in your illustration – what happened to them?

For 60 years (from 1892 to 1954), Ellis Island, a small island in New York Harbour, located within the shadow of the Statue of Liberty, has been an immigration inspection station for over twelve million immigrants entering United States. The passengers travelling first and second class were considered trusty and wealthy enough to be examined on board of ships, while the poorer passengers were required to visit the island for medical examination for infectious diseases or insanity and legal inspection. Augustus F. Sherman, who worked as a clerk at Ellis Island at that time, happened to be an amateur but highly gifted photographer. Being fascinated by diverse cultural backgrounds of his subjects, Sherman created hundreds of portraits of newly arrived immigrants.

In this context, a personal development, a movement of finding your ‘true self’, the act of getting lost and being found can also be regarded as immigration.

He captured the images of Romanian shepherds, gypsy families, circus performers, Russian Cossacks, Greek soldiers, and women from Guadeloupe. His photographs became a fascinating archive with the compelling insight into this vital period of American history. To add, only two percent of the immigrants were denied entry to the country, and the rest of them made it through the border. Sherman’s immigrants are people in my illustrations.

Why did you decide to illustrate this series? Was there a personal connection with the subject matter?

At the outset, the decision to illustrate Sherman’s immigrants was spontaneous. Initially, it was simply supported by he fascination with the photographs and the motivation to keep developing my drawing skills. However, looking deeper into the context of these photographs, I started reflecting on the notion of immigration and how differently this term can be interpreted in different circumstances. For example, according to one of the definitions of the word, immigration is the international movement of people into a destination country of which they are not natives in order to reside there. This definition makes an immigration to be a vital and universal act of human development, search and discovery. In this context, a personal development, a movement of finding your ‘true self’, the act of getting lost and being found can also be regarded as immigration.

There is also a personal connection with the subject as I am an immigrant myself. I was born in Post-Soviet Latvia and being a Russian speaker I was classed as an ethnic minority. Awkwardly, it always felt like I am a lifelong immigrant even in the country I was born. Possibly that is why, when I moved and resided in UK seven years ago, the process of adaptation and cultural adjustment seemed somehow familiar and relatively easy to overcome.

Finally, current political debates on immigration worldwide, which are often quite myopic in my opinion, made the notion of immigration particularly relevant and interesting subject to work with.

What do you hope to achieve with this series?

I consider this project to be a start-up for further developments, discussions and collaborations rather then being a finished piece in itself. For example, making these series made me realized how much I enjoy working with archival images. Thus, there can be possibilities in future to collaborate with museums and libraries with the archival collections. From the other hand, I hope that my series would encourage open discussions and bring the awareness of the notions of immigration and internationality.

What positive outcomes have come from this personal project of yours?

This project became my illustration resurgence after my pregnancy and maternity leave. It motivated me to upgrade my website and my portfolio and seek new opportunities of collaboration. I also discovered a new fascination with archival imagery and how it opens up a portal for studying the past history and the self within it. I drew my Ellis Island Immigrants using just pencil in a detailed and highly stylistic way, which made me question the notion of drawing in my own practise and what is the role of style in creative process. I am investigating this discourse in my MA Illustration course which I am currently studying in Manchester Metropolitan University.

How do you think artists can help when it comes to social issues?

Answering the same question Kurt Vonnegut said, ”I sometimes wondered what the use of any of the arts was. The best thing I could come up with was what I call the canary in the coal mine theory of the arts. This theory says that artists are useful to society because they are so sensitive. They are super-sensitive. They keel over like canaries in poison coal mines long before more robust types realize that there is any danger whatsoever.” It really corresponds with my thoughts on how artists contribute to solving social challenges.

Being extra vulnerable and responsive towards the problematic issues which generally are not talked about and being able to communicate these issues to wider audiences is what makes artists being so vital in our society. Often in our social system, we see how normalization of prejudice and intolerance is left unchallenged. Artists are the ones who challenge the system, bring awareness of its injustice and offer a fresh perspective.

Thanks so much Julia!

Check out more of Julia’s work on her website.  

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