Sunstruck is about as far from starstruck as you can get. A starstruck person is blinded by the brilliant and magnetic attraction of a passing star. Someone who is sunstruck spent too much time under the hot sun and probably doesn’t feel very good. There’s puking, chills and dehydration. This year, as we prepare for the summer solstice in Phoenix AZ, the temperatures have already blasted past 115˚ in the shade.
Sometimes in the desert, all you can do is feel grateful to be able to draw the drapes and insulate yourself from the blinding heat. Conserving energy becomes the imperative, its ironic considering how much heat the sun generates. My mind starts to drift and these wonderings, as they often do, lead me to the tarot.
I’ve been (not so) systematically studying the Tarot for a few years now and I consider my practice to be more like research. When I want to know more, I consult my library and move between books and my three decks of cards. I’m in the habit of starting my inquiries with the Rider Waite deck. My deck features the 1909 imagery of Pamela Colman Smith who’s art deco motifs reflect the aesthetic and ethos of the time. Her lack of modeling flattens the fool to provide a blank canvas for the reader’s reflection. I shuffle through the deck and pull out The Sun.
The card is numbered 19, and it is the 20th of the Major Arcana. If that’s not confusing enough, consider that 19 begins with one, the first single numeric digit (according to some theories), ends with 9 (the last single numeric digit) and adds up to 10 (the first two digit number) which includes for zero and adds up to 1, its first digit. It's complicated and I’m no numerologist. So my mind keeps moving, beyond its number. I wonder what I can learn from The Sun? How can it amplify others cards in a spread? What is the pace of the card? What colors predominate?
The face of the sun, fills a full third of the card and, below its blank expression, a row of sunflowers crowd the horizon. They rise from a man-made planter and also crown the head of the fool who appears here in the guise of a toddler. She is naked as the day she was born, save for those flowers and a red plume in her hair. The child rides a white horse and they are moving toward the reader at a steady pace. When The Sun appears in a reading, it is a confirmation that it is your time to shine. It tells us to turn toward the light, like the heliotropic sunflowers, to absorb the life-giving energy of the star. When we move into the innocent joy that sustains and illuminates our paths, we feel the sun. We become the sun as we shine in harmony with its light.
Every time I draw The Sun, I get a song stuck in my head “here comes the sun, dah da dah da, its alright, dah da da dah da da, dahdadada da…da” The Beatles were onto something: the coming of the sun offers the promise of a new day. Morning sun brings with it a renewing energy and it reminds us that we can be born again (apologies for mixing metaphors), even in our older ages. Dawn is such a special time of the day, it’s become a verb. When was the last time something dawned on you?
The capacity of the rising sun as a metaphor for bringing insight and joy, is most directly illustrated in my second deck, The Ghetto Tarot. Here the fool is considerably older than the toddler in the Rider Waite deck, and he smiles broadly. This radiant fool wears the red flag as a cape tied at his neck, he’s a superhero. In his left hand he grasps the head of a toy horse and pushes his right fist is into the air. This kid is putting some speed behind the fool in his glee. By demonstrating the energy of the sun, he encourages us to grow beyond our habits into a celebration of the good ones.
Alice Smeets, a Belgian artist, was inspired by her experiences in Haiti to collaborate with ATIZ REZISTANS from the ghettos of Port au Prince. In 2015, they initiated an INDIGOGO campaign to fund the project. Their goal was to stage the Pamela Colman Smith drawings in photographs. Their intent was an informed and political decision to “break stereotypes” by “moving away from the cliched images of poverty, illustrating the spirits and meanings of the cards with a touch of humor in the middle of the slum and showing colored people on the traditional, old European cards to break stereotypes.”
The Ghetto Tarot’s subjects take on character through expression when they regard each other and the reader. The models self-consciously demonstrate humor, fierceness, joy, suffering and many other emotions. How we read that emotion, depends on who’s asking, and what the questions might be.
I think the relatability of The Ghetto Tarot resides in Smeets’ medium. The Ghetto Tarot invites us in through the camera’s lenses. Photography has a long history freighted with the weight of technology’s limits, the medium’s spontaneity and the reproductive qualities of it’s processes. The more or less ‘documentary’ nature of a photograph is not as objective as we would think. Instead, the camera’s presence is disruptive in an arguably productive and positive way.
Like all good tarot cards, these photos are small treasure maps, holding new surprises every time I look at them. The Minor Arcana cards are not numbered and I enjoy hunting for the cups, machetes, coins and brooms (some of which are on fire!). The effect slows down my reading and sharpens my attention to every detail, it's a very different kind of reading and I appreciate the slowness.
If a photograph speaks a thousand words, then an abstraction can say millions. My third deck, The BEAROT is as inviting as my others, yet it’s style is radically different. The graphic quality of the BEAROT manages to flatten the iconography of the Rider Waite deck. Instead of pictures or drawings of people throughout the deck, there is only one figure on the cards -- and it’s the outline of a teddy bear. The red flag becomes a ribbon, stuck in two dimensions. The symbols are merely shapes of muted colors, rhythmically arranged, like math. The deck’s clean design is beautifully balanced with lots of whitespace for the reader’s eye to rest and imagine.
Tara Logsdon the designer behind The BEAROT collaborated with a skilled tarot reader Naha Armády to build the deck. As part of the design, they assigned each major arcana card a bear-name. They called The Sun “Bearing All” as a reminder that the energy from the sun which makes all life possible.
What’s different about the BEAROT deck beyond the wordplay and graphic beauty? Each card offers concrete actions to affect change in the prevailing circumstances. Tara said she likes how tarot can speak to the contours of a situation, but that readings always leave her wanting remedies. Instead of simply describing the shape of things, she wished to offer us actions to take in response to those conditions. A fitting place to wrap this comparison of three suns, I leave you with the habits of Bearing All: “LET YOURSELF SHINE IN ALL YOUR GLORY! MAGNETIZE POSITIVITY TO YOURSELF – MATERIALLY, EMOTIONALLY, AND SPIRITUALLY. THINGS WHICH WERE PREVIOUSLY HIDDEN ARE NOW REVEALED, TRUST WHAT YOU SEE.”
Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set U.S. Games Systems Inc.; Deluxe edition (May 15, 2009) ISBN-13: 978-1572816398 Featuring the Smith-Waite Tarot Centennial Edition Deck and including the pictorial guide to the tarot by Arthur Edward Waite; a brief historical review of Pamela Colman Smith’s work, by Stuart Kaplan; several postcards illustrating her work; and a guide for laying out the cards.
The Ghetto Tarot photographed by Alice Smeets and staged by Artiz Rezistanz, available at www.ghettotarotshop.com Find an online edition of How to Love Your Shadow Side for free download and contribute to their efforts to complete a documentary on their IndieGoGo campaign.
The BEAROT by Tara Logsdon currently out of print. Download a free copy of her guide to the deck at www.bearmy.com/books/bearotwebook.pdf Learn more about Tara and DIE BEARMY in a recent interview (Dec. 2015) at www.phxpeople.com/tara-logsdon-founder-die-bearmy-artist/
A version of this article was published in Lotus Moon Magazine, Summer 2016.