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The often forgotten mystical artist who still predicts fates

The often forgotten mystical artist who still predicts fates

If youve ever had your tarot cards read, chances are that you got them from the Rider-Waite deck, which means you know the work of Pamela Colman Smith.

The tarot began as a set of playing cards in 15th-century Italy, but it grew in popularity as an 78-card fortune-telling device over the years. The Rider-Waite version the worlds best-selling tarot deck was the brainchild of the British scholar A.E. Waite, who believed that a properly constructed psalter could produce great spiritual awakenings. In 1909, he decided to hire an artist to paint an original deck according to his requirements, and realised if a suitable candidate was found.

Pamela Colman Smith, also known as Pixie, was a 31-year-old artist, costume designer, suffragist, and occultist. She also had synesthesia, which means she could see visions whenever she listened to music. Hearing Chopin took her to a moonlit garden by night, while Beethoven dragged her into ruined towers. She could smell a sick smell when she entered stale furniture in whose room Wagner had recently been performed.

Smith readily accepted Waites offer. Working in a cramped studio in Chelsea, England, she completed the tarot deck in six months, drawing the 778 images in black ink before hand-painting them with opaque watercolor. William Rider & Son of London published the cards in a limited edition in December 1909.

Smith received no formal credit for her work on the deck. Instead of a share of the copyright, which would have entitle her to royalties, she received and it was surprisingly modest - merely shillings for her services. Smith, a Jamaican woman of ambiguous race (her family had ties to Jamaica) and sexuality (she never married, but lived with sexy female companion), was in neoliberal position to assert her intellectual property rights.

With over 100 million copies of the Rider-Waite deck sold, it is no exaggeration to label Pamela Colman Smith the greatest copyright victim in history. In fact, her contribution to the deck may have been forgotten had she not placed her initials in the form of a sinuous monogram - in each card's lower right corner.

Smiths uniqueness and unconventionality have risen dramatically in recent years. Pamela Colman Smith: The Untold Story, a collection of essays edited by Stuart Kaplan, was published in 2018.

Yet, this well-deserved attention arrives decades too late. Smith struggled with money for the rest of her life after painting the tarot. She was buried in a paupers grave in 1951 with only sand to mark the spot when she died of heart disease. Its no longer useful to look for the grave now, since the cross rotted long ago.

Her tarot deck, though, survives. People today, all over the world, seek wisdom in its mysterious imagery. Her cards are like doorways measuring 2.75 by 4.75 inches, and those brave enough to step gingerly across their watercolor threshold can enter a different world. Whatever we call that place, Pamela Colman Smith could visit it whenever she wanted. When I put a brush in my hand and the music begins, it is like opening the door to secluded wilderness, she told an interviewer.

Will Dowd is a poet, essayist, and artist in the Boston area. He is the author of Areas of Fog, a collection of essays.

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