Tarot-views is my series of interviews with fellow Tarot readers, artists, authors, and enthusiasts. These people share my love of Tarot, and here I get to pick their brains and find out what makes their Tarot minds tick!
My love for independent decks is growing, and my recent love affair with The Ellis Deck by Texas-native Taylor Ellis is definitive proof of that.
Like most of my new discoveries, I found the deck on Instagram, and after some picture perusing and reading a bit about Ellis himself, clicked "Buy" with the anticipation of being blown away when the deck arrived. I was not disappointed!
Ellis was kind enough to accept my Tarot-view inquiry, so read below to find out how this beautiful, colorful, fantasy-laden deck came to fruition and is taking the Tarot word by storm!
For starters, where are you from? Where are you now? How did you get there?
I'm from Richardson, Texas and I am now living in Dallas, Texas. Richardson is a suburb of Dallas and geographically not very far from Dallas at all. Narratively, however, it was quite a few windy roads to get here. My whole life until high school graduation was in the same house, I didn't move out of Richardson until after high school. I lived in Austin, Texas for a couple of years in college at University of Texas for my studio art degree. Austin was a beautiful place for a distracted young man to find distractions. I was more interested in trying to draw manga-style comic books at the time than I was in what my actual college education had to offer. This was really still the pre-media-all-over-the-Internet era, so I was being exposed to a lot more anime in the comic and game stores down there, and it kind of ate my brain for a while. I was drawn to manga and anime for the richness of color those Japanese artists were using in the character designs. Whenever I see any characters made out of bright, bold colors, they are like candy to me. So I drew, I took in philosophy, tried to learn how to speak Japanese, and then one day I was overwhelmed with the impulse to transfer back to UT Dallas, where I had started my college education. Of course, this which would ultimately bring me back to Richardson/North Dallas. Once back in Dallas, I worked and I went to school and I kept trying to draw comics when there was time, but I never really finished anything. After graduation, I was offered a job at a large-format print shop doing prepress and some graphic design in Dallas. For the next few years, I slowly became a graphic designer and began a descent back into suburbia. I found myself owning a house in Lewisville, and slowly awakening to the fact I had stayed in fantasy-land in my head while I had let reality cruise control me far, far, away from anything I truly wanted in life. I drank a lot. A few design jobs later I was working as the in-house designer for a yoga franchise. It was a job of a little bit of everything, but I found the most joy in drawing little yogis for use in their ad materials. I still drank a lot. I also found myself ending an eleven-year relationship (for the better) and leaving the house in Lewisville behind to move into East Dallas, which was wonderfully seedy and inspiring. I also was doing my best at this time to destroy any remnants of my old self. I shredded everything in my portfolio, got rid of nearly everything I owned, and was making some very half-assed plans to move to San Francisco. I was also drinking myself out of a job. When the plans collapsed, and I didn't have a job anymore, I suddenly found myself homeless. I had a new job in a bar (which meant I could stay employed despite some pretty bad habits) and one of my new friends had welcomed me to crash on his floor. What I didn't know was how fun my climb out of self-imposed hell would be. My friend's apartment was across the street from an art community that he rented his place from. I started to make money enough to get my own place again, and I made friends with the old man who founded the art community across the street. He asked me if I had ever had a Tarot reading, which I hadn't. Four years later, I had quit working at the bars, I was sober, and I had designed a Tarot deck. I had an art show, sold 50 decks there, sold the rest of them at the Bay Area Tarot Symposium or "BATS," and found myself setting up an online store and selling more decks! Now, I barista, I do readings, and I work on a graphic novel I hope is finished in a couple of years.
What’s your artistic background?
I think the genesis of it is just wanting to make things all the time as a kid. I would get annoyed if there wasn't an action figure for something I liked and would end up making little guys out of clay, or just drawing them on index cards and cutting them out. I remember when the original Legend of Zelda came out I was obsessed with the knights that ran around in the dungeons and I made a ton of those, all in different colors. I would like drawing pictures that would tell some kind of a story and I think I loved cartoons more than anything. I still do. As a pre-teen I would make flip-books in my room on Saturday nights and in high school my friends an I always wanted to design video games and make comic books (which were, in typical lofty-dreamer fashion never, ever finished) I've never identified with "fine art" so to speak. I was always the least favorite student of my art teachers for this reason. I remember in high school we got a computer in our art room that had Illustrator and Photoshop on it (which was HUGE back then, most computers in classrooms were ancient relics from the 80's that could play Oregon Trail if they worked at all). I had played with a demo of the programs before, so I gravitated to the computer. Before I knew, it I was being sent to a local community college for a weekend class on Photoshop, so that I could teach the other students how to use it when they got back. Zero percent of them were interested. I started scanning in hand-drawn art so that I could use this newfound source of infinite color to make everything have this depth and lushness I was going for at the time. All I wanted to do back then was design character after character, and create some story with thousands of different people in it. I think I made even less of an impression on my college art professors, because I really kept doing the same thing. Eventually one of them told me to give Illustrator a try because of how expandable everything became when it was a vector-based image. I started playing around with it and discovered it was so different from how I had taught myself to draw comics that at first I didn't like it. It was too simple for me and I loved to just have a ton of crap going on in my pictures. So I put it down for a few years. As I said earlier, I got hired on as a graphic designer after college, and there was Illustrator, again. After a couple of years in graphics, Illustrator became my "doodling in the margins" at work and I was making all these new, fun, drawings and the simplicity I hated before became this new discipline for me. I started to work on a comic I was calling "The Wild West Adventures of Dayton Jones" with Illustrator and Photoshop. Due to life, and a total lack of self discipline, I got about 32 pages done in the course of three years. I also started to outgrow the story, which was about a misogynistic, narcissistic, monster-hunting ghoul. I kind of looked at it like "well this helped me blow off a lot of steam, but I'm not sure finishing this story and getting it out into the world is anything brilliant or new." It was really negative, and it's really easy to sell a negative story, and we don't need more of that crap in the world. From an alchemical standpoint, however, it was my darkness that started me committing to learning the programs more, and that was the necessary corruption for new growth to happen. "No scum, No lotus."
What lead you to Tarot? Is it something you’ve always done or were you called to it later in life?
I was a latecomer to the Tarot. I always loved mysticism and the occult, but my parents, while not being bible-thumpers, didn't like me getting too far into that stuff. So it was always kind of a Taboo. I was well into my 30th year when I had my first reading. Ashley Bellamy, the old artist who read my cards for me that first time, was my liaison into the Tarot. I didn't take a serious look into a Tarot deck until he gave me that reading. I was suddenly obsessed with the Aquarian deck and after a lot of coercing, he told me he would teach me to read if I made a serious study of the cards for myself, first. So I ordered my own Aquarian deck and filled up a composition book with notes from "Psychic Tarot," the deck's companion book. This impressed Ashley. He didn't spend a lot of time telling me card meanings, more-so he let me have access to his own library of Tarot books and taught me the meaning of the Glass Bead Game spread that he had come up with years earlier and is the basis of all his readings.
Tell me about The Ellis Deck. How did you come up with the concept?
After studying the cards enough and starting to do readings, I just kept feeling this pull to make my own take on Tarot. A well-designed deck will pull any interested artist into looking at the task as an Everest to climb. I went back to Ashley and told him I wanted to do this, and he told me he had been trying to make one forever and that I would drive myself crazy trying to do it. I think that only excited me. I wanted to go out of my mind and if all it was going to take was drawing 78 cards, then I was down for it! When he saw the threat of insanity wasn't going to deter me, he advised I start with the first card that came up for me, which was the Chariot. Setting to the task made me realize that THIS was that universe-building I had been wanting to do for so long. I knew I wanted to show this Fools metaphysical journey and it started to feel like a new comic book project for me to work on. I can't be cool and say I "came up with it" because nearly every card was this agony of "how do I draw this?" It was more like I'd have an idea, the idea WOULDN'T work, and then knowing it wouldn't work would set me free to just play.
That was only half of the process, however. The other half was experiencing spirituality resonating with life for the first time. I didn't feel I could make an honest drawing of an archetype if I didn't understand what it truly meant. So there was a lot of discovery of myself, too. I began to dissolve the schizophrenia I had developed in my personality. On one hand, I was this devoted student to the Tarot and was very Jedi in this pursuit. At the same time, I was this bartender that drank myself to oblivion at least four times a week, I was mean to people, I hated myself, and was very dark lord of the Sith. I was seeing this as I was learning the Major Arcana and how we start coming to terms with our creative and destructive sides as we grow our soul. Working on the Tarot meant working on me. I was lucky enough to meet an amazing woman whose own soul growth was an inspiration for my own. If I had not begun the Tarot work, she would have passed me by and I would not have her in the here and now as my spiritual and karmic partner in love. That may sound off-subject to some, but without knowing love and a healthy relationship - I doubt I could have understood many of the cards well enough to create authentic pieces.
Not to mention the work on the minor arcana, which to me, needed to show the growth that happens in the mundane world, because as spiritual as we may be, we have to stay grounded to this world we share. It made sense to me to design them as these fantasy kingdoms, because that was how I had been thinking of everything in my life for so long. I created the Queens, first, and then used them as the mother of each suit - making their color schemes the basis for each realm. I think the fantasy angle helps give us dreamers a lens for the mundane, which can be intense and really painful as we start to become our better selves.
Does the deck follow the standard Rider-Waite-Smith tradition or did you work to develop your own?
It is definitely in the RWS tradition, but I changed a few things. For example, I wanted to show the swords being used in a new way on the six of swords, so the ferry crossing the water became an airship flying over the water, and the swords had been made into wings. Overall, the 78 fixed meanings are the same, my motivation was in showing how I see it.
What does the deck have that makes it a different, must for readers?
I don't think I can get around sounding biased in answering this question, so I'll just sound biased: I wanted to make a deck that was a READABLE Tarot deck. There are a lot of pretty-picture decks. I know because I own a few myself :) What I wanted to make was something that re-empowered people to mysticism in a way that didn't belong to a cloistered order of secret keepers. The Ellis decK is an easy medicine to take - you can gather the basic meaning and feel of the card by looking at it. I've been told by other deck-creators that they think it would be a good first-deck for many because of this. I wanted to make something that engages the imagination of mystic and skeptic alike.
What do you hope for the future of this deck?
I have sold around 350 decks all over the world and I hope that's just the beginning. I hope it outlives me and will always be able to speak for itself. It would be nice for it to become a standard - but I bet all creators feel that way.
Any advice for aspiring tarot artists?
It is a crazy time to make a Tarot deck - there are tons of them out there. If you do it - make it YOUR deck. Do a good job. Learn what quality is and make sure you see it in each card before it's done. Don't blow off any cards. Work on YOU while you work on the deck - the results will benefit both of you!
If someone is interested in a reading or purchasing any of your work, how can they get a hold of you?
Ellistrations.net is a great way to contact me and the decks can be purchased through ellistrations.bigcartel.com. I sell prints of the card imagery, but I do those on an individual basis, so nothing is printed prior to order.