A summer ago (or was it two? please tell me it wasn’t three) Dan Dos Santos and I visited Julie Bell, Boris Vallejo, and their sons, David and Anthony Palumbo. Being night owls, Dan and I went to the basement with the Palumbo boys for some late night movie watching….until we saw the three thousand Boris and Julie paintings stored down there. We must have pulled a few hundred out before we short-circuited from visual overload.
The next morning I asked Julie about a painting that had a particular solemnity about it. She mentioned it was the start of a Tarot set that she hoped to get back to someday. The thing about Julie is, she’s not just an amazing artist, she’s also one of the most dedicated and disciplined people I know. I wasn’t at all surprised when, a year or so later, she told me she had spoken to Heavy Metal and they were interested in publishing the series in their magazine. Even better, it had become a family affair, with Boris, Dave, and Tony all joining in.
I asked her to talk about the project:
When did you first have the idea to do a Tarot set?
I’ve wanted to paint a Tarot set since I was first introduced to Tarot at eighteen. I just loved this idea of all these beautiful cards with all kinds of hidden symbols and deep meaning. The first set I had was the Aquarian Deck, illustrated by David Palladini, and it has really stuck in my mind all these years. I actually did paint some cards years and years ago that were in a completely different style from what I’m doing now.
How did it evolve into a family project?
I did the first one, The Emperor, back in 2001 with the hopes of luring Boris into working on the set with me. He took the bait and did his first card, Death. Although he thought it was a cool idea to do the set, he wasn’t 100% sold on it, because of a lack of time to do paintings that weren’t commissioned works. It was years before he did another card.
So time was a problem because we do have lots of regular commissions that keep us busy and it was hard to schedule time to paint something that doesn’t bring a paycheck with it.
Years floated by (as they do!) and the cards were moving along s-l-o-w-l-y (all painted by me at this point) and our sons, Tony and David grew up and became professional artists. The natural thing was to get them in on the project since they have shared my interest in this type of imagery all their lives. Still, we had the time problem because everybody’s always busy.
Then Jeff Greene, a musician from Ireland who I was painting an album cover for, suggested that in order to move things along and actually finish the set, we get a magazine to feature some of the cards on a regular basis so that we have a structured deadline to keep up with. Howard Jurofsky at Heavy Metal magazine was more than happy to take on the job of taskmaster and crack the whip for us!
What is the structure of its release?
Heavy Metal is publishing three cards per issue (except in the two special issues for summer and winter). You’d think it should be three cards, one from each of us, but this gives us some wiggle room for whoever needs extra time or whatever. We don’t have a set pattern, we’re just trying to keep it as balanced as possible so that nobody ends up with a whole bunch to do at the end. And we’re dividing up the set much in the same way—just to keep it balanced. I didn’t want to assign specific suits to specific people because I think the chances of getting bored would be greater if you had to paint all of one suit instead of a mix. I want each one of the numbered cards of all four suits to have one from each of us, though. I think some symmetry is good.
I’m letting everyone decide which card they want to do next. The main thing for me is that everybody is as inspired and enthusiastic as possible—that’s the only way to get the best results for these cards. As for how long it will take, we’ve done about 25% of the set now, so we figure it will take another two years.
Are you following a particular historical background with the set or making it a more personal symbology?
It’s pretty mixed. I wanted to have enough of the traditional Tarot symbols represented, but I really love it when we put our own personal slant on a card’s meaning. My brain works in an extremely symbolic way. I’ve always been that way, so I see meaning everywhere I look. Boris, Tony, and David are in the same groove with me on that, so it’s perfect.
Also, I really want to see some experimentation with these cards. Since we have more free reign than usual here, it’s good to take advantage of that and have a few surprises.
What was most surprising about suddenly being an art director?
Walking that fine line between control and release. It can be trickier than one would think, right? Both in terms of scheduling and also execution. I always say “you have to be pushy, but subtle.”
Can you name a difficult or pleasant surprise from having worked on this up until now?
Difficult surprise: how incredibly difficult it is to ask Boris, Tony, or David to change something. They’re, of course, totally professional about it all and never act pouty or defensive, but I have such intense respect and admiration for them and their art that asking them to change any little thing just feels like it goes against nature itself. Pleasant surprise: how totally professionally Boris, Tony, and David have approached this project. I’m asking a huge thing of them, not only to co-create this set with me in their “spare time,” but to give it the loving attention to quality they’re giving. I’m a pretty lucky lady!
“Having the freedom to do almost anything I want with my interpretation of the symbolism of the
Tarot cards is, by itself, a wonderful thing. Adding to this, having my wife as the art director makes these paintings a true labor of love.”
“Artists have been designing Tarot cards since the 12th century. The cards mutate over time, gaining new symbols and changing things around. The most compelling traits of the individual cards stick around. This process of cultural natural selection makes the Tarot like an evolving art project spanning every nation, countless artists, and hundreds of years. So it’s exciting to take part in that! —Tony Palumbo
“One of the really interesting things for me is being involved in such a long range project as this, and that it’s also collaborative when you step back and see the whole of it. Those are two things that I don’t really get in my regular commissions. With the Tarot deck, I feel like it’s a growing thing that everyone is steering in their own way. It’s exciting to see the shape that it’s been taking in just the past year and to anticipate where it will be going.”
Be sure to check out:
Anthony Palumbo’s website.