Interview with Craig Conley
by Bonnie Cehovet
I recently had the very good fortune to have "Trump L'Oeil - The Tarot of Portmeirion" cross my path. The wizard behind this project is Welsh scholar Craig Conley, whose work includes "One-Letter Words: A Dictionary" (Harper-Collins), "Magic Words: A Dictionary" (Red Wheel/Weiser), and the independently produced photographic deck Trump L'Oeil: Tarot of Portmeirion.
The latter project is very much on par with the stunning work done by Ciro Marchetti in his independently produced project Tarot of Dreams. The "Tarot of Dreams" takes us into a world of the imagination, much in the same way that Trump L'Oeil: The Tarot of Portmeirion uses the fantastical architecture of the coastal village of Portmeiron, Wales, to symbolize the archetypes of the Tarot. (Of note: The village of Portmeirion was used as the setting for the filming of the surrealistic television series "The Prisoner," starring Patrick McGoohan.)
Let's go visit the amazing mind behind this wonderful project!
BC: Craig, can you tell us a little about how you came to be interested in the world of Tarot?
CC: In a moment of slapstick, my first physical encounter with the world of Tarot occurred when a Rider-Waite deck fell on my foot while I was browsing in a bookstore. I wasn't even in the Divination section! I've always tried to be aware of "signs" and significances of events in daily life, if only to foster a more actively conscious routine. When the Tarot deck met me more than halfway, I decided to seek out the Divination section-not to return the deck, but to find a book to go along with it. That wasn't such a big step for me, either in terms of bookstore area or daring. For a lifelong student of religion, spirituality, magic (both stage performance and shamanism), and Jungian psychology, the history and symbolism of Tarot meet every criterion of fascination.
An early film that left a big impression was Alejandro Jodorowsky's visionary The Holy Mountain, which colorfully depicts a soul's journey toward illumination in terms of Tarot archetypes. Then there's Tim Powers' unforgettable mythic fantasy novel Last Call, in which the characters (some unconsciously, others consciously) assume the roles of Tarot figures and play out legendary conflicts. It was films and books like those that helped me to view and understand worldly events in the context of Tarot patterns.
BC: How did you come to use the extraordinary village of Portmeirion as a foundation for the theme for a Tarot deck?
CC: It was actually a long puzzle that I had to unravel. I was introduced to Portmeirion as a child through "The Prisoner" series. My first question was, "Where on earth is that remarkable place?" I tracked it down in the library, began a scrapbook, and eventually made it to Wales to enjoy the first of many week-long holidays in that magical village. One thing I've always loved about Portmeirion is the abundance of memorial plaques and statuary, lending meaning to the ornamentation. On a whim during one visit, I began delving beneath the surfaces of things, seeking deeper meanings. I knew that Portmeirion was the culmination of the architect's life journey, and I suspected that a symbolic language was embedded in the brick and mortar of the place. To put that another way, as Portmeirion is the stuff of dreams (and one eccentric's dream in particular), I suspected that Sir Clough's spirit must somehow "speak" through the medium of architecture and ornament. As I stood near the Mermaid cottage one daybreak, I slowly became aware of familiar Tarot archetypes all around me. To my left, the iconic bell tower was the unmistakable counterpart of the Tarot's Tower card. To my right, the statue of Hercules bearing the globe recalled the World card. And in front of me was the statue of the goddess Frigga, reminiscent of the Empress card. At my feet, an arrangement of round slate paving stones suggested Pentacles. I realized that the entire village was like a giant pop-up book of Tarot cards, and I hurriedly began photographing all the archetypes I could find. By the final hour of my last day at Portmeirion, I had photographed imagery for all 78 Tarot cards.
BC: This is a very, very unusual village. Please tell us about the force behind this project (renowned Welsh architect Sir Clough Williams-Ellis), and what this village is really all about.
CC: Sir Clough was an revolutionary character and a trailblazing environmentalist and conservationist. Portmeirion was his retirement project, and he tinkered on his fantasy village over the remaining decades of his life. One thing that makes the place so magical is that the buildings seem to rise from the very stony outcroppings of the cliffside, and this was no accident. Sir Clough had the vision to work with the natural surroundings, not against them. Natural stone and masonry merge so effortlessly that one suspects it could happen only in Merlin country. Sir Clough called Portmeirion his "home for fallen arches," and he wasn't alluding merely to the steep elevations of the footpaths. The buildings are constructed of recycled materials-bits and pieces of historic buildings from all over Europe that were set to be demolished. Secondhand rubble and priceless ornaments were given a new lease on life, reconstructed to tell new stories through their age-old histories.
The most impressive of Sir Clough's accomplishments? His invention of virtual reality, decades before the term was coined. In my book Puzzling Portmeirion, I dedicate an entire chapter to Sir Clough's deliberate creation of an otherworldly environment. Tricks of perspective, framing, and other optical illusions (many of them subliminal) invite visitors to think outside the box, to get lost in another dimension, to stumble upon spontaneous drama, and to discover the missing pieces of a seemingly finished puzzle.
BC: In the art book that accompanies your deck, you show not only full color scans of the cards, but small maps of where the object chosen for each is located within the village. What was the thinking behind this?
CC: Maps help us feel oriented, and I wanted to give readers of the Portmeirion Tarot their bearings, even if they weren't physically at the village. Because Portmeirion is like a pop-up book of the entire Major and Minor Arcana, the maps give a sense of the layout of the cards. However, with its structures cascading down a lofty cliffside, the village's winding, stepped paths of varying elevations provide innumerable vantage points to study the relative iconic connections. Archetypes may be adjacent or separate, above or below one another, all depending upon one's standpoint. The village can be viewed as one elaborate allegorical story, but it is told from multiple perspectives.
BC: On your site, you feature an interactive three card reading, with the option of using either Major Arcana only, or the full deck. What I found interesting was your manner of interpreting the cards, using the direction in which the figure(s) on the cards were facing - very much along the lines of Robert Place's work. Can you go into this a bit for us?
CC: There's no doubt that Robert Place's wisdom has informed my interpretation of the Portmeirion cards. The dimensionality of Portmeirion's statues and architecture, and the dynamism of its murals, invites a careful attention to various directions. One great example is the Chariot, which is a painting of an enormous clamshell holding a majestic Triton reminiscent of Poseidon. With his right hand he holds a nautiloid shell trumpet to his lips. He brandishes a trident in his left hand. The base of the trident dips rightward into the sea like a rudder (indicating maneuvering). The Triton faces forward (indicating vigilance), sounds his horn to his right (indicating preparedness), and points his eyes and trident leftward (indicating assertion).
BC: I am dying to ask this question, and can wait no longer! I am fascinated by the symbolism used for the Devil - a statue of a blood red wyvern (a legendary creature with a barbed serpent's tail, dragon-like wings, and eagles talons). Robert Place gave me a head's up about the place that this creature plays in Welsh legend and symbology. Can you tell us a bit about that?
CC: The Devil card almost lured me off the beaten path. There is a trompe l'oeil window at Portmeirion that features a classic devilish figure peering out. He sports ram's horns, a beard, and a mischievous smile. I photographed the painting and considered showcasing it on the Devil card, as it seemed the obvious choice. But the painting resides in an area accessible only to overnight guests of Portmeirion. Most visitors of the village come just for the day, and though I believe it takes more than an afternoon to experience the deeper stories that Portmeirion tells, I wanted my Tarot deck to serve the most people. So as I wandered, I kept an eye out for another possible Devil icon. The wyvern struck me as more richly symbolic than the imp in the painted window. This serpent-like dragon has obvious underworld associations, and it represents base drives such as envy and hostility. Yet, fascinatingly, the wyvern figures on noble emblems, crests, and flags as a symbol of strength and perseverance. In heraldry, the wyvern is literally borne, in the sense of being displayed. For my Devil card, the wyvern asks to be figuratively borne, in the sense of being suffered, endured, and testified to. Though the creature lurks in the shadowy realm of fatalism, when mustered (if not mastered) its talons can lift us out of the darkness into new heights of spirit -- a literal ascendancy. For an interesting exploration of the red dragon in Welsh mythology, I suggest The Grail Legend by Emma Jung and Marie-Louise von Franz. The authors examine the story of red and white fighting dragons in the light of alchemical parables. The red and white dragons are said to symbolize the play of opposites which must be united for the sake of psychological wholeness.
BC: You have another project out there - an article comparing Robert Place's "Alchemical Tarot: Renewed" and the limited edition Alchemical Emblems Tarot, produced by Adam McLean. I think that our readers will be very interested in this subject. What new projects do you have coming up that we should watch for?
CC: I've recently completed an intriguing twist on the popular board game Monopoly, based upon Tarot. The ultimate game of material fortune has transformed into a quest for spiritual prosperity. Each of the 40 spaces on the game board is represented by a Tarot icon. The 22 color-coded properties feature the 22 cards of the Major Arcana. The other spaces, such as railroads, Water Works, Luxury Tax, Community Chest, Chance, Free Parking, Jail, and Go, feature iconography from the Minor Arcana. For example, the four railroads are represented by the four Knights, their mounts symbolizing pre-industrial transportation. Play money is provided in the form of coin/pentacle cards. The game's debut will be announced on my MysteryArts.com site.
Meanwhile, my ongoing series for Pentacle Magazine, on using maps of the universe as divination templates, is available for free reading on my website (http://www.mysteryarts.com/magic/articles.php?pentacle-1). A softcover edition of my dictionary of magic words will be published this fall by Red Wheel/Weiser (http://www.redwheelweiser.com). My new Zen version of Rock-Paper-Scissors is available as an online game as well as in book form (http://www.MoonFishOcean.com). And my field guide to identifying unicorns by sound (http://oneletterwords.com/unicorn) will soon feature audio practice sessions for active listening, relaxation, and meditation.
BC: What advice do you have for those in the world of Tarot? How do you see Tarot developing, and how can we as individuals best place it in our lives?
CC: May the Tarot of Portmeirion inspire untold other decks and travel guides showcasing the Tarot archetypes at play in villages and cities around the world. May more Tarot artists embrace three-dimensional representations, as H. R. Giger and J. Karlin have discussed. May life-size reproductions of Tarot iconography (following the example of Alejandro Jodorowsky) facilitate deeper, finer understanding.
I want to thank Craig for sharing his time and his wisdom with us. To learn more about
"Trump L'Oeil: Tarot of Portmeirion", or to order the deck and accompanying art book, please visit his website.
© 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.