Interview with Karen Mahony, Alex Ukulov, and Anna Hakkarainen

by Bonnie Cehovet

I am most definitely a feline fancier - and was thrilled when Karen, Alex and Anna agreed to talk about the Baroque Bohemian Cat's Tarot. This is their story!

How did you and Alex get together to form Baba Studio?

KM: We were introduced by a mutual friend, a slightly crazy Tartarian fashion designer who simply decided we should meet. Initially I think Alex and I weren't quite sure what to make of each other, we come from very different backgrounds. But we met again explicitly to talk about contemporary Russian design, and realized how well we got on - on many levels. Within six months we had formed the beginnings of the studio.

AU: Unbelievably bizarrely and by chance.

What was the decision making process to base the Magic Realist Press in London?

KM: In two words, red tape! It takes forever to form a company here in Czech Republic, and the regulations are unfortunately still more or less stuck in the days of communism. We are for example currently (I kid you not) writing letters to give ourselves official permission to work in our own company! The days of Kafka-esque bureaucracy are still alive and kicking..

As I already had a company in London it just seemed easier to base everything there, where rules and regulations are much simpler. The only big hiccup was that the original company name "Xymbio" turned out to be owned by a pornography site (the kind of thing we all have to be a bit wary in these days of the internet) - but in some ways it may even have been a blessing in disguise - as it spurred us into very rapidly changing the name of the publication imprint to "The Magic Realist Press" a much better and more explanatory name.

The "Baroque Bohemian Cat's Tarot" is an incredible deck! How do you move from a project like the "Tarot of Prague" (which is based on the art and culture of Prague) to a project like this one?

KM: Thank-you! It is a slightly mad project in that the technique we used turned out to be terribly time-consuming, but we do love the result. We're very fond of this deck. We combined many, many elements to make up one picture so the whole thing took in excess of 4000 hours - although this did include writing the book.

How did we get from one project to the other? It's a good question. Partly we were honestly rather emotionally - and perhaps even spiritually (if I can say that?) exhausted by doing Tarot of Prague. It was a very demanding and intense experience. So first of all, we simply decided that we had to work next on something quite different - something that would be lighter and less symbolically loaded even if it was just as demanding in terms of art and technique. We also loved the idea of doing something narrative with cats - it seemed a challenge to produce a deck that was decorative, fun, indulgent and yet still a good reading deck. We felt that in many ways that hadn't ever been fully achieved in a cat deck.

AU: We like cats and the Baroque period is perhaps ideal to show cats' nature. We are used to seeing them as pets for ourselves, we love them and expect their love in return. But not many people can accept the idea that there are Kings and Queens among the cats, Pages and Hermits, cats strange like the Moon or brave like Knights, "proper" and conservative, or weird… It was a very interesting process to combine certain cats and tarot characters - trying to match them.

What was involved in the decision making process to combine the Baroque style with the theme of cats?

KM: It was one of those odd processes that's hard to fully recall. I remember that it was my idea and initially it was a bit of a joke - Alex's first response was a memorable "Oh no. Don't make me do it!" But it was one of those rather odd ideas that grew on us both as we went along. One attraction was that it was a project that drew on Anna's talents. We had met Anna some time before and were keen to work with her, so this seemed to give us an ideal opportunity. Plus, well, I just wanted to do something totally self-indulgent to be honest - and cats, costumes and castles seemed as much fun as it gets!

How did you go about finding the cats to photograph for this deck?

KM: It was quite an undertaking in the end. The first cats were easy to find, as we know the Cat Rescue Home here quite well so arranged to go there to photograph. But later, we realized that we would also need to find various breeds. For those we went to the local Czech Cat Breeder's Association and they were brilliant - very supportive. Czech is famously a dog country - Czechs love their dogs and treat them like members of the family. The relative scarcity of "cat people" here means that they tend to stick together we find - so we were given a lot of help and encouragement. We sometimes traveled to breeder's homes to photograph, and also used people's own photos of their cats (sometimes better in fact as the cats were more relaxed). We met many remarkable people - and cats. To tell just one story, there is one woman in Prague who breeds gorgeous Russian Blues - our Hermit and Page of Cups are among hers- and she told us she has taken all sorts of extra jobs - including antique dealer and croupier in a casino, merely to support her cats. She was totally devoted to them.

A few cats from other countries are also included. Once we actually found ourselves running down a lane in Whitstable, UK, to photograph a beautiful tortie - who ended up as our Temperance. Brandy, the cat that lives next to my parents in the UK, is also there - he is The Emperor (my mother would not have been happy with anything less!) One friend who we met on the Aeclectic tarot forum also sent us photos of her beautiful Medusa - our "World" cat. A breeder of Siamese, Burmese and Tonkinese in the UK sent us CDs full of wonderful photographs - the Queen of Pentacles and her kitten are, for example, hers. By the way, this is one card that everyone seems to fall in love with.

AU: People were often at first suspiciously alert about us photographing cats. God knows what they were imagining we are going to do with them, especially as we were that strange combination of Irish and Russian. But mostly after knowing us a for a while, they became friendly and helpful.

What was the process for deciding what scenes to include in the cards?

KM: It took a while to really see what worked and what didn't. To begin with we had a lot of photographs left over from Tarot of Prague, but we found many of those were not appropriate and so it was necessary to photograph most of the scenes specially. Interestingly the types of backgrounds that worked for Tarot of Prague were often quite different from those that worked well for Baroque Bohemian Cats.

The first thing we did was make a three-day trip to Cesky Krumlov in Southern Bohemia. It's perhaps the best preserved Renaissance town in Central Europe and provided some stunning backgrounds. We also did a lot of photography at Vrtbovska Zahrada, a beautifully restored Baroque garden very near the studio in Prague. The ladies who run this garden were marvelous, insisting on giving us free access as we were "artists". Generally, BB Cats came out rather more "green" than Tarot of Prague. We found that garden backgrounds seemed to fit particularly well with the overall atmosphere of the Bohemian "Catdom".

What was involved in putting together the photos of the cats, the background, and the incredible costumes?

KM: Oh goodness. A lot of blood, sweat and, in the early days, even a few tears. If you saw the first sketches (and no, we don't want to show them!) you'd be surprised how visually rough it all was to begin with. As with all serious visual design projects, it took us a long time - the best part of three months - to evolve the "look" that we wanted. Alex and I in fact talked about this the other evening, and decided it might best be described as the difference between the essentially "flat" backgrounds of Tarot of Prague, and a much more realistic, three-dimensional look in Baroque Bohemian Cats. Tarot of Prague is primarily a deck that is rich in symbolism - it is really an inner Prague as seen through the symbolic, and needed not to look too much like the real city. In contrast we'd describe BB Cats as much more filmic and narrative. The deck works best when you accept the whole world of the "Cats" and allow yourself to sink into it - rather as you would into a fairytale or a film. It's less about symbolism (though there is certainly quite a lot of that) and more about story-telling.

Creating that world of the Baroque Bohemian Cats did take a long time and involved much experimentation before our technique could really fool the eye into believing in the reality of the scenes. In summary, we built or adapted miniature models, clothed them in Anna's meticulous costumes (we often reused costume parts with fresh trimmings - so all costumes had to be done as separate pieces) and then photographed them.

Usually we then built up the whole cat figure - adding paws, head and - occasionally, tails. At that point we might digitally change the colour of the costume, or use overlays to decorate it. We also sometimes had to change some of the cats expressions. One cat (but I'm not saying which) is actually a complete composite - not a photogaph of a real cat at all, but a figure made up of parts of other photographs - simply because we needed a particular body type, expression, and coat colour. Finally a whole figure was combined with a background - and furniture and other objects were added. In all, it was common for Alex (who did the final artwork) to use 40 or 50 Photoshop "layers" - really a crazily huge undertaking.

AS: Firstly knowing the visual history of the Baroque time (which I learned again after studying it first at university). Then we also needed skills to do photography, Photoshop digital imaging and the ability to apply knowledge in drawing.

The costumes in this deck are incredibly intricate and imaginative. How did you get together with the costumer, Anna Hakkarainen?

KM: The costumes are wonderful aren't they? Anna is very talented. Funnily enough it was Tarot of Prague that brought us together. Initially, Tarot of Prague was intended to be a photographic deck using people. We in fact had more than half of it done before we decided that that approach was not working (one day perhaps we'll show some of these early versions). One of the people who initially volunteered to be photographed for that original deck was a Spanish girl, Beatrix, who turned out too lovely to work with - very engaged and engaging. She became quite intrigued with what we were doing and said that we should meet a Finnish textile designer friend who was living in Prague. This of course turned out to be Anna. We loved her work when we saw it, and also thought she would be a great colleague.

What was the process that Anna went through to decide on colors, type of costume etc?

AH: I started making the costumes by looking for inspiration by searching for images of Baroque costumes from the internet and books, and also watching films (such as Amadeus and Dangerous Liaisons).

The more difficult part was to find suitable (and readable) patterns and adjust them to cat-size. Cats' necks are thicker than humans', the arms too are thicker and also shorter. In cat-women's costumes I also had to adjust the chest and waist.

The best materials for the costumes were different kinds of silks and sateens. Synthetic materials didn't feel so "Baroquish" and also they do not always look as good as natural materials in photographs. The guideline in colours of the costumes was to keep them light enough, because Alex told me that it is complicated to get very detailed photos from very dark costumes. The type of the costume depended on which kind of scene was planned for a certain card.

Big part of the costumes were the exquisite trimmings, like bows, laces, ribbons, beads, buttons, fabric flowers etc. Good places to find them were of course fabric shops, but the best ones we for example from antique shops: interesting trimmings were often attached to old clothes and accessories. Alex and Karen found very beautiful old laces that were very useful, because modern synthetic laces weren't soft enough at all.

The sewing of a miniature-costume was relatively time-consuming and more complicated than making a human-size costume. Many phases of the making of the costume I did by hand, like pleated backs of tiny jackets, sewing tiny snap-fasteners and hooks and attaching sleeves to the bodices. The silks frayed very easily, so everything had to be done carefully.

I liked very much sewing these fantasy-costumes, although it wasn't always very simple. I learned a lot during the process, and I' m looking forward to the next costume-project…

Can you tell us a bit about the process that an independent publisher goes through in marketing their own projects?

KM: Well, I suppose that this varies quite a lot for different publishers. But for us, it's complicated by the fact that we are based in Prague but sell all over the world - the range is continually widening but currently includes the US and Canada, Japan, Taiwan, some of the Middle East, much of Europe and of course the UK, so we need to try to market in different ways to different countries. Our distributors in the UK and Europe - Turnaround - actually now write and send out press releases and review copies for us, which is great. But in the rest of the world we need to do this ourselves and it can be a lot of work. We are still learning who to send to - who are the most respected reviewers and so on. Many of the US tarot reviewers have in fact been very supportive, and this has helped us a lot. Tarot being the way it is (I think essentially more co-operative than competitive) I have to say that both Llewellyn and Lo Scarabeo have also been supportive. Llewellyn's Tarot Reader 2004 included a great review of Tarot of Prague and I think I am allowed to say that the next Tarot Reader may well include a review of Baroque Bohemian Cats. Lo Scarabeo have also been great - generous with advice and enthusiasm. All this is much appreciated.

Finally, well fortunately I like to chat - I am Irish! - so I enjoy being on forums, posting to my blog and so on. This all helps to publicise the work - plus we make real friends, which I love. Hopefully next year we can also begin to attend more events and actually meet people face to face. This year we did get to Frankfurt Book Fair, which was fascinating. Next year we hope to attend more book fairs and tarot get-togethers. We also very much welcome interviews like this one - it helps us to communicate what we are really about, which is very important.

What can we expect from baba studio in the near future?

KM: Quite a lot I hope. The picture book Bohemian Cats has just come out. It was supposed to be a "spin-off" from the deck but became quite a large project in its own right. We are very pleased with the way it's turned out.

Now that Anna is working with us full-time we can of course produce more, which is great. The big step this year is that we will begin to publish work by other authors and artists, as well as of course producing our own. We expect to do at least as many books as decks.

The immediate projects involve a thoroughly over-the-top Gothic cat book - it's a graphic novel of sorts, and fairly adult - we can say more about it early next spring. Several rather more serious book projects are currently at the negotiation stage, and we are also in the very early days of planning two tarot decks for 2006-7 (a long way off!) Personally, I now very much want to commission well-researched, thoughtful work on alchemy, and also on Roma (gypsy) magic and belief. I think both are much abused and misunderstood subjects.

Oh and just for fun, because we do believe in mixing the serious with some fun, we also plan a pop-up book for next autumn (I could not resist!)

As far as decks are concerned, we are working on two major projects now. The first is the simplest, a large-sized, limited edition of Baroque Bohemian Cats Tarot (the current version is of course not a limited edition, as the decision was rather to keep retails costs low). We'll produce a small number of these, and plan only to sell direct from the website and perhaps through a few specialist stores, but there does seem to be a strong demand. It sounds easy simply to size up the cards, but in fact it will involve some re-imaging, which won't be quick to do. We are also planning to use gold inks and this also complicates the work - but adds hugely to the final result. We expect this deck to come out some time next year - hopefully around summertime.

The other project is a lot more complex and is proving to be very exciting - and hard! It's a collaborative deck with Rachel Pollack, who is, of course, one of the best-known writers in the whole tarot/divination field. It's called The See of Logos. It is an Oracle, or perhaps an anti-Oracle deck of 32 cards. Hard to describe, although I will - with a grin firmly on my face - tell you that Rachel says that it is "guaranteed 100% accurate". If you know Rachel's work you will guess that she does not mean this in a literal sense - though she certainly does mean it. The See of Logos will be a very adult deck. It isn't explicitly erotic or "dark" but it is demanding and perhaps shocking in some respects. I don't think it's quite like any deck that we've seen before. We are very much caught up in it right now and Alex and I both find that the images in the cards are creeping into our dreams - they are powerful.

On a practical level, again, The See of Logos will again be a very limited edition - it's an art piece rather than a day-to-day deck and will have a very particular audience - not a mass market one at all. We hope to publish it in the spring of 2005.

AU: What can be expected from us? Surprises!

Many thanks to Karen, Alex and Anna for sharing the story of this amazing deck. We will definitely be watching "Magic Realist Press" and "Baba Studio" for future projects!

© Bonnie Cehovet

Bonnie Cehovet is Certified Tarot Grand Master, a professional Tarot reader with over ten years experience, a Reiki Master/Teacher and a writer. Bonnie has served in various capacities with the American Tarot Association, is co-founder of the World Tarot Network, and Vice President (as well as Director of Certification) for the American Board For Tarot Certification. She has had articles appear in the 2004 and 2005 Llewellyn Tarot Reader.

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