Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country
December 11, 2014 7:22 PM   Subscribe

The life of Pamela Coleman Smith: actor, illustrator, set designer, hermetic occultist, possibly-queer black woman, synesthete, suffragist, and unsung designer of the famous Rider-Waite tarot deck.

Colman Smith was largely left to her own devices in terms of the card illustrations, particularly the minors. She was the first person to illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their own, (apart from one Italian deck, The Sola-Busca, created in 1491) rather than simply showing two cups, or six swords. This was a groundbreaking idea which has changed the way many people see tarot today.

She also had her own pioneering ideas about how the cards should be read, which were very different to her occultist peers’, but which suggest a very modern approach, echoed in today’s ‘learn tarot’ books:
Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose… First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body… After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details … Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! … Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.
For those who want to know more, here's a gallery of some of Smith's other works and a large and comprehensive website about her life and work.
posted by nebulawindphone (13 comments total) 58 users marked this as a favorite
Her tarot deck was the one I began to use. The imagery just worked. I am amazed at how many later decks merely copied her designs with only small changes here and there. For example, cats for people. Being a traditionalist of sorts I always recommend this deck as a starter deck. Though I have since moved to the Frieda Harris aka Crowley deck, PCS's deck still remains as a "first love."
posted by njohnson23 at 7:35 PM on December 11, 2014 [5 favorites]

The Twitter account @crossddestinies has machine-generated pseudo-Italo Calvino quotes and pictures from the Rider tarot deck.
posted by newdaddy at 7:40 PM on December 11, 2014

Thanks for this post! I'm not a tarot person so I'd never heard of her before. Looking at her artistic style, she seems to really embody the principles of the Aesthetic movement.
posted by orrnyereg at 7:50 PM on December 11, 2014

Not sure what it is, but in the photo accompanying the main link, she looks so *modern*. Like a Branson "dress up in Old West gear" silver print. Only, it's really from back when.
posted by notsnot at 8:22 PM on December 11, 2014 [2 favorites]

This is the first post I have ever been compelled to flag as fantastic. Thank you for posting it.
It's funny how she does have an amazingly modern "look" compared to other photos from that time. I'm not sure how to quantify that. Maybe it's like a relaxed, comfortable feeling that most people didn't have in front of the camera.
posted by bleep at 10:39 PM on December 11, 2014

It's always been hard to track down her fine non-Tarot illustrations, so it's exciting to see them being collected on the web (in the "gallery" link--but can anyone get the images to blow up?).

Small note: Jamaican childhood aside, she was a white lady.
posted by Scram at 3:05 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

The "weird BBC link" down at the bottom goes to h2g2 which was kind of like a predecessor to Wikipedia. (It's the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which is why there's /dna/ in the URL (for Douglas Adams's initials). I don't think it was originally a BBC project (and maybe was a Douglas Adams project or someone else), but I've completely forgotten how it came to be on the BBC website.)
posted by hoyland at 4:55 AM on December 12, 2014

The wiki page is pretty comprehensive too.
Interesting that she was the first non photographer that Alfred Stieglitz invited to show at his gallery 291.
John Coulthart has a nice post about her.
posted by adamvasco at 5:08 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

Here is my friend's painted take on that photograph (noted magas HPB, Maude Gaune, Marjorie Cameron and others can be found in the gallery).
posted by not_that_epiphanius at 6:36 AM on December 12, 2014

Another John Coulthart post on the book of Jamaican Annancy Stories written and illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith.
posted by larrybob at 8:12 AM on December 12, 2014

Small note: Jamaican childhood aside, she was a white lady.

Ack! Thanks for the correction. I found the article via a tweet which described her as black, and didn't notice that the article didn't mention her race one way or the other.
posted by nebulawindphone at 8:24 AM on December 12, 2014

The Autostraddle article doesn't seem to link to this fairly extensive Pamela Colman Smith site hosted on Tripod.

Also the Japanese gallery site doesn't seem to be serving the hi-res photos (maybe its bandwidth is overwhelmed at the moment?)
posted by larrybob at 9:17 AM on December 12, 2014 [2 favorites]


posted by Juliet Banana at 9:46 AM on December 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

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