This is a monthly newsletter about current artwork, influences, past projects, and upcoming exhibitions, often with some personal content thrown in. I will also include announcements when prints or originals are up for sale.
It's been a while since I wrote a post about the tarot deck I published back in 2014 (a full ten years after designing it), but it's still there, in the background of my life: still selling to customers all over the world, and still a useful tool to me in my art process.
In case you're not familiar, tarot is very similar to a regular deck of playing cards. Like playing cards, tarot has four suits, which are in fact earlier versions of clubs, hearts, spades, and diamonds: which were once staves (or polo sticks), cups, swords, and disks (or coins), respectively. Like playing cards, tarot has ten pip cards in each suit, ace through ten, and face cards, although tarot has four instead of three per suit. The biggest difference between them is tarot’s addition of twenty-one "trump" cards, otherwise known as the major arcana.
Many regard tarot and playing card decks as fundamentally different in the way they are used, but this is probably less the case than they realize. For most of its history, tarot was used for games and gambling (and still is, in some parts of Europe). When it did start being used in fortune-telling in the 18th century, it was often treated as just another amusing game one could play with friends. The cards and the symbols depicted on them gained more and more symbolic meaning from this point onward, with most of the present card meanings derived from the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, an organization devoted to study of occult traditions, and from which come the “classic” tarot decks most widely used in divination today. Tarot is now widely associated with spiritual practice, in which practitioners aim to use the cards to see into the future, and gain insight and guidance in the process. I'm in the somewhat strange position of practicing tarot very differently than most of my customers: I don’t use tarot for divination, I use it as a tool for exploring my thoughts, building narratives, and developing art ideas. I have no questions, no objectives, no goals; I just wander through the symbols and piece stories together from them.
This is certainly not to say that art can't be goal-oriented, or that ambition cannot inspire creativity. Different artists conceptualize and produce the art they make in different ways. For me, achievement is not a good motivator, and so the way I make art is not fundamentally different now than it was when I was a child. The skills that let me draw the things I want to draw in the way I want to draw them were certainly gained with a goal in mind, but this type of drawing does not feel like art to me, it feels like practice. For me, the real joy in making art is the dynamic exchange between visual qualities I try to control, and visual qualities I make no effort to control. In my superimpositions, I choose the objects I want to combine, but not their placement. This approach produces an endless array of unexpected conjunctions and tangents, creating visual puzzles for me to "solve". Watercolor is also inherently unpredictable. I can pick the colors, but I can never predict exactly how they will interact, how they will spread and how they will dry. Each work of art I make thus becomes a visual conversation between my own technical capabilities and the uncontrollability inherent in the process and the medium. In a sense, my paintings make themselves. The joy is in making them; the best part is over when the painting is finished.
This progression from achieving control to being forced, either by choice or by circumstances, to forsake it is wonderfully exemplified in the sixes and sevens of the tarot deck. I have always seen the sixes as the "Beauty" cards. They represent a complex, stable harmony of ideas—the most successful manifestation of each suit's particular personality. The first five cards make progress towards the ideal world of the six, while the seven is the beginning of the end of the world. It's what happens after the dream of worldly success—as though glory-chasing were merely a developmental phase—that is the most fascinating and beautiful to me. The ways in which finite things come to an end will always be more interesting than the ways in which they may achieve immortality.
My favorite sevens are from the staves and cups suits, probably because imagination (staves) and emotion (cups) are the human faculties best adapted to handling confrontations with human frailty. In the Seven of Staves (above), mortality becomes a cherished source of wisdom and inspiration. The Seven of Cups (below) is about how frightening things can get when one wakes up from the dream of success and realizes that it's all just a story they wrote themselves. These awakenings can occur numerous times, and range from a true leader's realization that her followers are not friends—much less family—and that she is just as alone as she was before her rise to power, to the times when a narcissist is forced to recognize his cherished dream of himself and the esteem he commands from others as delusions. If acceptance fails to follow, this card, which I regard as one of the saddest and scariest concepts in the tarot, can become a prison from which one can never escape.
I do not mean to condemn those whose lives are built on goals. I think that ambition is a deeply human characteristic, responsible for many of the most wonderful achievements of our species. Nevertheless, looking at human beings in terms of achievement and its power hierarchies has always been viscerally distasteful to me. I am certainly not immune to glory-chasing; I want respect and admiration as much as most people, I guess, but I don't like wanting these things. Compared with the experiences I have as an artist, they seem sordid things with which to occupy my life. Having an art career is in itself a goal-driven activity, just like any other career, but this is not why I make art. Even if I knew that not one person would ever like any of my work, and that I'd never get one bit of recognition or affirmation as long as I live, I'd still have to go on making it, because art is something I love to do. Ambition is inherently oriented towards the future, while joy is an experience one can only have in the present. This is why all strategies for seeing into the future are inherently ambitious. I don't think there is anything wrong with ambition, but without joy, ambition becomes mercenary: a game of status-hungry schoolyard kids chasing the trophy of social capital.
When I was three years old, my family got incredibly lucky. We met a woman who lived in a house across the street from us named Tilly, from an island in the north of Germany. Tilly had been born into a big family that ran a tavern on the island, a job which she had loathed but faithfully worked at for the first forty years of her life. The British occupation ended, and her family offered to send her to America, hoping perhaps that she might marry an American. Tilly had always wanted to travel, and seized the opportunity. She landed in New York City, and after a few months of unpleasant work in a relative’s delicatessen, she took a Greyhound bus all the way across the country to another relative’s chicken farm in Petaluma. As soon as the bus took her over the Oakland Bay Bridge, she knew that she had found where she wanted to live: San Francisco, the most beautiful city in the world. The Petaluma relatives offered her a job on their farm, but Tilly preferred to try cooking and housekeeping so she could be in the city. They examined the help wanted ads, and found a Mrs. Brown, who spoke German and needed help running a large house by the ocean.
Tilly remained with Mrs. Brown for 25 years until her death, shortly after my family moved in across the street. Tilly, by then in her mid-sixties, was considering whether to return to the island, where she could have a pension and live in an old age home for islanders, but she ended up falling in love with my family, and stayed with us until she was past eighty years old. Tilly worked for us, but she was also part of our family. Even after she left San Francisco to spend her last years on her island, we all kept in close touch, exchanging phone calls and letters almost every week. She was like a parent to me, and I am probably even more like her than I am like my mother or father.
Anyone who has met Tilly will know what a presumptuous assertion that is. She was as close as it is possible to get to being a real-life angel. If this image suggests sanctimonious propriety to you, I should elaborate that she had a wonderful sense of humor, both about herself and the world, and that her humility and generosity were absolutely genuine. She never seemed to have any aspirations to be "good", and never regarded herself as particularly bright or special. Nevertheless, she was the happiest person I ever met. She admired others for their accomplishments as one might enjoy a magnificent garden, and was kind and giving to everyone around her merely because she took pleasure in being so. Unsurprisingly, everybody she ever came into contact with—even if it was just in pleasantries over the phone—loved and respected her. Every good thing she had in her life, no matter how mundane, made her feel like the world's luckiest person. Perhaps she appreciated her life so intensely and minutely because she had grown up in wartime Germany, and with so little personal freedom. Until she came to us, she had never had a room of her own. Having her own apartment was one of her greatest pleasures, and one which she never relinquished, even after moving back home to the island.
She made me want to be like her. I wanted to live life in such a way that I never took anything for granted. I wanted to take the same joy in patience, generosity, and kindness as she did. As anybody who has raised children knows, these are not inborn characteristics of the human condition, but with such a model before me, I acquired some of her feelings and attitude. It is now over two years since Tilly died in her sleep, at the age of 96, still healthy and living independently in a little third story apartment in her home town.
The dictionary defines "Glory" as high renown or honor that is won by great achievement, but it provides an alternate definition: “magnificence and great beauty”. Glory therefore includes ambition and joy: the bliss of success and the visceral experience of sublime pleasure. It also has a third definition, as exemplified by the phrase "gone to glory", which refers to a soul's ascent to heaven. Tilly was a Lutheran, and believed in heaven (although she preferred to believe in reincarnation rather than hell). Personally, I believe that joy and ambition are both necessary ingredients for a bearable mortal existence. Civilization is structured on ambition, and this is a reality whether or not it is an ideal state of affairs. Joy is a state that cannot coexist with ambition, and yet without it, ambition has no meaning. Perhaps this seeming contradiction is similar to my art process: the conversation that happens between taking and relinquishing control, over and over, until the painting is done. Perhaps Glory is a state in which the painting is never done: an infinite loop that offers an endless array of unexpected answers, and an unending wilderness of beauties to explore.