The Story of the Gaian Tarot: Life/Death/Renewal, Part 2

part2-processPart 2 of 3 parts. With the new Schiffer edition of the Gaian Tarot on the edge of release — some people have their copies while others are still waiting — I thought a lot of the people who are new to the Gaian Tarot might enjoy hearing a bit about the story of its creation and publication in various editions. Deck creators interested in the publication process may also find it interesting. And long-time fans may want to get nostalgic with me! (The photo above shows the steps in creating each Gaian Tarot card, from photo shoot to digital collage to line drawing to colored pencil painting.)

Continued from Part 1.

Blogging My Process, Beginning in 2003:
New Moon to Waxing Moon

canoeawayI began a blog in 2003 called “Gaian Tarot Artist’s Journal.” I thought it would be fun to chronicle my progress along the way.  The first post was about the day I did the photo shoot for the Canoe (Chariot) card, wading into the water off the Lummi Reservation to photograph a young Lummi man in his cedar canoe. The next post was a glimpse of the Canoe art-in-progress and the symbolism I was discovering as I created the card.  I didn’t know at the time that the blog would create an audience for the deck, an audience that would cheer me on over the decade it took me to finish the deck and see it published. Today we are taught by entrepreneurial gurus that blogs are a marketing strategy. I didn’t know that then.

In 2004, I self-published a 125-deck edition of the Major Arcana, because Diane Wilkes (author of the Jane Austen Tarot) asked me to, in a blog comment. I remember she said something like “Don’t make us wait for the whole deck. Please publish a Majors only deck.”  So I did.

Those cards were handmade. I can’t even imagine doing that today.

I printed the cards on my archival printer, laminated them by hand and cut the round corners by hand. Crazy! I wore that archival printer out and had to buy another one.

The edition sold out immediately, and I regretted not making a bigger edition. I just hadn’t realized so many people would want the deck. So I emailed every person who had bought one and asked if they minded if I created a Second Edition majors-only deck, that would be smaller and not numbered. And I did that, although this time I had the cards printed and I hired a local woman to laminate and trim the cards.

Nine Years to Complete 78 Cards: Waxing to Full Moon

Priestess line drawingIt took me another five years to finish the deck. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being the time-intensive nature of the medium I chose (photo-realistic colored pencil painting). It took me 50 to 100 hours to finish each card, including 10-20 hours on each face alone. The originals of the Majors are around 13″x19″. I realized I would have to  work smaller for the Minors, at about 8”x10” or even smaller, or I’d still be working on the project into my old age.

I shared this step-by-step look at the creative process of how I created the Gaian Tarot art, from idea to photo shoot to digital collage to line drawing to colored pencil painting. After the deck was published, I heard some people in forums or on social media insisting that the Gaian Tarot images were photographs. And I would groan and think, “Yeah, a photograph that took 100 hours of my life.”

I wasn’t able to work full time on the artwork, as I had to earn a living and have a personal life as well. I ran a web design business at the time to pay the bills, and I also took care of my elderly father. In retrospect, I think that the depth of my life experience during those nine years found its way into the deck and made it all the richer.

Bev Haskins and me, RS10
With Bev Haskins at the 2010 Readers Studio. Bev was dressed as the Gardener from the Gaian Tarot. We miss her.
There were many times when I just wanted to give it up,

. . . when I was tired of the project, when I sorely regretted ever choosing the medium of photorealistic colored pencil painting. But I was persistent, and kept at it. Knowing there was an audience who wanted it was a big part of why I kept on going. I knew them from my blog, from forums and lists (pre-social media), and I knew them from events like the Readers Studio and SF BATS (San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium).

When I was almost done, I began to think seriously about publication. I knew I wanted to create a beautiful Collector’s Limited Edition that would reflect the love and care I put into the creation of the deck. I found a local printer who was able to do green printing (recycled card stock and soy-based ink), and I included extras like a handmade bag, a handmade amulet, and a sachet of blessing herbs from my garden. But I had hopes that a publisher would pick it up too, so that there would be an affordable version of the deck. (The Collectors Edition was expensive.)

Gaian Tarot Elder of EarthBarbara Moore, the acquisitions editor at Llewellyn, loved the deck and had been following my progress for several years. I had gotten to know her at the Readers Studio over the years. She took it to Llewellyn and I signed a contract with them in the fall of 2008, with the manuscript and artwork to be delivered within a year. Ciro Marchetti had advised me to negotiate a clause that would allow me to produce a Collector’s Edition, and I did.

I finished the last card, the Elder of Earth, in September 2009,

. . . and spent a couple of months writing the book. I had kept detailed notes all along, so it was not like starting from scratch.

gtpack2I worked with a marketing coach to do a big promotion to raise funds to produce the Collectors Edition. This was before Kickstarter or Indie-Go-Go campaigns even existed. We offered $50 off the price for one month (November 2009), and I sent a $50 limited edition print of a tarot card of their choice to every person who paid in full during November. It was a pretty stunning experience. I sold 350 Collectors Editions at $200 each, taking in $70,000 in one month. (I still find that a little hard to believe!) I had more than enough money to produce the edition of 1000 decks and extras, plus cover the cost of the prints and shipping costs. The decks were ready to ship in March 2010, and some of my friends came over to bless the cards and help me pack and ship. At that point I think we were shipping out 500 of them. I remember I paid the US Postal Service around $10,000! (Yes you read that number right. Everything was shipping Priority Mail, both domestic and international.)

Gaian Tarot Six of EarthI made a lot of money on the Collectors Edition. It gave me the freedom to put my web design business to bed and to pursue teaching, writing, and making art as my full-time job. But I had worked those nine years on the deck for essentially nothing. The previous majors-only decks I had self-published did not bring in a lot of money.

So it was kind of like getting one big paycheck after working for nothing for nine years.

As of December 2020, I have less than 20 of the Collectors Edition decks left, and I still get a few orders for them every month.

Click here to read Part 3: Dark Moon / New Moon: Llewellyn out-of-print, Fool’s Dog app and Schiffer edition. Plus: what I might change about the deck today.

(For an in-depth study of the Gaian Tarot, I invite you to enroll in my self-paced course, “Gaian Tarot for Tarot Beginners.”.)

6 thoughts on “The Story of the Gaian Tarot: Life/Death/Renewal, Part 2

  1. It is such a delight to share in the process of these spirit-changing cards.This deck is unlike any other,Joanna (as you know!!) and I cherish my Collector’s Edition. I will be joining you and James next June!!!!!!

  2. I have loved this deck! I have both the collector’s edition (Large) and the beautiful golden Majors only deck you self published. I may want to get this 3rd edition from from Schiffer since I find I’m not using the large deck as much as I thought I would….. It’s my favorite deck!

  3. I’m appreciating the depth of courage, endurance, trust, passion… thank you for Sharing your process. xo

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