E Lubanko’s Tarot is surreal, intense, queer, & divine

Queer Art is often about what happens when your identity and personhood is placed on the other side of the line of “Things Not Talked About.” When your entire self is put in a box of “unacceptable,” where is there to go?

Here, I am unapologetically Talking About It. Not in words, because those change, but in imagery that speaks from my heart.

E Lubanko

Emily Lubanko creates the kind of art that grips your gaze.

The visceral paintings of the Lubanko tarot draw us in to surreal and sensual landscapes, inviting us to explore the depths of our dreams and fantasies. It’s a spellbinding and uncomfortable feeling, finding my eyes locked in to the shadows and vivid lights of these images. For me, it is a reflection of my queerness, my strangeness, my magic. A sense that I can’t quite bear to look… and yet cannot look away. I feel I’m looking into mirrors of desire, shame, ancestry, body-memory; ancient and future worlds of my psyche – of our collective psyche – spun into an irresistible and terrifying tarot wonderland.

Of course, I’m not the only gushing fan of Emily’s work. The Lubanko Tarot smashed its crowdfunding goal last month and will be published in spring 2021. If you’re quick there’s still time to join the Kickstarter campaign! (And yes indeed we’ll be proudly stocking it when it’s out.)

Meanwhile, I caught up with Emily to talk about unapologetically queer art, identity, self-expression – and the six-year process of creating the Lubanko Tarot.

Hi Emily! How are you doing today, what’s it like where you are?

Still kicking over here! It’s a breezy day with the end-of-summer haze settling in. It’s dry and still and very much the weather’s waiting room before we amble onto autumn.

I was so excited to see the Lubanko Tarot going live on Kickstarter. Could you give us a mini introduction to this project?

Yes! The Lubanko Tarot is a fully illustrated 78-card tarot deck exploring the surreal, the intense, the queer, and the divine. It is an art object, a collection of paintings with an included book, and a tool to be used however the reader desires. These cards are meant to help the reader grapple with their personal metaphor and mythos.

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what makes a thing ‘queer’. I feel that for me personally it often (not always) has to do with a sort of lush, rich, dirty chaos; anarchic sensuality, bodily, earthy… vibes I really get from your deck! I love your phrase “shocks of colour”, and the very bodily way you describe your art. What’s your sense of the queerness of your art?

I love this question! I think the answer is very ephemeral and will vary from person to person. For me, ‘queer’ in this instance can only be defined as how it relates to my own self-identification. (I am wary of using labels for others unless they are asked for, or casting broad strokes without permission.) Some artists who self-identify as queer whisper their work, and some shout, and many of us make quite a lot of things along the spectrum of volume and subject.

I think Queer Art as a whole could be described as the history of making art as a queer person, and what that context means in how the art and the person is received. When your existence hovers amongst trying to grasp different reclaimed terms to best identify yourself, it is already a fraught starting point. Being “out” about your gender, sexuality, and way of being can be a matter of safety. Identifying as anything other than the status quo means that we are constantly asked to “prove ourselves” at an accelerated and often dangerous rate. Often there is no winning at all.

I would not say that all queer art may be a certain way, but my queer art is this way: it is loud, it is intense, it is sensual and dark and unapologetic and looks nightmares and reality (and the overlap) in the eye. At its peak volume, it is all the things I am that I was told not to be. I have definitely learned to whisper as well as shout on the journey of making this, but my initial voice as an artist was absolutely what you described.

Queer Art is often about what happens when your identity and personhood is placed on the other side of the line of “Things Not Talked About.” When your entire self is put in a box of “unacceptable,” where is there to go?

Here, I am unapologetically Talking About It. Not in words, because those change, but in imagery that speaks from my heart.

The “unapologetic” is especially the adjective I would emphasize here, since throughout my career as an artist I have been asked—politely and not—to “tone it down” if I am to have any hope of reaching people. This project was conceived with the premise that I would not compromise my voice and my artistic intent for a single card. In the end, I feel satisfied in that I did not compromise, I did not muffle, and I did not phone it in.


Your images are so striking and painterly. What medium do you use, and how do you create them?

Thank you! For these I worked primarily digitally. There are some cards— the Emperor, The Devil, The Hierophant, the 10 of Pentacles— that started as ink drawings. The rest of them however have been fully digital. I create dry-brush-like tools in Photoshop and layer them to look like acrylic/gouache/drybrush painting because that is the aesthetic I like. I want to have that sense of natural media motion in everything I do. I also knew going into this that I was going to make 78 works that would need to be primed for print and possibly edited down the line, so digital made the most sense for me.

What’s your workspace like and how do you approach your work?

It depends on the point of the process (and in the point in my life!) This work has been made in the span of 6 years. Many apartments and modes of life have passed, and thus the spaces have too!

The initial sketches were done sitting outside with my sketchbook and rollerball pen. I would make 100 small portrait-orientation rectangles on a page and draw tiny compositions of cards while downing iced teas and watching birds. Because my tarot is meant to be a useful tool, that means that each composition needed to be strong both at a distance and up-close. So the initial thumbnails really are thumbnail-size!

From there I would usually do a color paint-sketch digitally at my desk (which has changed locations many times over the years— sometimes it’s been a coffee table, or a kitchen table, and later an actual dedicated workspace).

The last cards were done almost directly in paint, just slapping colors down and refining. Unlike other illustration jobs for clients, I could be as messy with the layers as I wanted. Some of these are many layers, and some of them are just 1-2 with color variations. I like to approach these paintings the way I would natural media, and that means there’s an importance of keeping the haphazard and chaotic embodied within.

Do you have a favourite card or one that feels particularly important to you at the moment? (Strength is incredible!! I mean, they all are…)

Unfortunately this question is very hard for me because each and every one of them is important to me! Nevertheless, here are two contrasting cards.

“The Lovers” card is very important to me because it is the closest to my roots— a feral howl that is disconcerting at first glance but is actually about the intimidating fear of new love, new relationships, and the all-consuming feelings of love when we are young and learning what it means to connect with others. It goes directly face-first into metaphor and does not apologize. I get a lot of questions about this card, and it is important to me that it is the way it is.

The 6 of Swords is important to me because it is the opposite end of the spectrum. It is quiet, barely-a-whisper, and is about the near-silent grief and ache of change in the passage of one place to the next.

These two cards are important to me because of their contrast, and that they exist in the same body of work. Humans are never just one thing or one tone.

Yep, we will be stocking the Lubanko Tarot when it is published :) In the meantime, there are still a few days to back it on Kickstarter – quick! Emily will also be teaching two online courses: Tarot Reading 101, and How To Make Your Own Tarot Deck course, as part of the crowdfund campaign.

Find Emily online: Website // Twitter // Instagram