Outsider Art Tarot: Two Outsiders Find a Love of Art and Tarot
Rita’s Story: Finding Her Way to Art…Through Her Love of Tarot:
For various reasons, and for as long as I can remember, I have always considered myself somewhat of an “outsider.” Someone who can operate professionally within society when necessary to do so, but who gravitates towards the slightly strange and Fortean, the roads less traveled, the truths hidden underneath the agreed-upon surface narratives. I want to know everything about why we are here, having this human experience in this particular place at this particular time. For these reasons, I have always been drawn to the magical, the mystical, and the esoteric.
I began to study tarot in earnest back in 2013, when a major life catalyst had me questioning the nature of our collective reality and my place within it. I found a local tarot teacher who was steeped in western esoteric knowledge: kabbalah, tarot, astrology, moon cycles, and how to make healing ointments and herbal potions. She taught me a lot.
In 2017, my mother got very sick with leukemia, and after a long and challenging year of leaving my own husband and daughters to travel across the country to care for her, she passed. I felt drained emotionally, creatively, and spiritually. I needed something to bring me back to the world of the living. That’s when Katherine, a new artist friend, brought me into her beginner women’s artist workshop, and soon thereafter I joined her and another friend, Jana, on a 5 day art retreat led by Portland, Oregon outsider artist, Jesse Reno. This retreat soon transformed my life and sent me on my way to producing this deck and traveling deeper into the tarot through my own art.
Reno’s process was to encourage his student artists to let loose and create uninhibited chaos on a page – to fill it joyfully and unselfconsciously with palm and finger smears of colorful paint, oil pastel crayon scrawls, and pencil lines, shapes, dots, words, and symbols – an entire underpainting of artistic chaos. He encouraged us to continue with this child-like art-making process until a desired shape would emerge from this chaos, announcing to the artist what the piece might be. To me, this way of painting was both freeing and transformative. I did not have to worry that I was not a “skilled” artist with years of art school behind me – in fact, I had not taken an art class since elementary school. Instead, I just had to paint and draw and scribble and flow until the art announced itself to me. I spent those five days joyfully lost in my own private art process. I felt contemplatively focused but energized – in the zone, working with my unseen muses, and apparently downloading from the ether.
The first shapes and images came quickly and easily – as if they were being channeled directly to me. The first one to emerge from the underpainting chaos was clearly an odd-looking woman on a unicorn, the second, a pregnant woman talking to a hand, the third, a void-like creature with a giant horned headdress.
“Oh look,” my friend Jana said, “You’re painting a tarot deck!” I didn’t actively plan that, but clearly that is exactly what it was.
For the next year and a half I allowed this same process of uninhibited underpainting and image announcements to take place. Some forms were silly, joyful, playful – they often made me laugh out loud: a turtle with a human face drinking a slurpee, a turkey queen with Nike sneakers, a lion sphinx with a goofy gap-toothed smile.
Other times the images announcing themselves were more serious, even sad – revealing deeper layers of sorrow or human anxiety: An Aztec King wielding too much power, a Butterfly Queen who had clearly suffered a lifetime of loss. The shadow selves came to me too.
At one point, before I had finished the deck, my husband secretly created an art website for me – Ritaroseart.com – and filled it with some of my tarot images. When Jana saw the site, she asked to purchase a painting. Instead, I said I wanted to take her up on her initial offer, uttered at the Reno workshop, to help me design my deck.
Jana was the perfect creative partner. Her years of graphic design experience and serious photography skills, along with her sophisticated understanding of unusual art, helped to pull everything together. Using my suit artwork and her own intuition, she also arranged the minor arcana cards, perfectly aligning them with their traditional tarot card meanings.
Once the cards were done, Jana and I self-published a very limited sample edition of the deck for friends and family and held an art show. We hired a seasoned tarot reader, held it near Halloween, and asked everyone to dress up as their favorite tarot archetype. The show was fabulously fun, and the self-published decks quickly sold out, with many asking to buy additional decks for their friends. That’s when we knew we would publish this deck: we submitted to REDFeather and began the additional collaboration that resulted in this incredible professionally published deck.
Painting my own tarot deck was truly a profound experience for me. Each painting felt like a conversation with something Divine, an aspect of the God-head appearing in archetypal form to add meaning to my life, to foster my creativity and creative growth, and to encourage me to stay true to who I am: a mystical seeker, an artist, and a determined outsider speaking her truth and telling parts of her story through art.
Jana’s Story: Finding Her Way to Tarot…From Her Love of Art
I was extremely fortunate to see the birth of Rita’s style from the very start and the emergence of her magical “creatures.” They were multi-layered, colorful, and emotionally symbolic! Right away, I saw Tarot archetypes in her forms, and I offered to support her with graphic design layouts if she ever pursued creating an entire deck. But I also admitted to her that I was actually afraid of Tarot.
Why? Because, unlike most Oracle card decks, which tend to feel positive and safe, the Tarot often dives head first into the “shadows,” and if you are new to Tarot these can be very difficult to understand. Seasoned users of the tarot learn to understand that the darker, more challenging cards and their “gift” of shadows can bring needed awareness to our lives when these challenging energies are brought to the light.
However, without this awareness of the darker cards’ layered meanings and gifts, one can pull a Tower Card, or multiple Swords and feel immediately “cursed.” Of course, now I know that’s not how Tarot actually works. Tarot does not curse anyone – it offers gifts of revelation and contemplation and an opportunity for awareness, growth, and healing.
To heal one’s shadows, one must see the obstacle or damage present in one’s life or within oneself. In other words: You can either put a dirty Band-Aid on a wound, shielding it from light, or you can remove the Band-Aid, place it under the sun, clean it, and let it heal. I really only understood this about the tarot the more I worked with Rita on her deck and got to know all of the archetypes through repeated creative contact.
I especially appreciate the humor that is consistently woven through Rita’s characters: tennis shoes on a turkey, a mermaid with a cocktail, the dramatic push-pull obsession of the empress and her prince with the head made from a hand. These elements of fun have helped me relax into the tarot. Yet some of her other cards, those with clench-teethed grins, fear in the eyes, or the lack of breathing on the faces of those creatures perhaps weary of their roles invited me to engage in deep shadow work too. Rita’s original artwork offered a combination of fun and painful honesty to me that I hadn’t witnessed in any other tarot art decks. Plus, some of her “creatures” have really unique personalities that actually speak to me like old friends -- I never feel alone in working with her cards.
For our art show to announce the completion of Rita’s tarot journey and our deck, Rita and I made our own limited edition sample deck. I have now done at least 30 pulls using these special cards, and they have always been profoundly applicable and informative. I still enjoy looking at the details of these quirky characters, these now-familiar “creatures.” They have become true allies for me in deepening my inner work, and because of my learning to love the tarot through Rita’s art, I have been freed to work with Tarot overall, as a powerful tool and a true friend.