The Ellis Deck: An Interview with Taylor Ellis

ellis 9 of swordsThe Ellis Deck
Created and illustrated by Taylor Ellis
Self-published in 2013 in a first edition of 100, reprinted in a second edition of 300

Taylor Ellis began studying tarot in 2009 while living in the Moon Mansion, the Methodist Episcopal church-turned-artistic community founded by artist John Ashley Bellamy in 1972. He describes his first encounter with the cards, in a reading given by Bellamy, as a “Where have you been all my life?” moment. Not long after, he began the process of creating the art for what would become his own tarot, the Ellis Deck.

In 2013 the art for the Ellis Deck premiered in a show titled “78 on Deck” at the WAAS Gallery in Dallas, TX. Ellis produced 100 decks to accompany the show, half of which sold to attendees. The remaining decks very quickly sold out when Ellis appeared at the annual San Francisco Bay Area Tarot Symposium later that year, resulting in a second printing. The deck was named the fourth most popular deck of 2013 in Aeclectic Tarot’s year-end poll.

The Ellis Deck is a unique combination of the old and the new. Created using modern technology, the style is simultaneously retro and contemporary, blending elements of 70’s fantasy art and modern anime while remaining entirely original. The cards radiate with both joy and sadness, and the stories told by the suits of the Minor Arcana are particularly vibrant and imaginative. To me it’s one of the most effective of the recent decks, succeeding both as art and as a divinatory tool, and I very much enjoyed speaking with Taylor Ellis about its creation.

To learn more about Taylor Ellis, and to purchase the Ellis Deck, visit Ellistrations.

ellis moonHOW FAMILIAR WERE YOU WITH THE TAROT BEFORE BEING INTRODUCED TO IT BY ASHLEY BELLAMY?

I was aware of the tarot, but not familiar with it. I probably had seen a deck or two. I wasn’t raised in an extremely religious household, but there definitely wasn’t a lot of occult stuff around. But my mom has always been into the zodiac and the Chinese and Western horoscopes, so I had exposure to the metaphysical in that way. But before I had a reading from Ashley, I had never had a tarot reading before.

WHAT MADE YOU WANT TO CREATE A DECK OF YOUR OWN?

Ashley gave me that first reading, and I took a picture of it on my phone. At the time I was working at a bar, and my routine before I went into work was to sit at a coffee shop for a while and kind of prepare myself mentally for the process of transitioning from my intellectual self to my sort of idiot self over the course of the evening. I was sitting there looking up the meanings of the cards online, and I thought, “These cards really do inspire stories in people.” And I wanted to do that myself. I wanted to draw pictures that would allow someone to create their own narration to go with it.

Initially I think my ego really did want reading the cards to be a parlor trick that I would do to impress people, but the reading that Ashley did for me gave me a kind of path to follow, which was that this should be about turning that light on in other people. There’s a children’s book called The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, by Chris Van Allsburg. It has these really beautiful black-and-white drawings, and one or two sentences on the facing page. They’re writing prompts, designed to encourage the viewer to make up a story about what’s happening. I was inspired by that kind of thing. If I could use my abilities to create gasoline for the imagination, I wanted to do it. That’s when I decided that this was a task to take up.

DID YOU HAVE ANY TREPIDATION BECAUSE YOU HADN’T BEEN STUDYING THE TAROT FOR VERY LONG?

ellis 5 of rodsI initially thought that this would be a very long project. I thought that the deck would be something that I worked on over the course of my entire life, and that it would be finished whenever it got finished. What really accelerated it was carrying my Aquarian Tarot deck around with me and doing readings for other people. I did a lot of them in the bars, and afterward I would go home and devour books about tarot. My understanding of the tarot got fast-tracked by a vigorous study of the cards. I devoured any book that came my way. It wasn’t enough for me to know what the 3 of Swords meant from one tarot book. I wanted to know several different versions of it. I wanted to know where this meaning came from, and why this or that was there on a card. I did a lot of reading about why something was there, because if it didn’t resonate with me, then it wouldn’t really be the Ellis deck. At first I thought it may sound egotistical that I had given the deck my name, but the reason I did that is because it was the deck that was coming from me. Naming it the Ellis Deck was me saying, “This is my understanding of the tarot at this point. Here it is for you if you find it useful.”

HOW DID THE CREATION OF THE DECK PROGRESS?

The first card I worked on for the deck was the Chariot, which I began while I was living at the Moon Mansion. Then I did the Empress, and that was finished, so I moved on to Temperance. But it just wasn’t working. It was probably no small coincidence that I was a functioning alcoholic bartender at the time, which is why the concept of temperance was escaping me. So I put the project aside. About two years later I got into the habit of going to a coffee shop to work on my illustration work, and one day when I was there I met a woman who had just opened a gallery and was looking to represent people. She looked through my portfolio and found the Empress card, and she said, “This is it. You need to finish this.”

ellis hermitAt that time I was actually getting a little tired of living at Moon Mansion. I wanted to do something else. So I moved out and eventually ended up in Denver. While I was there I got the Fool through the Hierophant done. Not long after that I realized that I shouldn’t be working on the cards in order. I got stuck on the Hermit, and had a real wild time trying to settle down and make some art. So I made myself work on the Minor Arcana and finish those before I went back to work on the Majors again. By then I was living back at the Moon Mansion. It’s always been a wonderful environment for getting art done.

THE HERMIT IS ACTUALLY ONE OF MY FAVORITES FROM THE DECK, SO IT’S INTERESTING TO HEAR THAT HE GAVE YOU SUCH TROUBLE.

Oh, man, if I could show you some of the early versions of that. It was a real failure to launch at first. No matter what I tried doing, it kept coming out as just an old man in a purple cloak with a beard. It wasn’t feeling very original. But those aspects were also the things from the traditional representation of the Hermit that I knew I really wanted to keep, so I wasn’t sure how to do it. I like to have a lot of character going on, and I was having a hard time figuring out how to give this mostly shrouded man some character. Then I focused on expanding the idea of being a hermit to include this big turtle and the snail, and suddenly the image was about these three hermits hanging out together, not being so hermit-like in that they’re a group of three, but each being a hermit in his own respect.

WERE THERE OTHER CARDS THAT GAVE YOU PARTICULAR TROUBLE.

ellis temperanceTemperance was a really tricky one, because as I mentioned, I hadn’t had a lot of understanding of temperance yet personally for myself. I was still trying to use a lot of different symbols at that point, and that card in particular has a lot of alchemy associated with it. My first version had a headless angel wearing one piece of shoulder armor that had a male face and one piece that had a female face. And it just never popped. Then this idea came to me of a hermaphrodite, of being not genderless but genderful, and what I ended up with was a much simpler design than the original but one that I was much happier with.

The Wheel was another one. That one took a really long time, and when it was done I was upset because I didn’t think it looked like it had taken a long time. A lot of times I’ll have a design where I spend a long time trying to draw it the first time, and then I kind of trash that and draw something really quickly and it will end up being way more successful than the one I put so much thought into. The overly-structured first one is what allows me to create the simpler second one. I sometimes need to spend that time making the first one overly-complicated so that I can get to what the design really is.

DID YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO ANY OF THE CARDS CHANGE AS A RESULT OF HAVING TO ILLUSTRATE THEM?

Yes, it did. The High Priestess. When I first started learning the cards and having readings done, I had a different relationship to her. I saw her as the perfect woman. There was a lot of objectification on my part. Some of that was a need to mature and just grow up, and it required a change in approach and understanding. And it was hard to capture that. I wanted there to still be some of that initial feeling I had about her, so in the card she’s a naked figure, she’s barely covered by a snake and some leaves. But at the same time she’s also completely unapproachable. You’re not going to get to know too much about her.

ellis high priestessDID YOU WORRY ABOUT THE DECK BEING TOO MUCH LIKE PREVIOUS DECKS?

When I started making my deck I was aware of maybe four other decks. I had no idea there were so many. In many ways I like working in a bubble, because I don’t want to be too influenced by other stuff that’s going on. Any artist hates it when they show you something and yor response is, “Oh, this looks like this thing crossed with this other thing.” Because then you think to yourself, oh, great, so I’m more of a blender than a creator. I’m an artistic margarita achine. That’s fantastic.

I got my first reading from the Aquarian Tarot deck. I really love that deck. I love how David Palladini uses color, and I love how the deck inspires your imagination. The Rider Waite is a beautiful deck, but it never inspired me in the same way, I think because it’s so solid, whereas the Aquarian deck is very fluid. When I started to design my deck, I wanted it to be like that, not in the way it looked, but to see what he saw as an artist. I wanted for someone to look at what I made and for it to start a story going in their head, to prompt them to start thinking about what was going on in their life. So it’s not that I used another deck as something to check mine against in terms of what it looked like or what was on the cards, but I wanted my deck to inspire readers the way I had been inspired by the Aquarian deck. It was a kind of self-check. If you don’t know me and don’t have to tell me it’s good because you’re my friend, is it still good?

ellis 5 of cupsWhen you’re making a deck, you have to pay heed to the fixed meanings, but at some point you have to bring it to life with your version of it, so you can’t be overly concerned that you’ve got to get the symbol of Mercury on this card, or that you’ve got to put this particular animal on this particular card. There can be this feeling of, I want to create something new, but I don’t want to break with tradition at all, and that can force everything into a fixed system.

BY FOCUSING LESS ON WHAT THE CARDS ARE SUPPOSED TO MEAN AND MORE ON WHAT THEY MEAN TO YOU?

That’s when you start cookin’. Especially if the person you’re doing the reading for has been inspired in the same way to participate in the conversation. That’s when a really good reading happens, versus if you’re just sort of numbly reciting the meanings to people. You know, I can tell you what the Hierophant means traditionally, but it’s what it means to you that matters, and it’s what it means to me that matters. There are so many Hierophant cards where he’s portrayed as a pope, for example, but I wasn’t raised Catholic, and the concept of a pope didn’t mean much to me. So I couldn’t create a Hierophant card that was a pope figure because I didn’t get that. It had to be something that I understood and related to.

AND YET YOUR DECK DOESN’T STRAY TOO FAR FROM THE TRADITIONAL MEANINGS. IT WILL STILL BE FAMILIAR TO ANYONE WITH A BASIC UNDERSTANDING OF THE TAROT.

ellis 6 of pentaclesThe fixed meanings are kind of the nails on the wall that you hang the pictures from. But your own personal experiences form the pictures themselves. Unless it made absolute sense, I tried not to have the same thing going on in each card that had been done over and over before. I didn’t want to feel that I was just redecorating a room or just dressing a familiar character in a different costume. I wanted to do a little bit more than that. My approach was that I have my own philosophy on what the cards mean and what’s going on, and if that went along with an existing philosophy, great. No one in this world believes anything in exactly the same way as someone else, so when you see a deck, what you should be seeing is the artist’s interpretation of the processes that the cards represent.

For example, the Pentacles are often interpreted as representing money. For me, though, they’re more about resources—time, energy, opportunity. Money can be a measurement of all those things, but it was important to me when creating the Pentacle cards that it not be solely about riches in the sense of money.

The reason I bring up the Pentacles specifically is because the 6 and 8 are cards where I definitely departed from the traditional interpretations. The 6 is often portrayed as a man with a scale, and sometimes he’s giving money to beggars, but for me the 6 was an abundant tree and the people were able to harvest everything they needed from it while the tree remained healthy. I felt that was a better way to illustrate what the 6 means to me.

With the 8, that card often represents what looks like what I call a manufacturing situation. I’m very fond of the I Ching, and the I Ching often speaks of the importance of getting from point A to B, then B to C, then C to D instead of focusing on getting right from A to D. I see the 8 of Pentacles as representing that concept. You’ve gone really far, but you’ve done it by making those small steps, by making a bridge one step at a time instead of just going, “And now there’s a bridge.”

ellis 8 of pentaclesIT’S INTERESTING THAT YOU MENTION THAT CARD, BECAUSE THE FIRST FEW TIMES I LOOKED THROUGH THE DECK I STOPPED AT THE 8 OF PENTACLES AND THOUGHT, THIS ISN’T REGISTERING TO ME THE WAY IT USUALLY DOES.

At that point in the story I created for that suit, there’s a town that has been able to use its technology and its understanding of itself to expand outward. To me the meaning of the 8 of Pentacles is a little deeper than, say, someone flipping eight burgers. And the 6 is less about the development of a healthy individual than it is about the development of a heathy community, because the individual is just a temporarily-severed part of the community anyway.

DID YOU HAVE A STORY FOR EACH SUIT BEFORE YOU STARTED, OR DID IT UNFOLD AS YOU WORKED ON THEM?

It sort of unfolded the way that it unfolded. I knew that I was saying something about transformation in each suit, but each one was its own type of transformation. For instance, I knew that the story of the Swords moved from conflict to understanding. The King of Swords has the sword on his lap because he doesn’t swing it around all the time. If he has to, he’ll take you out with the thing, but he knows better because he’s lost an eye in the process of becoming who he is. So I knew the basic story of each suit, but the specific story came after the art was completed. I hadn’t written a companion book at that point, so I would set all the cards out from Ace to Ten and write the story looking at the cards.

ellis king of swordsWERE YOU EVER SURPRISED BY THE STORY?

I was surprised that I had managed to pull it off, actually. I was working on a graphic novel before I started the tarot deck, and I found that my greatest weakness was the storytelling. My ability as a writer is not as developed as my ability as a visual artist, so to get a story out is painful. It’s something I’m tackling again now, and having completed the deck makes me feel that now I can do anything.

DID YOU DO ONE SUIT AT A TIME, OR DID YOU SKIP AROUND?

Well, I like drawing girls. So the very first day working on the Minor Arcana, I decided to work on the queens. I picked the Queen of Swords. I felt like, she’s the sexiest, most exciting queen, so how can she not hold my attention? This was around the time I was beginning to quit drinking, so this was all part of the alchemical process for my own life. I did the Queen of Rods next, then the Queen of Cups, and finished with the Queen of Pentacles. From there I continued with that pattern, where I would do a Sword, then a Rod, then a Cup, and then a Pentacle. I think next I did the Knights, then the Pages. Then I started with the Aces and went up to the Tens. I finished with the Kings. I felt that the Queens were the mothers who gave birth to the suits, or elements, and that each element then went through this process until it reached a point where it was sitting in understanding, which was represented by the King. So the design process was also part of the story process.

THAT DESIGN PROCESS ALSO MIRRORS THE WAY THE COMPANION GUIDE IS WRITTEN, WITH THE FOUR CARDS OF EACH NUMBER BEING GROUPED TOGETHER. IT’S A REALLY EFFECTIVE WAY OF APPROACHING THE DECK.

ellis page of cupsI thought that was extremely important. Mysticism can be used as a beautiful aesthetic or a horrible tool for bamboozling people. I think that there are a lot of people who don’t want other people to learn how to use the tarot as a tool for bettering themselves, because it benefits them to keep people blindly seeking to have their fortunes told. When I order the cards and say ”All the Aces are this kind of energy” or “All the Twos are this kind of energy,” I’m doing that because I want people to recognize the patterns that are going on within themselves and, if they’re reading for other people, within those people. I knew it would be some time before I got a true companion book done. I’m still working on that. I want the deck to be out for a while and for people to have had experience with it before I put that out. I’ve gotten some incredible feedback from people that have shown me things I didn’t even realize was in the cards. So I’m letting other sets of eyes look at the deck before I create a companion for it. I don’t want to sell people their own watch, as it were. I think it’s better if people figure out on their own what some of this stuff means.

A LOT OF PEOPLE, WHEN THEY HEAR THAT ART HAS BEEN CREATED USING ANY KIND OF COMPUTER, HAVE A NEGATIVE REACTION. DO YOU ENCOUNTER THAT?

The reason for that is that the computer has resulted in a lot of bad artwork. But it was natural for me. I had been using the computer to make art for a very long time before I started the deck. I do have a hand-drawing style, and I draw by hand in my sketchbooks, but using the computer allows me to create shapes in a way that my hand-drawing doesn’t. But yes, I’m very familiar with the response I get when I tell people that I’m working on art on the computer and they make that face. When people hear “computer-generated” they get the idea that the computer drew it, like you just hit the “draw gargoyle” button and it drew a gargoyle, or you hit Command+D and it drew a dog.

Iellis 6 of pentaclesSN’T THAT HOW IT WORKS? YOU JUST SAY, “COMPUTER, MAKE ME A TAROT DECK”?

I think that option is coming out in the next version of Photoshop. There’s going to be a filter that will turn your image into a tarot deck.

SO THIS WAS DONE PRIMARILY IN ILLUSTRATOR?

I worked for a large-format print shop for about eight years, and while I was there I learned Illustrator. I almost never used it for anything I was supposed to be working on. It was my version of doodling in the margins. I also made a lot of posters for bands, so by the time I started the deck, it really was like using a pencil for me. So I did the initial design in Illustrator, then brought them into Photoshop to add textures.

IS THIS STYLE COMMON TO YOUR OTHER WORK, OR DID YOU DEVELOP IT SPECIFICALLY FOR THE DECK?

My style changed while I was doing the deck. When I first started, it was a little less streamlined. And I would normally draw whites in people’s eyes. But you’ll notice that there are no whites in the eyes in the finished deck. That’s because I was used to working in a larger print size. The cards were all done at 11 x 17 poster size. But when I shrunk them down to card size, it was difficult for me to enjoy the image because there was so much going on that in a smaller size it was unattractive. You’ll see decks out there like this, where you know they were created at a larger size and then shrunk down, which makes them difficult or even impossible to easily read from. I learned to add less minutia to the characters and be more deliberate with what I put in. And that has changed my overall style as a result. The thing I’m working on now reflects that.

THERE’S ALMOST A 70’S AESTHETIC TO IT.

ellis 3 of rodsWell, I am a child of the 80’s, and children of the 80’s spent a lot of time in Half Price Books, which had a lot of stuff from the 70’s in it, so a lot of the art I saw growing up did look that way, and it definitely has influenced my style. That aesthetic really appeals to me. I love bright colors. I respond emotionally to colors very quickly. They trigger something in me, so for me it was part of the emotion of the deck to have the colors be something you respond to. Part of the success of the art in the 70’s is that there was a rainbowiness to it, not in the sense that it contained all the colors of a rainbow, but that there was contrast between things, different bands of color. As for the flatness of it, I wanted to create something that was flat but at the same time had dimension to it.

A big influence on me was the covers for the Lord of the Rings series done by Barbara Remington. She worked with a lot of color. I grew up with those covers, and to me they were THE covers. They really added a lot of fantasy to the story, and while reading the stories my mind painted pictures in her style. The bird in the story was the bird from the cover, for instance.

WHEN I LOOK ellis 8 of swordsAT A NEW DECK, I OFTEN LOOK CLOSELY AT SPECIFIC CARDS THAT I THINK TELL YOU A LOT ABOUT THE ARTIST’S APPROACH. ONE OF THOSE IS THE 8 OF SWORDS, AND WHAT I LIKE ABOUT THAT CARD IN YOUR DECK IS HOW PEACEFUL THE WOMAN APPEARS.

Personally, I think the 8 of Swords is a double-edged card. Of course all the swords are, but a lot of people miss the fact that sometimes you have to create a prison out of your mind. Sometimes you have to ground yourself, and sometimes we have to create that kind of prison out of our own thoughts in order to keep ourselves out of trouble for a little bit. It’s not always a bad situation. It definitely can be about getting in your own way, but it can also be a pathway to peace.

ANOTHER CARD I ALWAYS LOOK AT WHEN EVALUATING A DECK IS THE DEVIL, WHICH HAPPENS TO BE MY FAVORITE, AND I LOVE YOUR DEVIL.

Thank you. I don’t know if you noticed, but the same characters on that card appear in the Lovers, Temperance, and the Devil cards, representing different stages of an alchemical process. I thought it would be funny to have the girl, whose hair is blue in the Lovers and the Temperance cards, dye it blonde for the Devil card. She’s gone from having this beautiful blue hair to having a bleach job.

ellis devilI ALSO LIKE HOW THE DEVIL MIRRORS THE MAGICIAN WITH HIS MULTIPLE ARMS.

I thought that because the devil is kind of a he/she figure, he needed to be a mixture of the Magician and the High Priestess. Now that the Fool has learned all of these different tricks, at this point in his journey he needs to face temptation and figure out what he’s going to do with all of these things he’s learned. I had a really fun conversation with Ashley when I was working on that card. I asked him, “What color do you think the Devil’s nipples are?” He thought that they would be black, but I decided on gold.

TELL ME ABOUT THE 9 OF CUPS. TO ME IT’S PROBABLY THE MOST JOYFUL CARD IN THE DECK.

ellis 9 of cupsYou know that song by DJ Kool “Let Me Clear My Throat” that has Biz Markie on it? That’s actually what inspired me while I was drawing that card. With that card I just saw fat and happy. This guy does not give a damn what anybody thinks of him. He’s the 8 of Cups who was totally over everything so he jumped into the water and spent some time down in the subconscious, and when he splashed back up he realized that he already has everything he needs. And that’s what allows him to have all the love on the 10 of Cups, because he’s not trying to complete himself with somebody else, both people are already complete and now can enjoy one another. In a lot of decks the 9 is a chubby man at a banquet table, and I didn’t want to draw that. Also, I love the Hotei Buddha, and I wanted to have him in my deck somewhere. So there he is with all the baby seahorses. When I read for people and that card pops up, I know they need to hear that they can be happy when they’re alone. They don’t have to find someone else to complete themselves.

ASHLEY REFUSED TO TEACH YOU TAROT UNTIL YOU PROMISED NOT TO USE IT TO READ YOUR OWN CARDS. HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT PEOPLE USING YOUR DECK TO READ FOR THEMSELVES?

I think that anyone can use the deck the way that they want to use it. I understand why Ashley made me promise not to read my own cards, because there is a definitely slippery slope where you can go off on a trip against yourself. It can be too easy for you to decide, “Oh, this just means this, and I can ignore that for right now,” or something to that effect. I do pull daily cards for myself. I think it’s an important learning tool. But as far as doing a six-month or a year reading, I think it’s better to have another brain involved. The cards have a sense of humor, and I find that if you try to do a reading for yourself, they’re often going to give you a Zen koan that’s going to lead you back to yourself.

DO YOU USE YOUR OWN DECK FOR READING FOR OTHER PEOPLE?

I do use it. At first I thought that that might be another ego trip thing, and that I shouldn’t do it. But enough people told me, “You’re probably the person who understands these cards the best. It would be stupid to not use them.” I don’t use it exclusively, although it is the one I primarily use when doing readings for clients.

DO YOUellis 8 of rods THINK YOUR DECK WORKS IN A WAY THAT’S DIFFERENT FROM OTHER DECKS
I probably have a pretty big bias about that because I drew all of it. For me it works because I know what I was trying to say when I drew the cards, so when they come up I have that to work with. I wanted to create a deck that worked in a way where when you looked at it you didn’t really need to get a booklet out to know what’s going on. I know it’s reassuring to do that, to check the meaning, but it was my hope that with my deck you could look at the cards and kind of get the idea what’s going on. I just wanted to create a deck that didn’t make people feel that they were light years away from understanding what the cards meant. Even as a tarot reader, I try to get my clients to a point where they don’t need me for guidance all the time. In fact, I hope that they never need me for guidance, and that they just use their time with me to hear themselves. And I wanted to create a deck that could facilitate that.

WILL YOU DO ANOTHER DECK?

I have dreams about different versions. I’ll be looking through the deck in dreams, and there will be a different version of the card. Or it will be something that I didn’t even think about. I had a dream the other night where I was looking at the Hanged Man card, and it featured the same rabbit figure from the card but he was walking with the cross and carrying it upside down. My subconscious still creates tarot decks from time to time. But I’m working on a graphic novel now, and I don’t know that I will create another deck in the future. If I do, it will be after this one has been out for a long enough time that whatever deck I do is not just a remix of this one.

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