The Brady Tarot: Natural history meets the esoteric

I stood out there in the snow calling back and forth with the owl until my hands were numb. I went inside and said, “OK FINE I GET IT I’LL DO THE DECK.” I started gathering resources, and began my work in earnest.

I am a huge fan of nature-based tarot decks.

Although I think of tarot as a container and mirror for the human experience, I’m also a lover of metaphor. Seeing human qualities and characteristics represented in the natural world, in animal behaviour, in plant lore, in changing seasons and natural rhythms, for me this helps to distill, clarify, and perhaps simplify, the messages of each card. By shifting the focus from ‘people’ to the world that surrounds us, I find myself better able to understand what the tarot is trying to tell me. I also find that when tarot concepts are expressed without depicting people, there’s generally a lot more space for my intuition to form its own ideas.

So I was very excited last week when I came across the Brady Tarot.

Printmaker Emi Brady’s epic labour of love is a lino-cut tarot deck filled with the animals and plants of North America. As soon as I set eyes on it, I knew it was one for me. Aside from the ‘nature’ connection, I love it’s strong lines, it’s timeless feel, the ‘crafted’ quality that comes from those imperfect, hand-cut prints. Emi describes the Brady Tarot as “an artist’s deck featuring North American flora and fauna that is lush, bold, obsessive, and true to its roots while being original hand-made art.”

The deck is crowdfunding right now (it’s already way surpassed it’s goal) and will take another ten months to come to fruition – largely because of the time-consuming nature of an art project like this. As Emi explains below, each illustration is designed, then cut by hand, then printed, hand coloured, scanned and processed. This is one heck of a hand-crafted tarot!

Emi took a break from designing, hand-colouring and lino-cutting to chat with me about the deck. If you like it as much as I do, you can show your support (and bag yourself some gorgeous tarot goodies) over on the Brady Tarot Kickstarter page!

Hey Emi! Can you tell us a bit about yourself?

Hi! I’m a 33-year-old artist and printmaker living in Denver, Colorado. I grew up in the American South, where I spent much of my childhood in the woods. I earned a BFA in printmaking from The School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and an MFA in printmaking from Pratt Institute in Brooklyn.

Emi Brady at the printing press

You describe the Brady Tarot as ‘natural history meets the esoteric’, which strikes me as a fascinating intersection. In what ways does the deck explore this theme?

Natural history is very much a part of the meaning and interpretation of the cards. For example, The Hermit is a barn owl, which is a fiercely independent bird by nature, and is often used as a symbol of deeper truth and for seeing the unseen. The Eastern Hognosed snake was chosen to represent Death as they are notorious for feigning death. Normally they do not bare their fangs when they fake it like the image in the deck. I wanted to show that “Oh crap, this actually is happening and I have no control over it” moment that the death card can represent.

I’d like to think I’m creating a deck that rewards both tarot/esoteric nerds and biology nerds equally.

Some tarot deck creators are artists first, then decide that tarot would make a great ‘container’ for their art. Others are tarot fans first, then decide they want or need to create their own deck. How is it for you?

While I was an artist long before I read the tarot, I don’t feel this deck is only a “container” for me to cram my art. This deck is pushing me in directions I would not normally go and is shaping my art in many new ways. This project is challenging and changing me in the best ways possible.

So, how’s progress?

Progress is steady, which is just where I want it. I’m completing a block every 3-4 days and printing every two weeks, or once I have six blocks carved. Once the Kickstarter is funded, I will be able to carve a block in every 2-3 days, which is my goal. Updating, advertising, and answering questions is also a lot of work.

So far I’ve printed The Fool, The Magician, The High Priestess, Death, Strength, The Tower, The Hermit, The Hierophant, The Lovers, The Sun, The Star, and the card backs. I’m currently carving The Hanged Man (which I will refer to as The Hanged One since my hanging friend is a female opossum). So, only 66 more blocks to go! I’m taking it one day at a time.

Have you already planned out what will be on each card, or is more like the project is unfolding as you go?

I have been allowing it to unfold as I go. I already know what the suits will be, so the overall themes of the deck will stay consistent. However, I’ve been determining my next card only after I complete carving the previous one. I have been rolling a 20-sided die for the Major Arcana, and am saving XXI for last. For the Minor, I’ll likely roll a d4 for suit, then a d4+d14 for number. Once I determine the next card, I sit down and do a lot of reading, take notes, and make sketches.

Do you have a favourite so far? And are there any particular cards that you’re looking forward to, or any that you’re struggling with?

My favorite so far is actually The Tower. I just love the quality of the light from the lightning bolt and flaming tree. It also seems so defiantly alive for being poised for destruction, and pileated woodpeckers are among by favorite birds.

I’m very much looking forward to doing the Emperor and Empress which will probably contain a bull elk and a mountain lion with kittens respectively. I am dreading Justice and The Chariot but I’m not totally sure why. Neither cards are ones I pull often in readings for whatever reason, so they feel foreign. Maybe that should actually be exciting instead of daunting.

Can you tell us a bit about your studio, practice, and process for creating the tarot?

I have a stupidly complex process of making these images. The final products are hand-colored relief prints, which is basically a glorified stamp that is colored in with watercolor. The black part of the images are printed from the raised surface of a linoleum block. The parts of the block that do not get ink must be carved away with various types of tools, which is what makes it “relief.”

The earliest mass-produced versions of the Tarot were also hand-colored relief prints, which date back to the late 1400’s. I love the idea that I am returning to some kind of source or origin in making these cards, and I make it very obvious that these images are being hand-carved. The images are imperfect.

Most of the carving is done either at home or occasionally at the local bar with my friends and/or husband. My husband and I have been watching the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer series at home, and our couch is now full of linoleum shavings. Honestly, everything is full of linoleum shavings.

Once the block is carved, I take it to a local print shop where I roll ink over it, place paper on top of it, and run it through a press. This places an immense amount of pressure on it to transfer the ink evenly onto the paper. I then use gouache and watercolor to add the color to the prints.

I am also entirely nocturnal now that I do not have a day job. I sleep when the sun rises and wake up as the sun sets, carving, printing, and coloring in-between.

Can you tell us a bit about your own tarot practice?

I learned on and still use The Haindl Tarot, and my favorite spread is the classic Celtic Cross. Rachel Pollack wrote the books about this deck, and I continue to learn from these books. I do own the William Blake tarot as well but rarely use it. I actually do not own a Rider-Waite deck, but have studied it intensely and have been the receiver of many readings from it. In no way do I consider myself a master of the tarot. This deck has been a huge opportunity for me to learn more about the meanings of the cards and the history of the Tarot.

I’ve had SO many special Tarot moments, but I think the appropriate one to share is when I was deciding to make this deck. I had just quit a very emotionally draining job at a hospital to start working for another doctor. After 3 days, the doctor tells me he can’t afford me and I am jobless. Before I start the job searching I consult the Tarot. I can’t remember all the cards in the spread, but it basically said, “Yeah, time to do that thing you’ve been wanting to do that is creative and not in the medical field. Also, don’t worry about the money. Just do it.” I found this a little confusing and more than a little scary, and mulled it over for a few days. I worked on a big piece of art for a local group show, but still kept thinking about that reading. Then I remembered that Tarot deck I always wanted to make.

On the winter solstice of 2016, only days after I started thinking about the deck, I woke to the sound of two red-tailed hawks (a very special bird to me) outside my window in the middle of the city. It felt this was related to the deck and the reading. When I was returning home that night hours later, a huge dark shape whipped right by my head. I looked up only to see a MASSIVE great horned owl land on the top of the apartment complex adjacent to my home. I stood out there in the snow calling back and forth with the owl until my hands were numb. I went inside and said, “OK FINE I GET IT I’LL DO THE DECK.” I started gathering resources, and began my work in earnest on January 2nd of 2017.

Buy the Brady Tarot
in the Little Red Tarot Shop

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  1. Meghan says:

    Ugh I am so insanely excited for this deck. It is GORGEOUS. Also, the Kickstarter add-ons are all super-cool; so far I’ve managed to just limit myself to a set of pint glasses, but every time I see a new update in my inbox my credit cards start vibrating with glee.

    • Beth says:

      Me too – it’s just right up my street. I’m looking forward to watching the cards appear as they are created!

      + re upgrades, I was especially excited to hear about the packaging being upgraded, I love it when a tarot deck comes in something sturdy and lovely!

  2. Rachel says:

    What a beautiful deck! It was fascinating to learn about the painstaking process to make these cards what they are.

  3. Beth says:

    Wow, Emi has now announced that the one and only Rachel Pollack will be authoring the accompanying guidebook for this deck. Just keeps getting better.

  4. louise says:

    The deck seems gorgeous, I just found the artist on Instagram! Voluminous yet simplistic motives as well as some interesting new takes on some of the minor cards…It seems it finished, so tell us, Beth, will you be selling this jewel on lilttleredtarot? It would fit so neatly with the rest of those treasures you’ve found from around the world – love from Copenhagen

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