Eric K. Lerner has explored and worked with the Tarot for more than 30 years and created The Radiant Spleen Tarot which the following interview specifically focuses on.
Eric is an internationally recognized and respected artist and published author. He is also a priest of Obatala, who is well practiced in the Yoruba System of Divination known as Dilogun.
Charlotte Rodgers: Eric, as a huge fan of your art and writing and someone whose own literary outpourings have benefited from your influence and involvement, I’m always excited to hear of any of your creative projects.
Perusing the images from your new art work, The Radiant Spleen Tarot Deck, I must admit to being stunned by the art and impressed by the different perspectives you present. I’m intrigued to know what inspired you to create this pack; was it simply a new outlet for your creative expression, or is there more to it.
Eric K. Lerner: Frankly, I produced the deck as a diversion. During its creation, I provided end of life care for Cabell McLean who was in the throes of end-stage liver failure. We both needed something to take our minds off what was going on. Being able to create the brightly colored tarot images gave me something to do. Plus Cabell found the images entertaining. Shortly before beginning with the deck, I had taught courses and consulted on a book on the Harris-Crowley Thoth Tarot, and that served as the intellectual inspiration.
Charlotte Rodgers: So the creation of the Radiant Spleen deck was associative with a traumatic and incredibly painful period of your life. Now that the pack has been published do you feel the project is fully completed,or would you like to continue working with and on the deck, or perhaps just move on?
Eric K. Lerner: I have no definite plans to continue to develop the deck. I had done some of the court cards and minor arcana when initially working on it. And I suppose I might be open to considering it if there was some interest by a third-party publisher, although I might be more inclined to develop it as a 38 card deck with the additional cards representing the twelve astrology signs plus the four elements. Also, I am taking a course in screen printing this fall, and I think that some of the cards lend themselves to silk screen prints and t-shirts. But in general, as an artist, I like to move forward with new ideas, and I certainly have ideas for different types of tarots that I wish to develop.
Charlotte Rodgers: On The Radiant Spleen web page you have a section ‘Printing your own Tarot’ which I found fascinating. Usually when I read an account of creating a tarot deck the emphasis is on the artist’s lived experiences of each Atu, but instead you give the technical details of the creation of the pack; in itself a difficult journey. What prompted you to share this?
Eric K. Lerner: As an artist, I’m always intrigued by the artist’s techniques in producing a piece of art that I like. Recently, I collaborated on a collective book composed of hand pulled prints. When the group of us got together, we all seemed to be much more interested in how one another handled the technical challenges rather than what our inspiration was. I think that tends to be true of artists in general. I would have found it very helpful to read more about the type of practical challenges artists have faced when producing hand crafted deck than a bunch of biographical statements prior to embarking on the project. It seems very self-congratulatory when an artist speaks too much about his/her personal journey. However interesting someone’s life or inspiration may be it doesn’t necessarily making him/her an interesting artist. A work of art should stand on its own, and I’ve seen too many people use their life experiences almost as excuses. Also, I don’t especially see the deck as being auto-biographical in its meaning. Given I was caring for someone with AIDS, have AIDS myself, and am also a Santeria priest, I could see how a critic might be tempted to designate either AIDS or Santeria as being the focus of the deck. Looking at the cards themselves, I think either would be a big stretch and potentially alienate a number of people who might otherwise respond to the deck. Of course, there are a number of interesting ways someone could conceive a tarot deck about AIDS or Santeria, but that was not what I was doing. (Of course that wouldn’t stop me from doing one now.)
Charlotte Rodgers: Obviously the various aspects of your persona; the technician, the artist and the mystic, worked in tandem to produce the deck. Did you find it difficult to achieve a balance, so that all these facets were satisfied with the final work?
Eric K. Lerner: Producing something for commercial consumption is always 99 per cent perspiration rather than inspiration. I’m happy that I gave myself that experience. One of the biggest challenges was choosing the paper on which to print the deck. The original artwork incorporated iridescent ink, and I didn’t want to lose the iridescent “radiant” quality in the printed images. So after many tests, I chose a gold metallic paper for digital printing which would mimic that quality. (Of course that created some additional issues like how to select a backing for the cards.) It’s a lot of work to hand-craft a deck, because you’re dealing not only with the printing but the packaging. I think the only truly creative dimension of the process really has been painting the boxes. The rest of the focus has been attention to detail in trimming and backing the cards, laying out and binding and instruction booklet, etc. I think that it is a worthwhile experience for an artist so that he/she can take into account the type of technical challenges he/she is creating for a printer. Plus, I’ve been very gratified by the critical response that the deck has received.
Charlotte Rodgers: Given that the nature of your experiences at the time of the creation of the deck may have had an influence on your interpretation of the trumps, do you feel that ‘The Radiant Spleen Tarot’ would be suited to any particular type of reading or divination?
Eric K Lerner: In general, I think that major arcana decks are well suited to shorter spreads. They should work as foci for meditation and considered thought. The spread I outlined in the little instruction booklet that comes with the deck is Oswald Wirth’s famous four-card spread. The first card argues what is in favour of the question; the second states the negative argument; the third makes a judgement; and the fourth determines the outcome. The theosophic reduction of all the numbers drawn synthesizes all the factors. In reading I’ve found that to be a useful spread, and often I’ll draw it on the sly before doing a longer reading for someone to figure out how I should converse with her. Of course, I describe what my basic interpretations of the cards, but I don’t feel that should limit a diviner in how she interprets them. As an artist, you have to be prepared to let go of your own prejudices and trust the viewer to respond to the image herself. And it’s o.k. with me if someone picks up on something different in an image I created than what I intended. While I’ve studied tarot intensely, I made the images on the fly without a lot of deliberate planning, the way I normally work. The most gratifying critical statement anybody made about Radiant Spleen Tarot to me came from Alain Giannotti. He said that each image served as a gate or doorway for him. If an oracular image does that it’s very successful. I’m not a bully who wants to impose his point of view on an audience. I like it when people trust their own imaginations.
I’ll relate one funny story about this. I remember when I did my first etching. I depicted the primordial Santeria orisha Yembo. Yembo’s personality shattered and became many – the twenty-one avatars of Yemaya, the beneficent mother figure in Santeria, and Nana Buruku, the “wicked” mother – when her incestuous relationship with her son was discovered. My teacher took one look at the image (http://www.visualaids.org/artists/detail/eric-k.-lerner) and said, “Cleopatra!” I honestly didn’t see that one coming. But I realized that I had included a snake bearing its fangs (as a suggestion of her sexual transgression) and a pyramid-like figure (as a suggestion of an ancient time), and that these symbolically charged elements could hold different signification for someone from a background different than mine. I was o.k. with it. I like it when people think for themselves and fashion their own narratives. Sometimes, maybe they come up with a better story than I did. Crowley himself in referring to how Harris’ images should be read in The Book of Thoth suggested that the reader might do well to dispense with reading the book and just experience the cards themselves.
Many thanks for this Eric. I framed The Magician card you gave me as I loved the image, and look forward to working with the deck in a more traditional sense than pure artistic appreciation.