It’s been a busy year for Jessa Crispin, author most recently of The Creative Tarot: A Modern Guide to an Inspired Life. Her first book, The Dead Ladies Project: Exiles, Ex-Pats, and Ex- Countries, came out this past September—two books in six months. She also announced that Bookslut, the beloved, iconic, and influential lit blog she founded in 2012, would be shuttering in May. In the meantime she’s been working on other books, other projects, including one alluded to in The Creative Tarot: a new tarot deck.
The Spolia Deck is a collaboration between Crispin and Brooklyn-based collage artist Jen May, who also provided the cover art for The Creative Tarot as well as its many full-color interior images—a sneak peak of some of the deck’s cards. I meet with Crispin and May at a small First Avenue Italian restaurant called, perfectly, the Three of Cups. “Now you know our secret meeting place,” Crispin says as I sit down.
They’ve been at work on the deck for more than a year now: 57 out of the deck’s 90 cards are completed.
“Scorpio was the hardest,” May says. “I’m a Scorpio. I still haven’t glued that one down.”
For Crispin, the most difficult card they’ve tackled so far is The Emperor. “It’s a card that feels so boring when you get it,” she says. “A dude sitting in a chair—”
“Yelling at you,” May finishes.
Together they were able to tease out The Emperor’s complexities. “It’s really evocative,” Crispin says, showing me a picture of the card on her phone. Nettles (a plant ruled by Mars) and horns (nodding to the astrological sign Aries) decorate the space. “It’s more than a guy telling you to do something. It’s a complicated card.”
May, best known as the illustrator of the trailblazing literary Internet astrologer Madame Clairevoyant, has a distinct and easily recognizable style. Her collages frequently feature esoteric, astronomical, and plant imagery; they are the kind of dreamy I want to live in. May talks about where she finds the materials she works with.
“I have these really cheesy books of public domain images,” she says. She has a large scanner at home, but some effects require the use of a commercial copy machine. “I go to [use one] a few times a week.”
“I was not at all as knowledgeable of the tarot as Jessa,” May says of their collaboration. “I had a deck, I did daily cards, but I would be checking a book pretty often.” Since she began working, “It’s been like tarot school.”
“Tarot boot camp!” Crispin responds.
How do they work together? “Each card has to be carefully considered,” Crispin says. They try to find associations from mythology, astrology, as well as places, colors, herbs. “Scorpio’s associated place is like ‘a dark alley where criminals gather.’” She laughs. “It gives you more to work with.”
“We’ve definitely realized what doesn’t make sense to us,” she goes on. “We’ve tried really hard to show what each card means.”
She mentions a card that, in most decks, is pretty boring at first glance: “Temperance is a fucking angel—who fucking cares.” Crispin and May worked to show the spirit and meaning of the card, which is about bringing together two opposites to create something new. The key, May says, “is finding an image that is doing exactly what you want it to do.” They chose a classical image of an intersex person in bright, oppositional colors.
“We didn’t want it to be a deck of only white people,” May says, as she describes the kind of figures she searches for.
The nature of the tarot made it easy to incorporate images from everywhere. “An archetype is an archetype,” Crispin explains. “Every culture has a goddess of love.”
They talk about their four queen cards, each of which nods to a historical figure. The Queens of Cups is Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last queen before American occupation; the Queen of Wands is Cleopatra; the Queen of Coins, Catherine the Great; Queen of Swords, Elizabeth I. “We try to give it more historically specific depth,” Crispin says. May describes additional animal companions (Elizabeth has an owl; Catherine, wolves) and symbolic plants (a blue hibiscus flower blooms from Liliuokalani’s forehead).
“We’re obviously not correcting the record,” Crispin says. “Pamela Colman Smith”—who illustrated the iconic Ryder-Waite-Smith deck—“did an amazing job. She was a crazy visionary who doesn’t get enough credit.”
“There are so many decks and they serve a lot of purposes,” May adds. “We aren’t trying to be the new official deck.”
“It was more like an intense project we both wanted to do,” Crispin agrees.
They each have a favorite card. For Crispin, it’s the Chariot. Drawing it means for her, “I’m in the right place.” For May, it’s the High Priestess—a card she’s still reluctant to begin. “I’m saving it for later.”
And when they’re done with the deck? “We’ll read the cards in the moonlight,” Crispin says, laughing. “With rose petals!”
“In a moon bath,” May says, smiling too.
Images from top to bottom: Queen of Coins, The Heirophant, Temperance, Knight of Swords, Two of Swords