The Brady Tarot: Emi Brady on deep creative process & working with Rachel Pollack

This conversation made me realize that I will need to put a disclaimer in my introduction about this deck. This deck has teeth and is not for the faint of heart! It is no-nonsense about the brutal and violent nature of the food chain.

If you cast your mind back to just over a year ago, you may remember me excitedly banging on about a new tarot project. Illustrated by woodcut, hand coloured in gouache, and deeply nature-based in its themes, symbology and concepts, the Brady Tarot really captured my heart.

I’m not the only person who is excited about this deck! Creator Emi Brady’s crowdfunding campaign was ridiculously successful, raising more than six times its goal and allowing, among other exciting ‘upgrades’, Emi to hire Rachel Pollack to author the accompanying guidebook.

(I don’t know about you, but if Rachel Pollack authored the book to my tarot deck, I would probably die of pride and happiness.)

The Brady Tarot is in progress, set for publication this July.

I’ve been following Emi’s work since the outset, eyes wide with wonder (or sometimes fear) each time a new card image is shared. These pictures are beautiful, gruesome, intricate, carnal, inspiring, fearsome and bold. So much thought and energy has gone into the conception of each card, drawing on real knowledge and love of the natural world – specifically plants and animals of North America.

Now feels like a great moment for us to catch up with Emi about how it’s all going! Read on for insights into the process of creating and re-creating these images along with a peek into the conversations Emi and Rachel are having about each card’s meaning.

You can pre-order the Brady Tarot from Emi here. (Yes, it will be coming to the Little Red Tarot Shop in the summer!) In the meantime, you can follow Emi @tinybrownbird on Instagram for more images, cards and process!


Hey Emi! Great to chat with you again! Your crowdfunding campaign was phenomenally successful – how have you found the quieter months after all that buzz, has it been easy to get your head down and see the project through?

The quieter months have been wonderful! I do my best work in solitude, and my days have been filled with steady progress. For the most part, putting my head down, cloistering myself in the studio, and working is what I do best; and seeing this project through to the end feels natural. It’s still not easy work, and I’ve been having to stop and stretch out my wrists and shoulders more often than when I began a year ago. I’ve continued working my 8-12 hour days without injury so far!

Relief printing these images has been the perfect process for creating a tarot deck. Carving and printing is meditative and honestly kind of boring, which creates a space where I can do the emotional and spiritual work required to really understand the meaning of each card. The 3 of Roots touches on this concept, and I really do feel like I’ve been the badger digging away for the past year.

I have continued to roll dice to determine which card to work on next, which has preserved a spirit of spontaneity in the project. I try to not plan out my images until the card has been rolled. Sometimes I roll the dice and as soon as I see what card is next, the image flashes in my mind fully formed. Sometimes it takes work, like sketching and reading.

There has been a lot of academic reading; I am determined to make this deck as scientifically accurate as possible. This has meant going back and re-working The Fool (the card I am currently carving), since the original featured a common cuckoo (a Eurasian species). The new Fool is very similar in content and composition to the first, but features a brown headed cowbird and an indigo bunting, both native to North America. It may make no difference to some, but artistic integrity demands consistency! I have also reworked Death, which now features human, smilodon, and Tyrannosaurus rex skulls. The Fool and Death were the first two images I created, and I felt they were made before I could hear the voice of the deck loud and clear.

How are you feeling about the cards themselves? Are there any that have especially challenged or excited you during the creative process?

I just keep feeling better and better about the work. Daily, I get these little glimpses of its potential as a tool of reflection and healing.

I was very pleased with the results of the 7 of Feathers, as it was an image that had been in the back of my mind since around 2005. I could never figure out what format that image was supposed to fit into, and when I rolled that card the image immediately sprang into my mind. The Ace of Feathers was another cool card to make, as it references the experience that inspired me to start working on this deck (which I spoke about in our last interview). The 5 of Arrows was the most difficult card I have worked on, and while the image was one that appeared fully formed in my mind, executing it left me feeling unbelievably depressed. I put my tools away for almost a week after that one.

The thing that I’m the most excited about is this deck’s potential to raise awareness around conservation. The rich heritage of our natural history is the heart of all of this, and as time passes our need to protect it becomes more dire. At minimum, 10% of sales will be donated to Earthjustice, a powerful non-profit that enables lawyers to fight for the environment in the courts. If this deck is very successful, I want to donate more and more. Being self-published, it gives me the opportunity to make this project as geared toward healing the planet as possible.

How is working with Rachel Pollack? I can’t imagine a bigger honour than having Rachel appraise and author a tarot project – can you tell us a little about that?

I have immense gratitude to Rachel for agreeing to work on this project with me, and her contributions only make me more excited. It is essential to have a written companion to this deck because there is just so much scientific and spiritual information packed into each image.

Since my craft is images and not language, hearing her interpretations of the cards has breathed new life into the work for me and connected many dots. Rachel has such a unique way of seeing the bigger picture, and I find myself often lost in the details while working on these images.

One of my favorite examples of this is the 6 of Roots. I always was uneasy by the Waite-Smith image for the 6 of Pentacles, as on the surface it feels too much like trickle-down economics. People with resources almost inevitably hoard them, and it feels that giving freely is often an exception to the rule. I wanted to change this dynamic somehow in my version of the card, and the image of Quetzalcoatl and the hare in the moon felt right.

The card is based on a myth about Quetzalcoatl (the Aztec feathered serpent god) becoming a man and wandering Mexico. He soon finds himself close to starvation, and lays down to die in a field of grass under the full moon. A hare finds him and offers his flesh to the starving man. Only then does Quetzalcoatl turn back into his feathered serpent form, moved by the selflessness of the hare. Ultimately, Quetzalcoatl honors the hare by taking him into the heavens and putting his image onto the moon. Rachel pointed out that we all become something more than mortal humans when we act selflessly and are touched by selfless acts ourselves. I had not even considered the transcendent and spiritual aspect of giving yourself to others, and was honestly only thinking about the mundane physical act of self-sacrifice.

Rachel also had good insight about the 8 of Feathers. She suggested the image may be off-putting for those that identify with the arctic ground squirrel about to be eaten. I had to laugh, because the thought did not even occur to me. I had been so couched in scientific thought, that I was only seeing this scenario as the movement of energy from one form to another. It did not even cross my mind that (of course!) the squirrel suffers the ultimate loss, and others may identify with the cute little mammal over the powerful predator. She also pointed out that this card is the antithesis of the “Happy Squirrel Card” of The Simpson’s fame, which was the best thing I had heard all day.

This conversation made me realize that I will need to put a disclaimer in my introduction about this deck. This deck has teeth and is not for the faint of heart! It is no-nonsense about the brutal and violent nature of the food chain. Even the card backs, which feature the four borders of each suit, end up looking like a vortex of claws and teeth. I am excited to see if the readings done with these cared will also be as blunt and to the point. (I certainly hope so!)


You can pre-order the Brady Tarot from Emi here. (Yes – it will be coming to the Little Red Tarot Shop in the summer – join my #Decklust list for monthly updates!)

Follow Emi @tinybrownbird on Instagram for more images, cards and process.

Read more: The Brady Tarot: Natural history meets the esoteric

11 comments

  1. This deck is gorgeous and I’m LOVING the key words chosen. I actually have ‘altruism’ down in my notes under the 6 of Pentacles, and the Quetzalcoatl myth brings in all new colorful layers.

    What most dazzled me about this interview was learning that you re-worked some of the first cards, since you developed the heart of the deck as you went along. That’s the forwards and backwards and forwards etc. motion of digestion! It’s a powerful fem/masc blend, and it requires humility to ‘admit’ the ‘going back’ part, since our present culture so over-values the ‘forward production’ part.

    It’s really affirming to hear creators talk about this process. Thank you for this interview!!

  2. Beth
    Beth says:

    Thanks again for sharing your progress Emi, I loved re-reading this and I’m so looking forward to seeing the completed deck. All good wishes for the ‘last’ (well, maybe not) leg of your journey!

  3. thecrescentdaughter says:

    I can’t believe I hadn’t heard of this deck before now! It’s incredible – I’ve thought for a long time that I’d love to see a nature deck that acknowledges the very not-fluffy side of things! – ridiculously beautiful, and reading about how much thought has gone into each card was awesome. I’m definitely going to have to get my hands on this one!

    With that in mind; will you have this one for pre-order in your shop anytime soon, Beth? Just trying to figure out if it’s safe to wait until you have copies in stock, or if they’ll all vanish instantly like the Next Worlds did! (Luckily I managed to nab that one from the artist. intense relief)

  4. Kat says:

    I used to want this deck but not since I found out how very many of the cards depict dead animals or stabbed/bleeding suffering animals. And it’s full of birds of prey, doing what they do, killing. These cards make me cringe and feel sick. I’m not into happy, fluffy decks that ignore the dark and distressing side of life, but I would never support a deck like this one that seems to relish animal suffering.

    • Emi Brady says:

      Hi Kat,

      I’m so sorry you feel this way, and understand how you would be triggered by some of the images. This is exactly why I will try to give fair warning about what the deck contains. Preserving the well-being of animals is one of my goals in making this deck, and I do not condone or try to glorify animal suffering.

      I will not deny that this deck is honest about the wide range of experiences animals have in the wild, but I would be doing the subject a disservice if I did not include death and struggle as a part of life. I do not believe any of these images are gratuitous.

      Here are the facts: There one dead animal depicted in 1 card and a total of 4 wounded animals in 3 other cards. The fact that animals eat each other is alluded to (but never shown) in 6 cards. The only references to death in the Major Arcana are a few clean skulls. The original Death card was indeed violent, but I have since replaced it with an image that only depicts animal skulls. I still have 10 to go, and I foresee only one card that could possibly have any kind of suffering in it (the 9 of Arrows / Swords).

      Perhaps that’s too much hardship for a deck for some, but it feels just about right to me. I’ve always felt that a good reading bites back sometimes.

      Best,

      Emi Brady

      • Kat says:

        Emi,
        Thank you for your explanation. I almost thought of buying your deck and removing the offensive cards, the brutal and bloody ones. Your artwork is incredible and I do love it.
        But, I look at the Polar Bear on the “Defeat” card that Beth has in this post. A starved, deathly wounded and bleeding polar bear does not say “defeat” to me; it says death and torture, starvation, isolation, incredible suffering.
        I see hawks in my yard killing the small mammals and other birds. It’s gruesome. Nature is a brutal world.
        I don’t watch the news because I don’t want to be bombarded and overwhelmed by the negativity. I know it’s out there. But I don’t want it in my psyche 24 hours a day.
        Sorry, but I feel the same way about your cards. It’s such a shame because the moment I saw your deck last year, I felt sure it was what I had been looking for for so long–non-human themed and stunning art work.
        Nope, still don’t want to see dead, tortured, bleeding animals.
        I’ll have to keep looking for a nature/animal themed deck that isn’t quite as harsh and upsetting (to me) as yours.
        I do have strong empathic qualities. I feel such sorrow and despair when I look at some of your cards.
        I’m probably in the minority and I’m sure most are anticipating the release of your deck.
        All the best,
        Kat

      • Beth
        Beth says:

        For me, the illustrations in a tarot deck are about bigger things than what is literally being depicted – it’s good to begin interpreting cards from a literal ‘say what you see’ perspective, but there’s always more going on.

        A wounded polar bear speaks of the gravity of that defeat (a polar bear? Such a huge and powerful beast?) and it raises questions – who shot those arrows? Why? For me it’s not about cruelty, but is a gruesome and powerful statement on the self-defeating element of the Five of Swords. (Humans harming nature, polar bears being a particularly timely symbol of that – who is ultimately losing in this ‘battle’?)

        Because we can’t actually take the pain of this card out of the tarot – tarot contains pain and suffering because those things are part of life. It’s hard to imagine how this deck might be illustrated if it didn’t contain depictions of pain.

        I absolutely believe that we all have to take responsibility for what we allow through our filters (where possible) – there are days I can’t face the news, the suffering in the world. But I need to know that my tarot deck is capable of showing me sadness and pain and death, because that’s where I turn for honest conversations.

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