A Visit with Joanna Powell Colbert and the Gaian Tarot

Most of my clients and blog readers know by now that in the last year I have fully embraced and fallen in love with the Gaian Tarot by Joanna Powell Colbert.  Joanna’s deck was such a departure for me; in fact how I came across it originally when it was just a set of collectors major arcana cards escapes me.  I have always loved Joanna’s art.  Her pieces have been in magazines like Sage Woman in the past and I found years later that some of my favorite pictures that I’d cut out of old issues and pasted in my own Book of Shadows ended up being Joanna’s.  But when I did discover Joanna was drawing and creating her own tarot deck I began to follow her process on her website and blog and anxiously awaited for it to be made available.

In March 2010 I finally got my hands on the full collectors deck which I did a review of back then.  From the moment I opened it I fell in love and it became my regular reading deck.  But, like I said, this was quite a departure for me.  I most typically work with either Rider Waite Smith clones or darker themed Gothic decks.  Despite this I found the earthy, Goddess energy of this deck to be exactly what I needed at the time and many of my clients connected with it as well.  Unfortunately many people that would ask about where they could purchase the deck weren’t able to afford this special collector’s piece so when Joanna announced that the deck would be available as a mass release by Llewellyn Worldwide in September 2011 there was hope for more people to get this amazing deck!

And now it’s here!  Llewellyn did an amazing job with translating Joanna’s gorgeous artwork from her original pieces and the first version of the deck into a deck that anyone can afford to have.  The set comes with the full 78 card deck and a fantastic 269 page guidebook that includes explanations, meanings, and affirmations for all the cards along with a selection of tarot spreads designed just for the theme and energy of this deck.   The deck is the perfect size while not compromising the art itself.  The deck focuses on the natural world and has a definite Goddess feel.  I would highly recommend this deck to anyone who has an affinity for earth-based spirituality who is looking to try out a deck that breaks away from the RWS style.

When I get a new deck I need to connect with two specific cards otherwise the deck just doesn’t work for me; I need to like the High Priestess and the Hermit cards.  And in this deck I love both!  There are a few changes to the traditional cards, beyond just the change in the suits.  In the Gaian Tarot the elements are used for the suits rather than a symbol of them, for example rather than Cups we directly have Water, and so on.   But a few other cards take on a bit of a different incarnation as well such as The Tower is now Lightning and The Devil is Bindweed, one of my personal favorite changes in this deck.

I had a chance to interview Joanna a little about her experience with creating this amazing deck and the wonderful community that she has created out of the deck, the Gaian Tarot Circle.

 

1. One of the things that you have expressed as a reason for doing the work of the Gaian Tarot was from your connections to the natural world and the people in your community around you.  Why did you decide to express this in the form of a tarot deck rather than some of the other art forms you’ve worked with over the years?

I love the structure of the tarot. It’s almost as if I had a ready-made form that I could pour my content into.  The 78-cards of a classic tarot deck is divided into Majors and Minors, with the Minors divided into four suits. This structure is elegant, and carries a long history as a Wisdom-Keeper. People have been using tarot cards for several centuries, and the structure of the deck itself resonates with wisdom and spiritual growth.

On another level — tarot cards are fun! They are more user-friendly, in some ways, than a painting you hang on the wall or a book that you read.  Every time you use the cards, you have a new experience.

And . . . I’m a Capricorn, and I love a challenge.  🙂  Painting 78 in-depth images was a big challenge. It taught me a lot about persistence.

 

2. How has your personal spirituality and views on sacred earth played into the overall creation of the deck?

My personal spiritual path and my relationship with the sacred earth are the fertile soil from which the deck grew. There is no division between the two.  It’s a very authentic deck that came straight from my heart and from my experience.    <Rowan – not sure if you were getting at something else with this question.  Please ask another for clarification if you need to.>

3. You’ve done such an amazing job of being able to take some of the traditional cards and bring them into a earth spirituality incarnation.  Were there any cards in the deck that you found particularly challenging to do this with?

Not really. There is only one card in the entire deck that is set completely inside, and that is the 3 of Air. (The 3 of Earth is set in a kitchen, but there is an open window to the outdoors.)  There are no obvious references to the natural world in the 3 of Air, except for the feather in the jar and the stylized birds on the man’s shirt.  When I created the minors, I would meditate on the energy of the number and how it might be expressed through the qualities of the suit.  Three means flow, abundance, harmony, manifestation to me; and Air is all about thought, communication, writing, the mind, meditation, clarity, decision-making etc.  I thought about the act of writing, and how thoughts and ideas often rush through us and out onto the keyboard or through the pen when we write. So I decided to show a man writing in his journal, surrounded by shelves full of books.  I didn’t realize until later that I hadn’t put in a window.   I thought about doing the card over and adding a window, but decided to leave it as it is. The shadow side of the card (or the reversal) could emphasize the stuffiness of a room that gets no fresh air. Sometimes we get stuck in our own minds and there can be a lot of pain and frustration when that happens.  So the card carries a continuum of meaning, from positive to negative, as every card does.

4. Did you find that there were any cards in the Gaian Tarot that ended up taking on a different meaning or interpretation from the more traditional tarot meanings just based on the premise of the deck?

Oh my, yes!  This happened quite a bit with the Minors, because of the way I put together the energy of the number with the quality of the suit, as I mentioned above.  I didn’t look at the RWS cards and try to come up with a different take on Pamela Colman Smith’s imagery.  Instead I came up with my own.  Some of the cards do carry a reference to the RWS cards but others don’t.  For example, the Eight of Fire shows meteors streaking across the sky, which is a clear reference to PCS’s eight wands flying through the air.  But the Tens are completely different from the RWS Tens.  I see the Tens as being cards of transition. They are each mini-death cards, because they stand at that place of death and rebirth, before cycling back to the Aces.  So instead of a man lying on the ground with ten swords in his back, we see wild geese flying across the sky, heading south for the winter: bittersweet transition.  Instead of a man burdened down by carrying ten wands, we see a forest fire. Up in smoke! Some folks have seen my Ten of Water, the “dead fish card,” and bemoaned the loss of the happy family looking up at a rainbow.  My Ten of Water shows the salmon cycle, with dead salmon by the side of the stream, but spawning salmon in the river, bringing forth new life.

 

5. The amount of time that went into creating each individual card, up to 100 hours each, is quite impressive.  With the whole package of the book and deck taking you nine years to complete, did you have moments where you thought you might have taken on too much?  Did you have times where you were ready to throw in the towel and give up?  How did you push through to eventually complete the deck and the book?

Oh, you bet I did.  There were times when I just had to step away, for days or weeks or even months.  The task just seemed overwhelming at times.  But I am a pretty persistent person, and I had a vision and a goal. I knew that the deck was touching a chord in a lot of people, because of the feedback I received as I posted the images on my blog.  Sometimes I despaired of how long it was taking me. I never would have imagined it would take nine years. But life got in the way, as so often happens with creative people.

I did feel that I had a calling and mandate from Spirit to create this deck, so not finishing it was never an option.  It just took sure-footed, plodding persistence.

6. One thing that I love about the Gaian Tarot is how you’ve managed to create a whole community out of the deck; it’s so much more than just a divination tool for those that really want to dive into it.  What made you decide to create the Gaian Tarot Circle?  What are some of your hopes for having a community like this connected to the deck?

I love the Gaian Tarot Circle!  I love the community of people that is growing around this deck.  The seed idea for the GTC was planted when the Limited Edition deck was published, and I started to get feedback from a lot of folks on how they worked with the deck.  I was amazed and delighted to hear that people were discovering things in the cards that I didn’t consciously put into them.  I realized that, while I had a lot to teach and share about the deck, I also had just as much to learn about the deck from others.  So the idea of creating a membership site for people who love this deck was born.

People who are drawn to this deck also have a deep love for the natural world, which is not surprising. They come from all sorts of different spiritual paths and traditions, and all are respected.  There is a small fee to join the circle, and I have found that the fee acts as a kind of gatekeeper.  It keeps away the internet “trolls” and people who are just mildly interested.  I have been really amazed at the kind of community that is created on the twice-monthly phone calls and on the forum.  Even though we haven’t met in person for the most part, we are getting to know each other’s voices and personalities.  Sometimes we do meet in person, at events like the Readers Studio and BATS and the upcoming Gaian Tarot Retreat.  That makes our online connection even richer.

My hopes for the community?  To have a safe place where people can share their spiritual growth through the deck and through their relationship with the earth; to support and be supported by others; and where we can co-create a new paradigm for living on the planet, one that is based on respect and love for each other and for the sacred earth.

 

I want to thank Joanna for taking time to answer these questions and to share some insight into her wonderful tarot offering to the community.  Please be sure to grab a copy of The Gaian Tarot from Amazon or your local metaphysical bookstore!

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