The Spolia Tarot is a clever deck.
A witty, intelligent tarot created by artist Jen May and writer Jessa Crispin (who many of you will know as author of The Creative Tarot and The Dead Ladies Project, and creator of literary mag Bookslut.)
Since Jen and Jessa have just published a new second edition of the Spolia Tarot, I decided it was time for a long-overdue review!
Before we begin: Guys, it turns out there is a Hedwig and the Angry Inch reference tucked away in this deck. I know, amazing!!!!! Thus, I am offering a *mystery prize* to the first person to find it and share in the comments!
The Spolia Tarot is a collage deck, created in old-school cut-and paste with paper, scissors and glue.
Personally, I tend to find collage decks a little hard to access – there’s something about the images being ‘pre-made’ that often creates a barrier for me (I feel similarly about photographic decks). However, Jen’s images don’t have that effect for me – instead they draw me in and toy with me in a way that I really enjoy. I don’t know if it’s all the earthy historical references, the blending of cosmic psychedelia with classicism, or simply the fact that these collages are just so damn clever and intricate, but it’s an intriguing deck with images that are layered both physically and symbolically.
The name ‘Spoilia’ refers to “using rubble as building material”, an appropriate title for a deck collaged from found images. Jessa continues:
[The name ‘Spolia’] also felt fitting for the time we are living in, as institutions, gender norms, religions, and ideas about how a society should function are all tumbling down and need to be rebuilt. We both believe that intuition and spirit are essential tools for guiding us through this process.
We use images from history, from alchemy and mysticism, from mythology and the natural world to create a lush deck layered with meaning. I have been studying the symbolism of the tarot for years, and we were meticulous about using the colors, flowers, crystals and stones, animals, and other imagery associated with each specific tarot card or its astrological associations.
The deck took three years to create, and was in every way a collaboration between Jessa and Jen, with designer Tara Romeo pulling everything together at the end. I asked Jen to tell us a little about the collaborative process.
For each card Jessa would write me an email with her interpretation of the meaning of a card and it’s associations (astrological, mythological,botanical, literary, films, etc). We’d take Jessa’s write up and discuss from there what sort of imagery we could use to represent this. We’d look at existing variations of each card and see what felt right or off. A lot of glittery gifs, Keanu pics, and jokes were exchanged as well. We went back and forth like this discussing the cards daily, working on one card at at time for three years.
I consider the artwork a real collaboration in that through Jessa’s words I was pushed to create something (hopefully!) clear and understandable and not too opaque. Once all of the artwork was done and scanned (it’s all cut paper – not digital collage) I worked with Tara Romeo to take the unwieldy pile of not at all uniformly sized papers on my desk and turn them into the actual functional deck. Tara is an amazing designer and I would have been lost without her.
Spolia is a high-quality tarot; its cards are just the thickness I like – not too thin, but not too thick. Sturdy, yet shufflable and agile, and finished with a soft matt coating. The first edition was printed in Italy; in publishing this new second edition, the creators sourced a Canada-based company who could satisfy their sustainability requirements. Though the card designs themselves have not changed, the new edition feels just that little bit nicer in my hands.
There are 94 cards in the Spolia Tarot. The standard 78 cards of the tarot, plus 12 zodiac cards (one for each sign), and a card for each of the four western elements of earth, air, fire and water.
Presumably because I am a stubborn conventionalist in thrall to my Capricorn moon, I removed the additional cards immediately and set them aside. However I do plan on getting over myself very soon and shuffling them back in to include in my readings as the creators intended. They also make beautiful altar and/or meditation cards. And the Zodiac cards can be used as signifiers (consciously selected cards to represent the seeker) in a tarot reading.
Jen’s illustrations are playful, described by the duo as ‘earthy, with a feminine vibe.’ The colours are rich and deep; the collages are intricate, multi-layered, many with tiny details only noticable after properly studying the card.
I was intrigued as to where Jen found all of these brilliant images. She explained:
The word Spolia means to build from rubble, re-purposing old material to create something new and the artwork was created in that spirit. I found a lot of the material looking through library image archives, my own ‘archive’ of scraps of paper and ephemera I’ve saved for years, and some kind of cheesy fair use imagery books. If I got an envelope in a the mail that was an excellent color I’d save it to potentially use when we needed something burgundy or whatever. I’d rip out landscapes from advertisement or magazines if I saw something potentially relevant. Often we’d need a figure in a very specific pose which could be challenging. For certain cards I’d be searching for super specific imagery like Hecate for The Moon card. For other cards we’d need a person tied up who seems like the could easily escape or I need a person whose legs are making the shape of the number 4. I often altered the poses of figures by cutting up the paper and making some changes or combining figures in a Frankenstein mode to get it right. We also made sure to sneak in some secret references to things like Hedwig and the Angry Inch.
Color is important in the deck and I spent a lot of time manipulating images on photocopy machines which is where some of the very bright colors come from. Origami paper was used for some background colors as well.
There are so many gorgeous cards (I mean, there are 94…) in this deck that it’s hard to pick favourites, but as always, I’ll try! As well as those shown throughout this post, a few others I want to highlight are shown below:
I love the anatomical images used throughout the deck – especially here in the Hanged Man. This card represents the vulnerability and strength of surrender, so to be able to see below the surface into the body of the hanging figure is a powerful symbol. And I appreciate the flowers and budding twigs springing up around the feet of Death, reminding us that this card is as much about rebirth as dying and letting go.
Any deck showing a queer situation on the Lovers card gets a thumbs up from me! I love the hot pink Grecian women getting down on this card, surrounded by bursting lilies.
These brilliant red wands and swords are really cool. I really like the dynamic power in the Seven of Wands, the figure leaping through the air, propelled by the power of her beliefs and ideals. And, ugh, the Nine of Swords is perfect – all those demons in the dark with their swords, that’s exactly how this nightmarish card feels to me.
Do Jen and Jessa have favourites? Jen shared:
The High Priestess is a perennial favorite card for me. We were intimidated by that card but it came together pretty quickly once we finally worked on it. I think my favorite card in our deck visually is Judgment. I know that is one of Jessa’s favorites as well. I like our Emperor and Empress. Jessa is a fan of our Taurus and Knight of Swords.