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The Tarot Garden Library

About the Authors

Robin Ator is the founder of the amazing art/animation/publishing firm of GlowInTheDark Pictures. His professional credits include design, animation, and direction for animated commercials and several television series, such as The P.J.s and Gary and Mike.

Dan Pelletier is the co-owner of The Tarot Garden. An accomplished tarot reader with over thirty years of experience, Dan has also contributed to such publications as Aeclectic Tarot and Body Mind Spirit magazine.

Shining a Light on the Basics of Tarot's Imagery:
A Tarot Garden Interview with Robin Ator

Dan: I'm not sure where to begin. You've made food products dance and sing, you have done animation work on movies and television that even my friends who live in caves have seen. But what I want to know is how, when, and where, did a boy from Plentywood Montana meet his first Tarot, and what happened?

Robin: Well, somewhere before my teens a set of tarot cards entered the house. This was in the mid-60's, in a tiny farm town in Montana. It was probably my mom's doing. Dad, in his monosyllabic way, taught me about geology with rocks and a pointed hammer, and how to make concrete set right. But Mom had a healthy interest in things unusual and esoteric -- always bringing home library books on horse evolution, or Helen of Troy, or Helena Blavatsky, along with their main interest, science fiction. Anyway, the RWS tarot deck fascinated me. My little sisters ignored it, but I thought it was beautiful. Still, at the time I had only a passing interest in the actual use of tarot. In fact, I learned poker with it. For me it was all about the artwork.

My hometown is based on wheat, oil, and cattle. The people there are mostly Norse, Germanic and, of course, native Indian. We're pragmatic and literal types in general, with no real use for art or esotericism. Maybe it's the climate. I remember talking to one woman on a cattle ranch, who was sad about how "there weren't ever going to be any new cattle brands anymore, because they'd all been thought up." Anyway, since I didn't fit in, I learned early to just stack bales and keep quiet about my interests. However, our county library was surprisingly deep, for being in the middle of the Great Plains. The people there never seemed to mind me pawing through the stacks in the back rooms and basements. The smell of dusty books on a hot day brings it all back. I was looking for art books, but that was where I first ran across books on symbology and Gnosticism, of the kind that would be important later on.

I hitchhiked out of town the day after graduation.Along with a bunch of other interests like cave painting, tepee designs and underground comic books, I mentally filed tarot away, and took it all with me to art school.

That was in Minneapolis, my first big city. I had a vague idea of becoming some sort of artist, perhaps a studio painter or jewelry maker.It never worked out that way.

"The Magician" from the Ator Tarot
The Magician from
the Ator Tarot

"Knight of Pentacles" from the Ator Tarot
Knight of Pentacles from
the Ator Tarot

"Death" from the Ator Tarot
Death from
the Ator Tarot

Dan: The move to Minnesota must have caused overwhelming culture shock. Did you take your Tarot cards with you or did you get a new deck once you were in Minneapolis?

Robin: Moving east to Minneapolis was something of a culture shock: tall buildings and concrete, new neighborhoods to explore, rock and roll shows, and school. But art school turned out to be immense fun. Instead of being the odd guy in a small town, I was suddenly surrounded by hundreds of people in a cosmopolitan art hive who thought the same way I did, and I was instantly at home, and in a fever to get involved with every kind of art: drawing, painting, printmaking, jewelry, video, art history. Tarot was nowhere on my radar then; there were too many other things for the young single guy to try out.

Eventually, though, my scholarship ran out, and for lack of anything really better to do I put out my thumb again and traveled through the west, and up and down the coast. I landed in Oregon and studied Japanese martial arts with some friends. All the punching and kicking was fun, but I loved the spiritual aspects more. I studied all the philosophical work I could find on "ki meditation," Buddhism, and the Vedas. I became a Theosophist and a Mason.

I also became a mannequin sculptor for several years, and went back to school, eventually finishing a BFA in Printmaking and an MFA in Painting, and became a drawing instructor myself.

Tarot showed up again: I met a guy who was very sure that the real true tarot was made up of eighty cards. He made three-dimensional collages to create his 24 Keys, and asked me to create the remaining 56 cards. I was happy to give it a try, but drawing them turned out to be a disaster. We could agree on so little. Nothing came of his tarot, but the months of discussion clarified matters for me, certainly. Later it would dawn on me that I could make my own tarot.

Dan: Let's do a side trip for a second. For many people, Portland, Oregon is where Chuck Palahniuk is from (perhaps they've read his Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon and think they know the town), or that it's north of where Ken Kesey lived. Myself, I'm from Portland... I grew up in 'Felony Flats'. But let's tell it for the folks at home. What year did you land in Portland, what was it like after Minneapolis? Where did a student of the esoteric hang out?

Robin: I've been in Portland for better than 25 years. I ran out of money while hitchhiking, and had to stop to get a job.

Something about the place keeps me here. Good friends and colleagues, of course, but there's more. It might be that there's mountains in one direction, an ocean in the other, and rivers in the middle.... It could be the thriving activist/artist/writer/musician/filmmaker/hipster community everywhere you look. (That's our response to our police and the lumber companies, which are both poisonous. But Portland on the whole is mostly friendly to the fringy and wacko. We can judge our societies by how accommodating they are to the ones on the far edges of conformity.) It might be because it's startlingly green here when the sun shines, and a soberly dignified purple/green/gray when it (nearly always) rains, all courtesy of the Pacific. For a guy from the Great Plains there's something about rain, ocean and big trees that seems like treasure. 'Esotericism'? Life for me is mostly about art. The 'esoteric' organizations I've been with are Shinshin Toitsu Aikido for their intensive and practical Ki Training, and the Blue Lodge and Scottish Rite for their amazing library. Maybe you could call my day job 'esoteric.' I currently work for a commercial animation studio drawing character designs and making sculptures.

Dan: So here's a tricky question: at this time of your life, which came first -- serious professional animation, or Tarot? Has one influenced the other? And how did you rediscovery of Tarot manifest itself? Self awareness studies, divination, art, or historical purposes?

Robin: For me, animation came before tarot. No question. Since I was a kid watching Bugs Bunny annoy Elmer Fudd I understood clearly that animation was one of the world's great art forms, encompassing not only draftsmanship, color and composition, but also movement, timing and storytelling. Through animation, virtually ALL the other branches of art are combined into one new entity. All the art forms you could mention can find their place inside animation: dance, sculpture, music, abstract painting, theater... and animation can be used to explain pretty much anything. A language barrier is easily leaped by a well-done moving image. I could go on and on. The world gives lip service to the greatness of animation as a branch of artistic expression, but few people really grasp the enormity and potential of it.

I began digging seriously into tarot again in the mid-90's. Books on theosophy, history, hermetics, gnosticism and rosicrucianism kept referring to it. I remembered my earlier experiences with it, and something inside began in time to demand that I study tarot. I was used to that sort of thing. Handwriting analysis had done that to me too, as had art history, and symbology, and animation studies before that. So I read tarot cards, read books on them, meditated on them, read for other people... The tarot became another lens on life for me. The motifs crept into my artwork. It dawned on me that there was no reason I couldn't draw my own versions of the cards I was studying.

Parallel to this, in 'real life,' I started working with Flash software, which is usually used for web advertising. Flash has a drawing interface that I eventually became comfortable with, and short cartoon films began to appear. Some of them starred a couple of blobby-nosed little men in blue suits, named Stodgy and Starchy.

These figures became the basis of the Ator Tarot. I had just gotten the notion of drawing a tarot deck at that point, so I used them to do it. The characters had a cheerful, earnest, yet vaguely confused look that I liked. In contrast to the disciplined drawings I was making at work during the day, these simplified card drawings were a relaxing outlet, and tremendous fun.

Dan: Personally, I love Stodgy and Starchy. I like the eyes. Tell me about how the International Icon Tarot came about.

Robin The International Icon Tarot resulted from a coincidence: a period of time in which I was studying tarot, and a period of time in which I was pursuing a certain type of drawing.

I had been working on drawing the human figure in a very simplified way. I'd make a drawing from the model, then draw the drawing, then draw that drawing, and so on. The idea was to make a picture that was as simple, flat, and elemental as possible. Eventually, instead of drawing with a pencil, I'd draw by cutting out shapes with a scissor or a jigsaw, or by making shapes in Illustrator.

Also, I was working on an ad campaign for a well-known pharmaceutical company, designing characters for print and animation that were based on the icons, or 'isotypes', that are found in airport signage, road signs and restroom doors. The idea was that these figures impart information to pretty much anyone, transcending language barriers. Tarot works in much the same way: pictures and symbols conveying meaning without words, or beyond words, speaking directly to a deeper part of us without the need for lengthy explanations, waking up the intuition.

So, since I was thinking about tarot day and night anyway, I started seriously making images based on the tarot.

It turned out to be lots of fun. I used the compositions in the Rider Waite - Smith tarot, since that's my own favorite. Not only am I deeply impressed with the compositions and multiple-symbolic imagery; I love the early 20th-century drawing style of 'Pixie' Smith. Much of the fun of making the earliest 'icon' versions of tarot images was the thrill I got from seeing a successful 'translation' of her old designs into simplified, cleanly geometric forms.

I knew that many other tarot users didn't particularly care for the RWS tarot as it stood, for many reasons. Some felt it was too medieval-looking, too garishly colored or too drab (depending on the edition), too poorly drawn, too 'mystical' or occult-looking, too sexist or too Eurocentric. I saw that translating the RWS into a 'postmodern' form preserved all of its usefulness, and lost most of the qualities that people said they disliked. Potentially, a strong, working tarot deck was possible, not just a 'theme' deck or and art' deck. That gave me the impetus to complete the group of 22 Major Arcana.

I placed the Majors online. The comments were generally favorable, with many people asking where they could find it. "Where are the Minors?" "Why don't you finish the rest of the deck?" I even received encouragement and advice from a couple of well-known tarot writers. I took the hint, and finished the deck.

"Temperance" from the International Icon Tarot
Temperance from
the International Icon Tarot

"Eight of Swords" from the International Icon Tarot
Eight of Swords from
the International Icon Tarot

"Happy Squirrel" card from the International Icon Tarot
Happy Squirrel from
the International Icon Tarot

Dan: What was the biggest challenge in creating the International Icon Tarot, and have the surmounting of those obstacles planed a seed for another deck?

Robin: The main obstacle to the complete group of 78 images was technical. Once I'd gotten the ideas for how the International Icon Tarot would eventually look, there was a period of experimentation with the process. I could make sketches of card designs on paper, but I still needed to figure out how to make the finished pieces. The images seemed to want to become simplified shapes, with clean edges and flat, textureless color.

I started with cutting out figures from painted sheets of paper with a scissor, and pasting the card images together. That seemed to work all right, except for the mechanical problems of uneven glue, curling paper and brushmarks in the paint.

Then I started using an exacto knife to cut shapes from spray-painted sheets of styrene plastic. Plastic gave a much cleaner edge than paper, and would lay down flat. That worked pretty well, and I did a number of pictures that way. I even tried thin plywood. Still, what I really wanted was precision: perfect circles and straight lines, and I could just barely achieve that by hand. Also, I wanted a range of color that I couldn't get from spray cans, and an even application that I couldn't get from a brush or roller.

I was about to go with airbrush, and then I found the computer drawing program Illustrator. It looked like it might be the right answer. It took a few frustrating months to learn, but eventually it started to yield results I liked, and that's where I began to make real progress toward a cohesive group of images. Also, it made copying and scaling simple. Overall, it took about two years to complete the art for the deck.

As to whether the "surmounting of those obstacles has planted the seed for another deck:" I've been thinking about the possibilities of a tarot group done in sculpture, perhaps made of colored clay, or cutouts of wood, or assemblage inside wooden boxes, then photographing the artwork to create the cards. But I haven't done any of that, at least yet. The first question is whether it needs to be done. I think the thing to keep in mind when doing tarot cards is always to let the tarot itself remain in control of the art. If the art style or the artist's personality becomes the star of the show, with the tarot taking second place, the deck and its usefulness are compromised.

The tarot's use is to stimulate insight, whether it's through divination or meditation. It's fairly easy to come up with possible themes through which to re-interpret the tarot. It's fun to think about. For instance, how about a 'cowboy tarot', in which the Two of Cups becomes a pair of squaredancers? Or, maybe a 'circus tarot', with the Magician/Bateleur becoming a juggler or ringmaster? The ideas are entertaining, but there's no compelling reason to do either one, because they don't address an actual need. Simply morphing the tarot via a given cultural lens can be very interesting, but it doesn't necessarily elevate the tarot or illuminate its meanings.

Dan: There was once a rumor, that the International Icon Tarot would contain 79 as opposed to 78 cards. Any truth to that?"

Robin: Yes. The seventy-ninth card is a tongue-in-cheek homage to The Simpsons, the work of local-artist-made-good Matt Groening. It's a card called "The Happy Squirrel."

Dan: So The Happy Squirrel is included?

Robin: Yep. Tarot may be serious stuff, but that's no reason not to have some fun with it...!

The Tarot Garden is proud to offer the Ator Tarot and International Icon Tarot in our online catalog. Click here for more information.

Sample Celtic Cross spread using the International Icon Tarot

© Robin Ator and Dan Pelletier
1 April 2004

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