Embracing the Dark Side: Interview with Joseph Vargo and Christine Filipak

by Clare McHale

Self-taught artist and composer Joseph Vargo became fascinated with tarot at an early age when an aunt gifted him a deck of Gypsy Witch fortune telling cards.

This interest increased when Vargo came across the Waite and Marseille decks, "I loved the symbolism in the illustrations and how they could be interpreted a variety of ways depending on how they pertained to a person's life and present circumstances."

But even so, who would've thought that a childhood gift and an artistic streak a mile wide would end up in the dark and sexy Gothic Tarot?

Obviously tarot had taken root, "perhaps I was always subconsciously painting images for The Gothic Tarot", though it wasn't until early 1981 that he considered creating his own deck but, "I just didn't have the patience to commit to such an extensive project... As the years passed... I began thinking that a lot of the images that I had created could be used for a Tarot deck, and since my forte was gothic fantasy art, it stood to reason that my Tarot deck should embrace the darkside".

Vargo's friends felt the same way and badgered him into finally doing something about it.

"Occult author Michelle Belanger is a good friend... she really prodded me about doing the Tarot deck. She even shared some of her concepts about the Major Arcana based on some of my pre-existing paintings. If it wasn't for my friends and fans pushing me to do the project, The Gothic Tarot may have remained in the development stages for quite awhile."

In the beginning Vargo had considered a Majors only deck, but influenced by the Rider Waite decided to include illustrated Minors.

"The Waite Tarot was a milestone deck because it was the first deck to utilize illustrations to depict the Minor Arcana... I wanted the Gothic Tarot to be easy to interpret and comprehend, so it was patterned after Waite's deck.

I have a lot of respect for his artistic ingenuity, and once I began working on the project, I began to realize that Waite had thrown down the gauntlet for anyone who attempted to create their own deck."

The influence of the Marseilles deck is also apparent in the decision to veer from Waite's numbering and make Justice 8 and Strength 11.

"The Tarot itself is centuries old and experts still debate its exact origins. I wanted to create a deck that harkened back to the Old World style... Waite had his own reasons for his decision to change the position of these two cards, but I preferred to go with the older, traditional way."

Vargo also believes in giving credit where it's due, championing the inclusion of artist Pamela Colman-Smith's name when referencing the Rider Waite deck.

"Waite is credited as researching the deck and adapting the Minor Arcana into artwork based on principals of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The artwork was actually done by Pamela Colman-Smith. Somehow down the line, Colman-Smith's name was dropped from the title and the publisher's name was attached to the deck."

Like Waite, Vargo had a partner in tarot; artist and, graphic designer Christine Filipak, but there was never any question of her contribution getting lost in the shuffle.

Vargo even included her in the deck, "I like to think of Christine as my muse... she inspires my creative side. A lot of people comment that several of my blonde, fair-skinned women that I've painted look like Christine. Although it wasn't intentional, it probably was done on a subliminal level. The beautiful spectre in the Eight of Swords, however, is based on a photo of Christine."

A nice tribute, especially as Christine toiled for eight months with Vargo to put together the final version of The Gothic Tarot.

The artwork itself spans Vargo's 10 year career as a professional artist, and the project included intensive research into tarot history as well as other tarot decks. The idea was always to create a usable deck and not just throw together a showcase of Vargo's art, "I wanted to create a deck that was true to the concepts of the Tarot as well as being completely gothic, without sacrificing anything from either concept."

This ethos worked, and as Christine states, "There are several decks that utilize artwork from well-known artists, but the images seem to have little or nothing to do with the actual meaning of the card it is featured on. We really strived to match the artwork to the traditional meaning of the card, albeit with an original gothic theme and connotation."

So how did the Vargo/Filipak partnership evolve? Christine, who is also familiar with tarot, met Vargo through his sister in 1988. At the time she was starting graphic design at college. "I was aware that Joseph was an artist, but I had never really known just how talented he was until one day, a few years later, I peeked into his studio and feasted my eyes upon about a hundred various works with wildly beautiful women, strong, heroic men, and fearsome beasts. I was in complete awe!"

However, it wasn't until 1992 that the pair started working together. "As I neared graduation from college, I began to contribute more of my computer and pre-press knowledge to his projects... Eventually, the Monolith business became so successful that I was able to quit my other design job, which I hated... In 1997, Joseph and I opened a fantasy art gallery in Cleveland called "The Realm." Later that year I began to develop the company website which went online in 1998. "

And while Vargo admits, in his early career, to being heavily influenced by the "primal sensuality" of fantasy art icon Frank Frazetta's work, Christine's influences lean more towards Art Nouveau and Mucha.

Even so there's no clash of styles, in fact as Christine says, "[t]he Art Nouveau movement is not all that different from today's Gothic revival. The lines are more fluid, and the themes seem lighter, but the sense of freedom is the same. There is a definite crossover appeal between both styles."

And Vargo's comments on Gothic literature point to a common romantic streak, "Gothic literature is very romantic at its heart and I think that vampires are the most seductive creatures of the night. For this reason, I try to capture a very sensual mood with many of my depictions of vampires and ghosts."

And while the artwork for The Gothic Tarot is all Vargo's, [though Christine used a computer to design the final cards and add the suit icons], it was she who arguably had the harder job of making sure the deck was unleashed on an unsuspecting world through Monolith Graphics.

There was never any intention of relinquishing control of the project to a larger publisher despite the extra work involved. "Once he [Vargo] made the final decisions as to which images would be used to represent the various cards, my job really began. I did the layout, the type, and prepared the images for printing, and also worked with Joseph to design and write the LWB."

But that wasn't the only thing Christine had to contend with, "Our original printer sent the cards out to another company to die-cut them.... One company refused to do the cutting because they thought the cards were "evil." They said they didn't want anything to do with 'witchcraft'. I just couldn't believe someone had that kind of mindset in this day and age... I called the manufacturer and spoke to him, thinking that if he were to actually meet us, he would see that we are just a couple of artists trying to get some paper cut, but he was a narrow-minded idiot, and so I had to keep looking around.

Another company had no problem with the theme, but just didn't have the proper equipment and messed up an entire batch of 2000 decks, which then had to be re-printed all over again. I finally found a company that wasn't stuck in the Dark Ages and could do the job right."

And once out of the dark ages could the deck do the job? That has to be a resounding yes, though it's not for the faint-hearted, or one you'd whip out any old where in case you frightened the horses!

Vargo isn't keen to fully lift the veil on his brooding work, he prefers to let the deck speak for itself, "The Gothic Tarot is filled with mystical symbolism, but I don't like to reveal all of its secrets unless someone asks me about a specific element. I feel that some things should remain a mystery and open to personal interpretation."

But he kindly threw me a few titbits, "I use skulls to represent death, so usually the more skulls... the more foreboding the place is meant to be."

What about the re-occurrence of the number 3 in the Fool; Magician and Hermit, is it deliberate? "Yes. The Emperor also has 3 brides... there are 3 archways in the Five of Pentacles... the Ten of Cups. I think of life's journey in terms of past, present and future, and the best Tarot decks and readers fully embrace this concept. People consult the Tarot to find out what the future holds and to foresee the outcome of their current situation... The Tarot allows us to examine and learn from the past, enabling us to make the best choices for the path that lies before us. Many of the cards in The Gothic Tarot represent this concept of examining the past, present and future."

And what of the Magician card, one that usually shows a single figure? "A lot of people ask about that... The Magician card may be the best representation of an existing image that was adapted to fit the concept of the card.

I have actually painted three versions of that image for The Gothic Tarot... The altered image represents a powerful magician who has been bestowed with a sword, chalice, wand, and pentacle. He has these mystical objects at his command, and the ritual fire enables him to clearly see into their governing realms.

The inscription on the staircase of the Magician has a much more elaborate history and meaning. The inscriptions in the stairs beneath the hooded figure's feet originally told what each of the six symbolic gifts represented. The symmetrical symbols are actually stylized letters of the English alphabet, vertically mirrored in order to disguise them. Though the symbols are virtually unintelligible at the size the tarot cards were printed, I left the original inscriptions in the steps because I felt they were very appropriate for the Magician".

Another unusual card is The World, "This rendering of a carved relief depicts an imminent clash between the opposing forces of the universe. The central ring marks the earthly arena where the forces of light and darkness intervene in the affairs of men and sway mortals towards good and evil. There's a much more elaborate description of this image and the history behind it in Russell Novotny's short story "Sanctuary" in the Tales From The Dark Tower anthology."

And "The angel that depicts Justice was originally painted in brilliant hues of gold set against a radiant sky. The figure also held a shield in her left hand, which was later replaced by a scale. The enchantress that adorns the Temperance card originally held nothing in her hands as she conjured forth a demon from her fiery cauldron.

The demon was removed from the painting and chalices were later added to her hands. Other cards like the Ten of Swords, The Hanged Man, The Wheel of Fortune and The Chariot were created specifically for the deck, as well as the Aces, Two's and most of the Three's."

The Aces deserve more attention; they're the reason for a mysterious credit in the LWB to a Charles Klimsch. Who it turns out is a little know Victorian artist re-discovered by Christine.

"I discovered... Charles Klimsch from an old reference book... Florid Victorian Ornament… compiled by Karl Klimsch, who I am guessing was the grandson of Charles, and is still published today by Dover as a copyright-free pictorial archive.

The Klimsch family was of German origin and was well known in the early 19th century for their fine engraving work. It is the type of work that, although appreciated, did not garner fame. I see this work and am amazed that such intricacies were possible before the invention of the home computer.

In fact, I have yet to see this kind of detail even today with the aide of technology. We wanted The Gothic Tarot to be completely original, and yet, we felt that the Aces could benefit from an intricate design motif for the background...Joseph drew a detailed rendering of each of the suit icons (the sword, chalice, wand, and pentacle). These images were later set against Klimsch's ornate filigree. I think the end result is an elegant blending of two artistic visionaries."

And do the creators have a favourite card? Christine's is Strength, based on the artwork 'Possessed'.

"It completely embodies the concept of a strong female archetype. She seems at peace with her own nature; her head thrown back, eyes closed, lips partly open, looking quite seductive, while the wind and storm clouds swirl around her; her long flowing gown creating a soft backdrop for the harsh demeanor of the living stone gargoyle that stands alongside her. I see this card and consider that the gargoyle is her protector, while she is ultimately in command of the forces around her."

As it turns out Vargo agrees but states, You know, it's kind of like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite." His second choice The Emperor, "depicts Dracula in his blood-red throne. This one really incorporates a lot of gothic elements and the emperor strikes a commanding presence from their midst."

What about a companion book? Yes, says Christine, but "we have several other projects to complete before we even begin to think about getting started."

On a final note, Vargo admits to including a lovely rendering of Christine in the deck, but did he add himself? "[T]hey say that artists always paint themselves in their own work, so I suppose that a lot of my personal traits do appear in the deck, however, none of the cards are intentional self-portraits."

Note from the Author: I'd like to thank Joseph Vargo and Christine Filipak for kindly answering all the questions on my long list. And special thanks to Christine for making this happen.

© Clare McHale

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