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Petaluma artist Karen Hess creates updated Tarot deck

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As a kid, artist Karen Hess used to make small decks of playing cards, just to invent more interesting images than diamonds and hearts.

“Traditional decks of cards always seemed like a huge waste of potential,” she says.

When she discovered the Tarot, the artist side of her always imagined what it might be like to some day design her very own Tarot deck.

But she never did.

Until last year.

Now available for purchase, the Spark Tarot deck represents a challenging but deeply rewarding dream come true. Hess started painting images for the deck in March of 2019, initially intending to design just a few cards as props for a movie she still plans to make with Petaluma director Daedalus Howell. The two teamed up on last year’s Petaluma-shot “Pill Head,” and in the script for their next film, there will be a Tarot reading sequence.

“So, I started making all these cards,” Hess explains, “thinking I’d just make what was needed for the scene. But after I made about 12 of them, I shifted over to the idea of making a full Tarot deck of 78 cards.”

The process of painting 78 distinct images for a wholly original Tarot deck was a deeply personal and highly creative one, Hess admits.

“It was an amazing experience,” she says. “I kept my painting supplies in a little bag, and I would go to cafes or wherever, and just paint my cards every day or so. It took me from March to October to complete them. It was a very intuitive process. I would never know what card I was going to paint on a particular day. I would sit for a while and wait for the card to sort of suggest itself to me, then I’d do some research on it, and make a few sketches of different ideas. Once I narrowed it down to the image I wanted, I would transfer to my watercolor book, outline it in pen, and then paint it. It took me a good day, or maybe two, to paint one card.”

The basic theme of the Spark Tarot deck, Hess explains, is all about nurturing, intuition, kindness and comfort.

“A lot of Tarot decks are sort of scary,” she says, laughing. “Many are very medieval feeling, kind of overly masculine, sometimes. But I wanted a very woman-centered deck, one that was more contemporary. I changed some of the card names so they make more sense to that whole idea of a nurturing deck.”

Most traditional Tarot decks are divided into suits — the suit of cups, the suit of wands, the suit of pentacles, the suit of swords and the Major Arcana, which includes such iconic symbols as the Fool, the Magician, the Hermit, the Hanged Man, Death, the Tower, the World and the Wheel of Fortune.

“I changed swords to serpents,” says Hess, “because I wanted something even more ancient. And I changed pentacles to stones, because nobody really knows what pentacles are, and stones seemed a little more appropriate to the suit, which is about practical, solid things. And stones are very much that.”

With the Major Arcana, Hess made significant changes too. The Page is now the Student, and the Knight is The Warrior. The Empress is The Mother. The Hanged Man, now called “the Hanging one,” shows a woman joyfully dangling upside down from circus silks, Cirque du Soleil-style.

The Death card, which frightens many based solely on its name, is now the Transformation card.

“That’s what we say when the Death card comes up anyway,” Hess allows. “It means transformation. It’s not about death so much as it’s about change. Transformation. So I just call it that.”

All of the human imagery in the deck is female, she points out, displaying the full deck of cards. That is a significant change, always part of Hess’s original inspiration for the Spark Tarot. Initial response to the Spark Tarot deck has been extremely favorable, Hess says with a smile. She’s already sold several copies through the website (SparkTarot.com), and it’s been getting strong marks from those who review such things.

“I’ve enjoyed the easy voice of the Spark Tarot,” wrote Amanda Bell of Indie Deck Review, a website devoted to reviewing and promoting independently crafted Tarot decks. “In a world where everything feels super sharp to me, I’ve enjoyed the softness of the images, the kindness in the faces. It’s a wonderful deck to work with while we discover new aspects to ourselves and our communities.”

The deck is, of course, extremely personal, says Hess. The process of transforming such an iconic series of images into new ones that resonated deeply with her and her own experience, was a source of constant exploration and joy.

“There’s also a card called the Hermit,” Hess says, returning to the deck, “who always just looks like a weird guy, so I changed it to just the word ‘Inward,’ because that’s what the card is really about, going inward. For the Fool, a really important card, it’s still called the Fool, but now she’s a little kid on a bicycle.” The card includes a dog, a traditional element of the Fool card. “Even when I changed things, I left a lot of the traditional imagery,” she says. “This was all about going with my own intuition, step by step, as I created the deck.”

In addition to the cards, Hess created a guidebook with explanations, history and all of the card meanings, along with instructions on how to use the deck.

Hess, by the way, does do Tarot readings, and throughout the shelter-in-place, has been doing virtual readings, on Zoom or Facetime, scheduled through the Spark Tarot website.

“I love this deck,” she says with a laugh. I love using it, and doing readings with it. It would have been terrible if I ended up not liking using the Tarot deck I designed, but I really do love it. It just feels exactly right, seeing and working with these images. It’s just the best.”

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