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Pamela Colman Smith: The Artist that Shaped Tarot

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The Moon tarot card depicts two wolf-like creatures staring up at a rendition of a golden moon. Spiked rays jolt around it, which may represent rays of moonlight beaming through the darkness or a moment when the moon is in line with the sun behind it. The focal point of the moon is its facet; a simple black line connects a brow, nose, lips, chin and eyes that face down to Earth before connecting back to the curve of a waxing crescent. The background is a warm, minty green with black lines defining mountains in the distance. A single yellow path leads from the mountains to a patch of lime-colored grass, where the wolves are perched and two pillar-like structures frame the moon from the ground. That minty color is introduced again in the foreground as water, with a lobster crawling out from a shallow shoreline, its pinchers raised upward.

My first introduction to tarot was seeing this image of the Moon on a poster in an antique shop when I was little. Since then, I’ve seen renditions of tarot card illustrations, usually the popular Major Arcana, plastered on wall tapestries, shirts and mugs. These cards consist of well-known names and symbols like the Moon, the Sun, the Fool, Death and Wheel of Fortune, among others. Each card has its own meaning, which is determined by the symbol on the card, as well as the cards that surround it.

While it’s common to see various renditions of tarot symbols on a millennial’s phone case or as a wall clock in a trendy cafe, not many people know who originally designed them.

Pamela Colman Smith crafted the original tarot symbols in 1909. Smith was born in England in 1878, but spent time living in Jamaica and the United States. Her Jamaican mother and American father tied her to each place until her artistic endeavors drew her to Pratt Institute in 1893, at only 15-years-old. Here, she studied many art forms including illustration and painting.

As a current art student at Pratt, I couldn’t help but wonder what the school was like only six years after being founded, or what an art program looked like in 1893. I was drawn to Pratt for its old bricks and greenery, in contrast to a modern city skyline in the distance. I always felt a sense of home while sitting in a patch of grass and wondered what artists sat there to study before me, what legacy they lived and what experience they had at the Institute. It makes me wonder if my name will be lost in time, only to be found through a random Google deep dive.

Smith didn’t graduate from Pratt. After both of her parents passed away by the time she was 21, Smith moved back to England and traveled alongside other artists in the Lyceum Theater group, led by Bram Stoker, Ellen Terry and Henry Irving. There, she helped with costume and set design, and illustrated posters, pamphlets and books.

Smith showcased her work in a few magazines, and even created her own called The Green Sheaf. She wrote creative essays, such as one that speaks to her experience of creating art with synesthesia, a condition where different sensory pathways interact and allow for senses to be experienced in a different way. For Smith, this meant an ability to “see sound.” She also illustrated various novels by authors she befriended during her time in the theatre group, including Bram Stoker's last novel, “The Lair of the White Worm.”

In 1901, while still in England, Smith was introduced to the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a secret society where occultists and mystics convened. The organization practiced various spiritual forms involving magic and rituals. It was here that Smith eventually met A.E. Waite, a poet and scholarly mystic. Waite was working on revisioning the tarot deck and creating a key to the symbols for each card. The original deck he created was named the Rider-Waite tarot deck, but really, he was a co-creator with Smith. Waite commissioned her to illustrate his updated deck after describing the meanings for each card. She created the illustrations for 80 cards.

Smith captured a fairytale whimsy in each of her designs. Characters are adorned with decorative robes and crowns, knights ride majestic horses and stained glass windows are brightly puzzled together. Smith also fills the space with intricate patterning that reminds me of wallpaper in the 1800s: braided, weave-like patterns, small, delicate floral prints and clouds that mimic a puff of magical smoke. Smith’s line work and use of strong, moody colors to convey emotion was influenced by Romanticism. Her tarot cards are lightened by tones of yellow, warm teal and red-orange, and highlighted with white. Hatching and dots are used to create skin tone, garments and a more robust landscape.

After the cards were published and sold, Smith continued creating. Her synesthesia interested the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and he granted Smith an exhibition in his gallery in New York in 1907. Smith was the first non-photographer to exhibit in Gallery 291, though the popularity of her work didn’t arise until after her death. She passed away in her England apartment in 1951. All of her belongings and art were sold to pay off her remaining debt; she didn’t make much during her lifetime.

I discovered Pamela Colman Smith by accident while searching the origins of tarot. It was late at night, and I had about eight tabs open, each pointing me to a different path, until I stumbled upon Smith’s name. I found it unbelievable that I hadn’t heard of Smith prior to the random search. I thought back to the poster of the Moon card I saw when I was young and recalled being struck and inspired by her semi-realistic, Renaissance-esque illustration. The moments connected like some sort of poetic, “aha” moment. I might’ve never learned about her if I hadn’t searched for information on tarot myself.

Finding Smith and learning about her life and our shared academic experience allowed for a deeper connection to my original introduction to tarot as an art form, as well as my connection to Smith as an artist. With her work being so widespread and replicated, Smith’s name needs to be remembered. Many don’t know of her contributions to tarot, even after her illustrations are mass-produced with little to no credit. As a creator, I think it’s vital for an artist to be accredited for their work, even after a century has passed. The story of Pamela Colman Smith shouldn’t be lost in time.

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Photo by Lauren Jonaitis


written by
Lauren Jonaitis
March 27, 2021