Down East teacher finds calling in tarot art

Posted Sept. 18, 2011, at 11:49 a.m.
Image courtesy of Schiffer Publishing
Beth Seilonen
Photo courtesy of Beth Seilonen
Beth Seilonen

TAROT LEAVES by Beth Seilonen, Sept. 28, 2011, Schiffer Publishing, $24.99, 78 cards and 96-page booklet.

A wealthy Italian bride in medieval times would be gifted a family tarot deck, the symbols glittering with gold foil, and instead of telling the future, she’d sit down and play a game, similar to bridge. Over centuries, the symbols took on a new importance and became a means of unlocking the secrets of life and looking into the future. Today, you can have your cards read online through Skype.

Beth Seilonen, an elementary school art teacher who lives in Calais, uses tarot to gain insight into her life; and if people ask, she will read their cards, opening up conversations about their past, present and future. But more importantly, tarot is an art form that suits her busy mind. Each card she designs is an opportunity for her to use her creativity to rework ancient symbols.

“If you put all the symbols together, we start putting together a story, and that story is just basically to give you another perspective of yourself and the world around you — to try to make you a better person,” said Seilonen.

Since piecing together her first deck in 2007, she has created more than 70 tarot decks. But until this year, Seilonen has always self-published her work.

Her newest deck, “Tarot Leaves,” was picked up by Schiffer Publishing, a company that has published more than 6,000 titles. The cards’ watercolor symbols are silhouetted within leaves that hold personal meaning to Seilonen, who grew up in the woods of Maine.

Though many of her past decks are comical — cat-themed or featuring whimsical monsters — “Tarot Leaves” is a traditional expression of the symbols through not only images, but color theory, evoking emotions and thoughts through combinations of colors.

Seilonen was first introduced to tarot while visiting home on break from her art studies at the University of Maine in Orono. Her mother had given a tarot deck to her younger sister.

After college, Seilonen accepted her first teaching job in Houston, where she remained for about four years, all the while, studying tarot images, transfixed by the art. It wasn’t until she returned to Maine that she decided to combine her love of tarot and art. She now turns out one or two decks a month.

When she’s not forming tarot symbols in color pencil, watercolor and ink, she’s teaching art to children grades K-8 in multiple Charlotte, Perry, Pembroke and Indian Township. She also is the mother of three children, Anna, 9, Dylan, 11, and Rachel, 18.

“Once I get an idea for a deck, I’ll be working like a mad person, getting all the images written down,” she said.

A tarot deck is made up of 78 cards — 56 suit cards and 22 trump cards. Initially, when tarot was just a game, the trump cards would either mess players up or give them an advantage.

The oldest pack of tarot cards in existence comes from Italy and dates back to the 1400s, though the deck’s archetypal roots go back almost 2,000 years. The cards are now on display at the Pierpont Morgan Library in New York.

It wasn’t until the 1700s that the deck was associated with witchcraft, occults and divination.

For “Tarot Leaves,” Seilonen chose four leaves to represent the four suits of the deck. She picked an oak leaf for the suit of swords, the “action cards.” Apple tree leaves adorn the suit of pentacles, which represent abundance. Maple leaves represent the suit of cups, which represent nurturing yourself spiritually and physically. And birch leaves are the symbol of the suit of wands, which represent ideas or planning stages in life.

The four leaves are scattered at random among the 22 trump cards, or major arcana, cards named things such as “the fool,” “the high priestess,” “the lovers” and “justice.” Seilonen once created the major arcana in stained glass, all of which have since been sold.

Several of the major arcana bring alarm to people. The tower, which in “Tarot Leaves” is a maple leaf torn to pieces, represents an aspect of life falling apart. But Seilonen always reads the cards with optimism.

“People freak out about the ‘death’ card, but it’s about transitions in life,” said Seilonen, who started read tarot for other people a few years ago in “The Heart of Maine” store in Dover for $5 a read (“pizza money for the family”). Nowadays, every so often, a stranger knocks at her door for a reading.

There are a number of ways to read the cards, but Seilonen’s favorite arrangement is a three-card spread, which she describes in the booklet accompanying her “Tarot Leaves” deck. The tarot spread is meant to reveal insights into past events (the left card), insights on the present (the center card), a probable future (the right card).

“One of the things [tarot practitioners] keep asking you is, ‘How do you see it?’ It’s the whole process of semiotics. When you look at an image, what does that symbol or color mean to you?” said Seilonen, who has attended several tarot conventions around the country to learn from famous practitioners Barbara Moore, Mary Greer and Rachel Pollack.

Some people simply use tarot as a form of meditation or therapy, focusing on the present to gain insight by gazing at the varied beauty of tarot art.

“Anyone can practice tarot,” said Seilonen, who has read cards at a picnic table outside a fast-food restaurant and has guided her son in making his own cards. “It’s no longer seen as something that can only be done with someone with a smudging stick and crystals all around.”

To purchase “Tarot Leaves,” visit Schiffer Books website. Visit Seilonen’s artist website at catseyeart.com. Examples of modern tarot art can be found at alchemywebsite.com/tarot.

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