Robert M. Place is a New York based artist and author, whose award winning works, in painting, sculpture, and jewelry, have been displayed in galleries and museums in America, Europe, and Japan and on the covers and pages of numerous publications.
He is best known as the designer and author of The Alchemical Tarot, The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, The Buddha Tarot, The Tarot of the Saints, The Vampire Tarot,and the Angels Tarot. He is also well known for his scholarly work, especially as the author of The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination, which Booklist has said, “may be the best book ever written on that deck of cards decorated with mysterious images called the tarot.”
He is also the author of The Tarot, Magic, Alchemy, Hermeticism, and Neoplatonism; The Fool’s Journey; Shamanism; Astrology and Divination; and Magic and Alchemy.
His Tarot work has been displayed at the Museo dei Tarocchi, in Riola, Italy, in the Craft and Folk Art Museum, in Los Angeles, and is included in the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, in New York. He has taught at learning centers such as Omega Institute, The New York Open Center, The Readers Studio, and others in the US, Italy, China, Brazil, and Australia. He and his work have appeared on The BBC, A&E, the Discovery Channel, Animal Planet, and the Learning Channel.
We were lucky enough to have Robert answer some questions with us about Tarot! For more information or to see his upcoming classes visit his website.
There's great information here for beginners and veterans alike.
So get cozy, grab a cup of tea, and settle down for some Tarot insights!
1. There are many references to Alchemy, Hermeticism, and the Occult in your work. Do you consider yourself a Magician? I consider myself an artist. I have known I was an artist since I was a child, first learned what the word meant, and began drawing with crayons and pencils. I could draw realistic, true-to-appearance images by the second grade and all through grammar school and high school I was known as the school artist. While other kids were sitting at their desks studying, I was in the back of the room working on the bulletin board. I drew scenes of dinosaurs, ancient Romans, or whatever we were studying at the time. A transformation in my thinking happened when I was in third grade and we were studying the classical gods. I was so enamored by them that I found out everything I could about them in encyclopedias and made realistic drawings of each god and goddess based on ancient statues. My work was so advanced for a third-grader that it drew a lot of attention. By the time I was in high school, I found that I was attracted to the surrealists and visionary and magical images. This led me into looking at my dreams as a source of inspiration. And my dreams taught me that they are also a source of insight and wisdom. During the 17th century, many alchemists, such as Michael Maier and Jacob Bohme, abandoned the lab and began to work on philosophical alchemical texts illustrated with enigmatic symbolic engravings. These images are powerful. They are often derived from dreams and visions. In the 18th century, because of the new scientific view of the world, alchemy almost completely died out. But these works of art and philosophy influenced the Romantic art movement in Germany. Effectively alchemy had become an art form. By the end of the century, the Romantics had influenced the Pre-Raphaelites and then the Symbolists. They, in turn, influenced the visionary aspect of Modern art. I consider myself part of this tradition. Art is magic.
2. Your Book: The Tarot: History, Symbolism, and Divination really helped me understand Tarot history and dispelled many Tarot myths I had previously believed in. Did you find yourself being surprised by any of the information you learned in your research? I first got involved with the Tarot because of a dream I had in 1982. I have often retold the story of this dream experience in the forwards of my books and you can find a version on my website. So I will not go into it here, but it led me to believe that the Tarot wanted me to become involved with it. It was like an inheritance. After the dream, I received a Tarot of Marseilles from a friend and I bought a copy of the Waite Smith deck. I was familiar with both of these decks from my studies in college, in the 1960s, but I now began studying them with a renewed interest. I could see that the images related to many of the mystical and occult subjects that I had been studying and I wanted to learn more about them. I was, however, disappointed with the books on the Tarot that I was able to find. From my background in art history, I knew that many of the claims in these books, such as the claim that the Tarot originated in ancient Egypt, could not be true. I was surprised at how bad the information was, and I began searching for books that had a more scholarly approach. This led me to the books of Michael Dummett, one of the foremost historians of the Tarot. His historic information was more accurate, but again I was surprised at how he seemed to have a blind spot when it came to the symbolism in the cards, and he believed that divination with the Tarot can only be traced to the 18th century, which is not true. My work is an attempt to bridge the gap between scholarship and mysticism and magic.
3. Even after all of your research, are there any Tarot superstitions or Rituals you hold onto, such as sleeping with a new deck under your pillow, etc.? The only ritual that I have is that when I am doing a reading I always cut the deck with my left hand. For me, the left represents the unconscious, and I want the decision to come from that part of me.
4. We have users with many different thoughts and opinions here: ranging from the Tarot being a tool for psychological self-reflection to the cards being magical and able to predict the future. Where do you fall on that spectrum? Are the cards mundane, magical, or a mix? Again I am attempting to bridge the gap. But I do not recommend using the Tarot to predict the Future. This is what I teach in all of my classes. I believe that the best use for the Tarot is as an intuitive device that allows you to receive guidance from the source of inner wisdom that I call the Higher Self. The readings are not about the future but about the present. They help us make the best decisions in the present so that we may create a better future.
I do not think that predicting the future is useful if it is fated. If you can predict the future accurately, then you are stuck with it. If you predict something bad is going to happen then there is nothing to do but wait for it to happen. The fear of this happening is the reason that some people are afraid of the Tarot. Also, this type of prediction can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Most people that say they are predicting the future are actually doing it because they want to change it if it is bad. Therefore they don’t believe their prediction is fated. They are actually trying to help people make better decisions in the present. However, I have had dreams that predicted events in the future in great detail. I have never seen the same thing happen with the Tarot. I think that if the Higher Self, or Dream Maker, or Hermes, or whoever is responsible for our dreams, wants us to know the future it will come in a dream.
5. Your artwork is gorgeous! Do you create art Digitally? Or do you draw images out by hand first? When I created my first deck, The Alchemical Tarot. I drew all of the cards in pen and ink on rag paper. I wanted to color the cards with opaque watercolors, called gouache, but this would have covered over all of the shading that I did with the ink. To solve the problem, a friend told me about film positives. These are the reverse of photo negatives. After I had them made, I essentially had full-size photos of the black line work on transparent film. (I actually had a dream, years before I learned about film positives, that told me I would make a series of drawings on transparent film.) Then I used a light box to trace the main areas of the drawing on another sheet of paper. I colored the tracing with gouache and laid the transparent sheet with the black lines, over it. So far so good, but by the time the art was sent to China to be printed, the papers had taken on moisture and stretched so that they were out of sink with the drawings on the film. They had to heat the paper to shrink it back and cover it with plastic to stop it from stretching again. I did not want to go through this again, so by the time I worked on The Tarot of the Saints, I drew the cards in pen and ink then scanned them into the computer. Then I colored the scanned drawings with Photoshop. After that deck, I began drawing and coloring the entire illustration in Photoshop.
6. Do Tarot cards have a Universal meaning? Or do their meanings change depending on which deck the reader is using? When we look at the history of cartomancy we can see that there is no consistency in the various approaches for assigning meaning to individual cards. Today most people consider the Waite Smith deck to be the norm, but this is only because it is the most popular modern deck. My decks are all based on the interpretations I made for The Alchemical Tarot. When I was creating the deck, I looked at the Waite Smith cards and based my interpretations on them as much as I could, but I found that they did not always work with my alchemical interpretations based on the elemental association and the number of each card. So I made changes. If you were to interpret any of my decks based on meanings derived from Waite Smith it would not work. I teach my students to look at the art that is on the cards in front of them and interpret it as a message from the unconscious, like a waking dream. There are no universal meanings.
7. With technological advances and Social Media, there are more people interested in Tarot than ever before. Some people say we are now living in a Golden Age of Magic. Would you agree with that sentiment, or do you have any thoughts on the renewed interest in Tarot? During the 19th century oracle decks, like the Lenormand, were popular for divination, and except for the Grand Etteilla, the Tarot was not. The Tarot only became popular in the late 20th century. Now there is also a renewed interest in Lenormand decks. Divination is always popular but the methods change over time. I don’t know if the Tarot will be as popular in 100 years as it is now. The Golden Age for anything is only really known when we look back and assess the past.
8. On that topic, what your thoughts on Digital Tarot Cards, or Tarot Apps? Do you think a Digital Tarot Card reading can be as effective as a reading with physical cards? I have had Apps made for both my Alchemical Tarot and my Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, but I have never used them. I prefer to use actual cards. However, people seem to like them. I think they are convenient and they seem to work.
9. Do you have a favorite Tarot deck to work with? Although I am best known as the creator of the Alchemical Tarot, I mostly use my Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery for readings. I worked on this deck for over ten years and it expresses many of the insights that I developed while working on other decks and writing my books. Besides the original Alchemical Tarot and The Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, I have created The Angels Tarot, The Tarot of the Saints, The Buddha Tarot, The Vampire Tarot, The Raziel Tarot, The Marziano Tarot, and The Facsimile Italian Renaissance Woodcut Tarocchi. I have also created the Annotated Tarot of the Sevenfold Mystery, and three updated versions of The Alchemical Tarot. Right now I have just finished a new variation on the Alchemical deck called The Tarot of the Alchemical Magnum Opus. I have also created five oracle decks.
10. Your collaboration with Rachel Pollack, The Raziel Tarot: the Secret Book of Adam and Eve reinterpreted the Major Arcana using themes and symbols from Jewish Mysticism. Are there any plans to expand the deck to a full set including pips? Yes, we decided to first create a deluxe edition of the trumps at a larger size with gold edges in a boxed set with Rachel’s book. The plan is to make a normal sized complete deck in the future. So far I have designed the four aces based on the Tarot of Marseilles model. We are still determining how to go about interpreting the rest of the pips.
11. Your latest release is An Ukiyo-e Lenormand, do you find there are better situations or questions for using a Lenormand deck as opposed to Tarot? Oracle decks like the Lenormand were popular in the 19th century and this popularity continued into the early 20th century. Among many card readers in Germany and France the Lenormand never went out of fashion, and now there is a renewed interest in these decks in the US and the UK. At first, those readers in these countries, who turned to the Lenormand, were attracted to the idea that the meanings for each card were clearly defined. They would contrast this with the Tarot by saying that Tarot interpretations are open-ended and encourage personal associations while the Lenormand gives you a definite meaning for each card. This is not really true. Historically, there have been various Oracle decks with different sets of cards. Mostly these decks were based on the interpretation of four-suit decks of playing cards and they included a small image of the associated playing card along with a simplified iconic image on each card. They are not consistent in the sets of images, the number of cards, and their associations with playing cards. Even some that call themselves Lenormand do not have the same standard set of thirty-six images in the same order. Also, even with the standard set of Lenormand cards, there are variations in the interpretations and I find that people do have personal associations when they read with them. This is not so different from reading Tarot cards. I have clear basic meanings for each card in my Tarot decks. My interpretations are not open-ended, but I do look for personal associations and for ways that the cards are relating to the question being answered. I recently completed a two-day workshop in Beijing on reading with oracle decks and my methods are not that different from the way I use Tarot cards. There are different spreads, like the Grande Tableau, but I can use them for the same types of questions. The readings talk about the future, but I do not think of it as a prediction. I feel that the readings are showing where the querent is headed in the future, but at this present moment, and the purpose of the reading is still to obtain advice on the best course of action. Another difference is that oracle decks have significators, which are cards that represent the man or woman who is getting the reading. But there have been significators in Tarot decks in the past, such as the Grande Etteilla. And we can use this technique with any Tarot deck by assigning one card as a representative for the querent.
12. Reversals are a hot topic here, what are your opinions on Reversed Cards in a Tarot reading? Do you read Reversals? No. Instead of using one card for each place in a Tarot layout, I use a group of three cards for each place and read the three cards as one statement. I want to interpret the three cards as one scene and follow the course of action as I would in a painting. This method allows me to see the story as a waking dream. It also works with oracle cards. Upside-down cards would just confuse the story. Also, I don’t want my drawings displayed upside-down. Reversals were popularized by Etteilla. In the Grande Etteilla, there is a meaning written on top of each card and another reverse meaning written upside-down on the bottom of each card. There are 78 cards in a Tarot and reversals were added to increase the number of possible meanings. The double of 78 is 156. I find that if I use three Tarot cards as one statement it gives the deck a greater vocabulary without the confusion caused by reversals. There are 456,456 possible combinations of 78 cards.
13. What advice would you give to someone who was just starting out and trying to learn Tarot? I would tell them to read one of my books or to take a class with me.
14. Do you have a favorite or "Go-to" Tarot spread? The simplest spread that I use is to lay out three cards and read them as a statement of advice from my Higher Self. I also often use a relationship spread, in which I lay out three cards representing the querent, skip a space, and lay out three cards to represent another person or event that relates to the querent. Then I lay out three cards above that form a bridge connecting the two groups. This spread allows me to analyze how the relationship is working and get advice on improving it. My most complex reading is the Seven Soul Centers spread. The soul centers are a Western form of the seven chakras that I discovered in my research into ancient philosophy. For this spread, I lay out three cards, one set above another, for each of the seven centers. Besides reading the cards I can run my hand over the cards and feel the energy held in each center. I can use this information to remove energy blocks, and the reading becomes a form of psychic healing.
15. How often do you use the cards? Is it a Daily ritual for you? I only use the cards when I need advice, not every day.
16. Did you ever receive (or perform) a Tarot reading that totally blew your mind? I often find that the Seven Soul Centers reading can blow the querent’s mind. It brings up things from their past and can get emotional, bringing some people to tears. Also, the cards create a psychoactive space, and I sometimes have the querent walk around the reading to explore their psyche. Or I may have them close their eyes to experience the symbols internally.
17. What advice would you give to someone who wants to create their own Tarot deck? I would encourage them to do their best artwork. A Tarot is a form of visual communication. It is first and foremost a work of art. When I was teaching at the Tarot Museum in Italy, I found that reading the cards was a new experience for the people who created the museum. They looked at the Tarot as symbolic art, and the museum was filled with works from many different artists, who were also not Tarot readers.
18. Is there a themed Tarot Deck you'd like to create but haven't had the chance yet? I started on a Celtic Tarot many years ago, I only designed the World card, but it was displayed in the cover of the last issue of Gnosis Magazine.
19. What was the biggest gift Tarot has given you? The Tarot has given me a focus for my work. It has given my art a purpose and a direction. It has allowed me to heal myself by communicating with my Higher Self. And it has allowed me to meet many wonderful people and travel around the world.
20. If the Major Arcana are a symbol for Life's Journey, which card do you Identify with the most right now? The Hermit. I live in a house at the end of Moon Road, right on the edge of the woods. I live with my wife and our dog, but for the most part, I am alone when I am working.
Many thanks to Robert M. Place for taking the time to sit down with us and do this interview!
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