The Gaian Tarot – An Interview With Joanna Powell Colbert

Gaian Tarot Oracle
I recently began writing a review of the wonderful Gaian Tarot, created by Joanna Powell Colbert. Communication with Joanna regarding permission to use the artwork on my Tarot blog quickly became chatty and as luck would have it, she kindly agreed to a short interview based on the Gaian Tarot. This post is that interview, the review will follow in a couple of days. Enjoy.

Where did the Gaian Tarot begin for you?
I had the desire to create a deck of my own back in the mid-80’s when I was deep into Goddess and Tarot studies, especially of the Motherpeace and RWS decks. But the thought of painting 78 cards was daunting. (Little did I know . . .) Later on, in the late 90’s, I went through a period of time where I let go of all my esoteric interests like tarot, astrology and ritual. I moved to a small, rural island, built a straw bale house with my husband and started a wilderness awareness course of studies — learning about the native plants and animals, going deep into the Spirit of Place.
In late 2000, I was invited to be the Artist Guest of Honor at a conference in Chicago. A woman I’d never seen before walked up to my vending table on the first night. She was wearing a T-shirt decorated with a sequined version of the RWS High Priestess. She looked straight at me and said, “YOU have to do a Tarot deck!” I heard the voice of the Goddess speaking through her; it wasn’t just an offhand remark. That woman turned out to be Janet Berres, who was the founder and director of the International Tarot Society (now, sadly, defunct). Throughout the course of the weekend, people kept coming up to my table and asking “Didn’t you do a Tarot deck?” By the 12th or 13th time I heard this, I capitulated. Message received.
Then I had to decide on a theme for the deck. I didn’t want to do yet another RWS clone, because — why bother doing something that has been done so well, so many other times? The same with doing a Goddess-themed deck. I didn’t feel that I had anything new to bring to yet another Goddess deck.
Then I realized I could bring together two great passions of mine — my love for the natural world (aka Mama Gaia) and my wilderness studies, with my love for the rich, archetypal imagery of the Tarot. I brought those two loves together in the Gaian Tarot.
You have a love of mythology, do you have a favourite myth or legend that became or inspired a Gaian Tarot card?
Most of the cards are not based on a specific myth, although there are references to stories and myths in many of them. I bring the tradition of the “Holy Fool” or “Crazy Saint” to the Teacher (Hierophant) card. In the Death card, the decaying boat is pointed towards the western sea, alluding to the Celtic tradition of sailing to the Western Isles as a metaphor for death. The High Priestess’ face is half Maiden, half Crone; and that is a direct reference to Celtic stories where the Hag of Winter transforms into the Maiden of Spring.

The Gaian Tarot Hierophant and High Priestess

You’re also well known for your love and affinity for Goddess Spirituality. What does that mean to you personally? And again, has this inspired a particular Gaian Tarot card?
My own eclectic brand of Goddess Spirituality IS my spiritual path. I choose to relate to the Divine as female — I choose to use that metaphor for a mystery that is beyond gender. I’ve been walking this path since the early 80’s and it’s seen me through challenges and tragedies, and the good times as well. I relate the most deeply to the Ocean Mother in all her forms and guises. For me, walking on a beach to gather beach glass or sitting on the shore listening to the tumble of stones in waves is holy communion.
The Guardian of Water is probably the most Goddess-specific of all the Gaian Tarot cards. Even though the figure in the card can be read as a human, she definitely carries the energy of the Ocean Mother. And the Gardener (Empress) is an aspect of the Earth Mother, as is Gaia, the World.

You present the creative process for designing and drawing a Gaian Tarot Card with great detail on your website. What other personal preparations did you make before beginning a new card? For example; did you meditate or perform any shamanic or pagan rituals to connect with the spirit of the card?
I didn’t do any specific rituals before starting a card. The process is more organic than that. I would go for walks and think about a certain card, muse on it, talk to the Lady about it, be open to receiving inspiration about it. I would look at many other cards that other artists have done and notice what I liked and didn’t like about their versions. I would ask for guidance, but not in a formal way. The creative process is certainly a mystery. All I can say is that when an idea came to me for the shape and form of a card, I would get very excited. A thrill would run up my spine and I’d say to myself: That’s it!
Click to see a larger image of this beautiful card
Click to see a larger image of this beautiful card

I recognized my Death card when I saw it one day on a walk. I was out exploring the island where I lived at the time with my naturalist-mentor Nikki (who posed for the Explorer of Earth). We came across a decaying boat we had seen many times before, and were startled to see that someone had laid the body of a young, dead heron in the boat. There were skulls of other birds and animals in the boat as well. We both sank to our knees, aware that we were in the presence of the Death Goddess. (The Heron is sacred to me, an epiphany of the Goddess in this specific Place.) We collected cedar and yarrow from the meadow and made offerings by laying those in the boat. At some point, I just knew: this is my Death card. I had my camera with me and began taking photos. Later on, I created the painting, adding some details and taking away others. But the painting is pretty much the same as the scene we saw that day. We never did find out who had put the heron in the boat.
More recently, it was time to start the Elder of Water and I was unhappy with the photo reference I had planned to use. So I started thinking about the qualities of a person who was over 70 years old and had spend his life on the water. He would need to be a fisherman, I thought, or someone who was intimately familiar with the tides and moods of the Ocean Mother at all times of day and night. I decided I wanted him out on the water, in a boat but not a canoe, because I already had done that in The Canoe (Chariot). A rowboat sounded right to me. So I knew I wanted an elderly man in a rowboat, out on the water. Then my eyes happened to land on a beautiful print I bought recently from Cari Ferraro, a calligraphy artist. I read the quote by Rumi:

The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell. Don’t go back to sleep

Dawn! of course! The setting should be at dawn, that magical time of transformation that is always so silent. I’ve been in the habit of getting up before dawn on Summer Solstice the last few years with my circle of island sisters. We head to the east shore of the island to watch the sun rise over the mountains and light up the water with color. I searched through the photos I’ve taken at dawn on Solstice morning, and found one that was exquisite and perfect — sky and water in shades of pink, violet and blue. From there, I remembered a picture book that my children loved when they were kids —”Dawn” by Uri Shulevitz. It’s a beautiful account of being out on the water at dawn, in a rowboat. (Read it — it’s total magic.) And I had the inspiration for my Elder of Water.

The Gaian Tarot has been a massive project. Were there times you felt you needed inspiration or assistance from a higher power? Did you seek out direct guidance from your spirit guides or perhaps from female ancestors, or indeed the goddesses?
I asked for help and guidance all the time, although I don’t really work with the models of spirit guides or ancestors. I do a daily devotional practice each morning, and I pause at my altar at different times during the day to center, breathe and give thanks. I also have the practice of going to a “secret spot” in Nature to observe what’s going on in the natural world in one specific place, which involves quieting the body and mind. So connecting to Spirit is part of my daily life, and I didn’t do anything different or special while I was working on the Gaian Tarot.

I’ve said many times that if I’d known it would take me nine years to finish this project, I never would have started it; so I’m glad I didn’t know! During the years I worked on the Gaian Tarot, I became immersed in the community (human and otherwise) of a small northwest island, and later left it to move back to the mainland. I nursed my beloved father through his last days and witnessed his passing. I became a grandmother. I went to Tarot conferences around the country and made many wonderful friends in the Tarot community. I started writing my blog, which has connected me to like-minded people around the world. I stayed centered in my circle of “mermaid” sisters and brothers here at home. The Gaian Tarot is a love letter to the Pacific Northwest and some very specific places in it. It’s a love letter too, to the community of people who love and honor the Earth.
When will the Gaian Tarot be available to buy?
I’m very happy that the Gaian Tarot will be published by Llewellyn in September of 2011, because it will be available at a price that just about anyone can afford. I’m also thrilled that my contract with Llewellyn allows me to produce a deluxe Collectors Edition, which will be available next spring. I will be accepting pre-orders for it very soon, in order to raise the money to print the decks. If anyone is interested in learning more about the Collectors Edition or receiving special discounts and other surprises, please sign up for my Gaian Tarot Newsletter.

Catherine: Thank you for taking the time to answer these questions Joanna, it’s been a lovely experience.
Joanna:Thank you Catherine!

Further Information

Click the image to order your copy
Click the image to order your copy

Images of the completed cards of the Gaian Tarot can be found at Joanna’s website, Gaian Tarot; as well as divinatory definitions and meanings for all the cards.
Joanna also writes a blog to keep her fans and admirers up to date about the Gaian Tarot and it’s progression towards completion.
The Gaian Tarot is now published by Schiffer Books – get your copy here.

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