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Interview with Karen Mahony & Alex Ukolov

by Dan Pelletier

As interest in tarot continues to spread worldwide, more and more individuals have sought ways of expressing their own world-view through the cards. The creation and publication of new tarot decks is at an all-time high, albeit with a mixed variety of results.

However, one rising star that has caught the attention of the tarot community is Baba* studios. Located in the Czech Republic, this small publishing firm has developed a well-deserved reputation for solid research and quality products. Karen Mahony and Alex Ukolov, the creative forces behind the company's success, recently agreed to answer some questions about their noteworthy Tarot of Prague for our article library -- and to provide a bit of a "sneak peek" into a couple of their upcoming projects as well. Tarot Garden's Dan Pelletier corresponded with Karen and Alex to compile the following interview.

Tell us a bit about yourselves.

Karen: Yes, you're right of course, that's a good place to begin. We are both inclined to be quite private, which is why we've put so little about ourselves on our web site.

However, to begin (as I'd better begin somewhere): Alex is from Yalta, in the Crimea -- a beautiful part of Russia on the Black Sea and with a warm Mediterranean climate (though it's now part of the Ukraine in fact, but Alex is Russian - calling him Ukrainian would be a bit like calling a Scotsman English!).

I'm from Belfast, but moved to England when I was seventeen - my parents hated "the troubles" and decided to move away. I'm still an unashamed "peacenik" - being brought up with violence can make you particularly opposed to all forms of it.

I have had connections with Prague going back some years. Some of these are family connections, and I've also worked here a few times (most memorably doing a week-long session teaching Georgians web design skills about five years ago - challenging and lots of fun). I found that the more I came here, the more attached to the place I became. When one evening I flew out of Prague in tears, I realized my emotions were telling me something that it took a while for my rational brain to go along with -- that I really wanted to live here!

At about the same time, I had one of those opportunities in life that are born of what seem like misfortune (my mother always says that when you look back in life, many of the things you thought were horribly bad luck turn out to be very positive turning points). I was running my own successful and quite large web design company in the center of London, but the work suddenly began to dry up dramatically when the "dot-com bust" happened in 2000/2001. I have to admit that after my initial worries, I saw this as one huge relief, and a kind of excuse to do what I wanted to anyway. So I "moth-balled" the company (we never actually went out of business and we were very careful to offer the employees every support), gave what clients/jobs I still had to the guys who wanted to carry on -- and, as a good friend said, "ran away to Prague to begin the great adventure."

I'll also say, as this is a tarot audience so you won't think it sounds odd, that I also had some deep-down feeling that I somehow had to go to Prague. I did do a reading before I finally moved here and it said -- twice (yes, I did what I shouldn't and made a second reading to check, as I was so surprised!) that I would meet a man with whom I would both fall in love with and work. This seemed very unlikely, and was not at all what I had in mind, so I didn't think much more about it. Then, just two months after coming here, a friend said he knew a Russian designer who I should meet. All I can say is - the cards were right!

Alex: So as you already know I am Russian. A bit unpredictable, a bit weird, a bit too emotional with very strong feelings about doing what I love to do no matter what people around me think about it. I came to Prague with an Eastern wind, bringing only books and tools with me. It was my hope to find something very unusual to do. When I was young, I was reading European fairy tales and I was imagining Prague as mysterious city full of unusual smells, sounds and lights -- possibly even magicians and ghosts. Sometimes it seems to be true in Prague. So I believed if you have a dream and you want it to come true, follow your heart. Even it doesn't seem very sensible.

I have been trained in art for 13 years (proper Russian education system!), so I have much, sometimes useless, knowledge in design. I took a psychology course at the Art college and a philosophy course at the University.

I think this helped me to keep afloat when I was doing very boring advertising work. I was selling the surrealistic painting of my Russian friend at the same time to cheer myself up. Then I met Karen and realized that she is an unusual as me (which I couldn't believe in the beginning). Then we quite quickly understood we should stick together doing what we both love, because it's like meeting a yeti -- it doesn't happen everyday in your life. And I feel absolutely happy mixing art, mystery, symbolism, and philosophy every single day of my life.

Why a Tarot of Prague? What was the impetus for creating such a deck?

Karen: Well, Prague is a focal point, but it's also more than that. It's a very unusual place, right at the center of the continent and a real crossing point of East and West Europe. Notoriously, it just grabs some people. As Kafka said, "Prague is a dear mother with claws," and it tends to keep pulling them back. So what I'm saying is that both Alex and I are here partly for rational reasons and partly for emotional ones. We were grabbed by the city, definitely.

So, what was the impetus for creating the deck? I'd say first that it isn't just based on architectural imagery. We wanted the cards to really communicate how Prague feels, so we used the art and landscape as well as the architecture. This may seem a small point, but to us it's quite an important one. There was a real range of imagery, including simply the amazing views that you get all over the city, that we wanted to include.

Why a deck about Prague? To begin with, it's one powerful way for us to work through our own feelings about the place -- that was one of the primary reasons for doing the deck. Also, the project allowed us to draw on our complementary skills. Alex is really the person who can put images together visually, while I tend to focus on the outline design -- broadly what should be in each image, what the "tone" should be. We liked the fact that tarot also let us use our mutual interests in myth, fairy-story and symbolism in a way that little other work could.

But first and foremost, Prague simply should have a deck. I'd seen some of the decks designed for other towns and cities (mostly in Italy and France) and Alex and I both knew that Prague has a much deeper and richer tradition of magic and the esoteric than almost anywhere else in Europe. For example, it really was the absolute center of alchemy in Europe during the reign of Rudolph II. I have to say that one thing that really provoked us into doing the deck in 2002/3 was the thought that if we didn't, someone else would -- and maybe in a way that wouldn't do the city justice. I suppose we felt (I hope this isn't arrogance) that we would probably do it much better than someone who just wanted to produce a deck as a tourist thing.

Alex: For me, the process started when I began to take photos, because it was an astonishing time of discovering treasures. It was like finding a goldmine of imagery. At some points I felt like a madman who couldn't stop photographing. At every step, there was so much that I wasn't sure how to deal with it all. Of course, it was difficult when I realized that some photographs I thought would be easy to use actually didn't go very well with each other -- because they were different styles, epochs, medias and so on. So the hardest thing was to find the right style with which to work with these images. I had to solve the problem of putting things together. I don't mean that in the technical or mechanical sense; putting them together in Photoshop was easy. The issue was to make them work together visually. It wasn't like doing classical collage, in which you use only scissors and fantasy.

The most difficult card for me -- the one that took the longest time before it worked the way I had imagined it -- was The Tower. The image wasn't difficult to create once we had the parts, but as we didn't want to use Photoshop effects for the flames, the big problem was first to find a suitable picture to use. In the end we found it: a very small, original painting in the library of the Strahov monastery.

Technically, some examples of the most difficult cards (in terms of creating the artwork, redrawing the images, combining the elements, etc.) were:

  • The Three of Cups
  • The Nine of Cups
  • The Four of Wands
  • The Three of Wands
  • The Six of Wands
  • The King of Swords
This was usually because the original images were in such bad condition due to dampness, decay, or dirt that I had to digitally restore them before even beginning to work with them.

By the way, my favorite cards are:

  • The King of Swords
  • The King of Cups
  • The Queen of Cups
  • The Knight of Swords

Oh - they are all Court Cards!

In a Tarot deck, we have 78 images. When you began your creation, did the ideas for all of the cards fall into place? Did you find that a few were difficult? Can you tall me a little about how the process for creation actually occurred?

Karen: The honest answer is that in the early days, the ideas didn't fall into place very easily. By Christmas 2002, we thought we had most of the deck finished. But after we took a break and looked again, we actually scrapped about 80-90% of that work and began all over again. That was a hard moment because it felt like wasting so much work. But we knew that this first batch of cards just didn't gel either symbolically or visually. In fact, once we steeled ourselves to begin again, it turned out to be much easier. Probably because we had gained a lot of experience and become more focused on what we really wanted to achieve.

We had particular problems with some cards. I'm not sure why exactly, but I think most deck creators will tell you that they get blocked on certain cards. For us, it was the Knight of Swords in particular. I've told you that I have a strong belief in non-violence, so I do half wonder if that's why I found this particular card so hard. I can't speak for Alex, who may want to make his own comments. Anyway, in the end we realized The Knight of Swords had to be Duke Wallenstein (see below). He made his reputation and his money as a war leader. His palace, which was funded by the spoils of war, is simply full of images of battle -- some of them unusually graphic for this period.

We had to almost completely draw the original picture of Wallenstein to make it suitable for this card. But even so, it made sense for us to use it. For anyone who knows anything about his life, the image gives a very deep resonance to this card. Opinions are mixed as to whether the Duke was a good or bad man (if such a question is even meaningful). What is certain is that he was highly intelligent -- a brilliant General, but also totally ruthless. A very suitable figure for the Knight.

I suppose this example brings up something else that's worth saying about the work on this deck. We felt all the time that we had to think (and feel) hard about how to balance three things:

  1. Meaningful and layered symbolism -- we wanted symbolism that would go on revealing itself over time, rather than always being immediately apparent.
  2. Strong visual imagery -- each card had to work as a total image, but they also had to work together, even though they incorporated such varied periods, styles and media. We didn't try to make them totally visually consistent with one another (to our minds, cities are not visually consistent, and that's part of their charm and interest), but we did want a broad, "family" feel across the whole deck.
  3. A true representation of Prague -- this meant that certain images simply had to be included, which was sometimes hard. For example, if we had not included Vysehrad, the mythical foundation of Prague, it would have felt like leaving out an important part of the story of the city. Yet it was actually quite hard to include this area meaningfully. We spent many hours photographing, but found that only a little was useable.

During the design process, there were wonderful moments of click, when we would suddenly realize that a powerful local symbol was also perfect for a particular card. The bronze relief we used on the Ten of Pentacles is a good example. It is such an icon in Prague, and for a while we couldn't see how to use it. Of course, once we realized how it would fit with this card it just seemed so obvious -- it's perfect. It works on numerous levels too, all of which help to enrich the possible readings of the image. But it's funny how it can take you a long time sometimes to recognize this sort of match. I was so used to knowing that bronze relief in a whole different context (usually with crowds of people waiting in turn to touch it) that I just couldn't see what was under my nose. Interesting!

I'd like to chat about the book that you can get with the deck. Personally I love the book, it's one of the best books that I've ever see to have available with the deck. The 'side' histories and stories provide much more richness to the deck.

Do you have any stories you'd like to share about writing the book?

Karen: Well, it's interesting you should ask about the book. When I was writing it, I thought of it very much as just a necessary explanation of the deck, and therefore as something that would simply enhance the knowledge and enjoyment of the deck.

I expected it to be a long pamphlet rather than anything else. But as I wrote it began to grow -- and grow! In the end, I actually had to edit it down to a reasonable size. I was slightly amazed when I really sat down and thought about how much the book took over and drew me in.

It became, for me, a very absorbing project in its own right. Prague has a fascinating -- and sometimes tragic -- history, and the more I read and saw, the more I wanted to find out. I was at one time a research fellow in a university, so I'm reasonably trained at research -- which really just means, in part, being able to take in and evaluate material efficiently. This did help me a lot as I found the quality of research in the books I read did vary quite a bit. I did as much crosschecking as possible, since I really didn't want our book to simply rehash old mistakes. For example, there is a lot of rubbish written about the alchemists -- where they lived, what they did, etc. -- and it took a lot of work to sort out the truth from the myth. But it was enthralling work to do.

I was really relieved when our Prague Post interviewer complemented us on the accuracy of the book -- and in fact said it was better than most guidebooks written. At that point, I relaxed a bit! I really did want to do Prague justice and felt vindicated by the review -- especially as our reviewer is notoriously critical and does know a lot about local history and belief.

Of course, companion books have to do two rather contradictory things. First, they have to work as a basic introduction to tarot for people who have never come across a deck before. Many of our buyers are visitors to the city and for them it may be a first deck. That's why I put in some easily accessible keywords and summary introductions. Of course these things won't take anyone very far into interpretations, but at least it lets them begin.

But companion books also have to offer something to people who know tarot well and already have their own methods of reading the cards. I think it's the background of the elements we used that give this range and depth for experienced readers. You can read the images entirely intuitively, without knowing anything about them, but I do think that if you begin to understand where each piece comes from then it can usefully (and hopefully excitingly) start whole new trains of thought and imagination.

Have you heard any stories of 'oddities' occurring with the deck?

Karen: Personally, I think any feeling of a special "magic" in the deck is simply drawn from the images. Many of the elements we used have their own very strong history, and I think users pick this up, consciously or subconsciously.

Alex: My belief is that things are able to accumulate a certain kind of energy (emotional, psychic, etc.), even though I don't know how, or what kind of energy it is. It's similar to the way that, if you like what you're cooking, the food will be fantastic -- it has a different energy about it. It's the same as that.

Going to rational things: we know from school that energy doesn't disappear, but instead transforms into different sorts of energy. So I think real objects in some moments can transfer their energy in some ways to an audience. And it depends on people; some of them are more subtle, some are able to feel it.

Why is it that people looking at the same painting, landscape or whatever, may see different objects and get quite different impressions?

It's like the "Jaguar in the Window" that one person reported seeing in our Four of Swords card. We didn't see that possible interpretation until we heard about it. But when we looked again, we saw it. There is indeed the face of a jaguar in the window. So designing cards is partly about provoking people to find what we didn't see or mean ourselves. There are so many cultural, historical, and creative levels in symbols that sometimes it's a very difficult task to understand why a symbol looks so weird and what background is underneath. And the reason for that, I think, is that the world is flexible. It is comprised of moving matter, which transforms things even without you acting on them, as if things begin living their own lives and you may only watch what happens. So I am looking forward to seeing new facts and discoveries about Tarot of Prague deck.

Karen: In thinking about this question about the deck and oddities, it brings to mind some incidents that might be called coincidental or significant happenings. We've had some very odd things happen here, but I never talk about them -- or at most, only the slighter ones. For example, someone came in the other day and asked me where the gate of Hell is supposed to be in Prague, and I didn't tell her. In fact, if you know local mythology -- well, you can kind of work it out. But the friend (a very interesting and quite wild Tartarian) who showed it to us expressly asked us not to show it to others. He absolutely believed that it is a dangerous place at night and I suppose I have to respect that.

I treat odd happenings in general with that kind of respect. In one sense I think, "Oh come on, this is rationally explicable." But in other ways -- well, I'm Irish, and still have a half-belief that if you talk too much you may lose the magic. One way or another, there are things I chose not to speak about -- not in order to be mysterious, but more to protect and respect. In short, I'd simply say: if you want to know about Prague and strange happenings, come here and see for yourself. There are so many stories about experiences people have had here -- but I think for each individual the experience will be different. I don't believe it's a matter of "go to this street at this time and you will see this ghost." Nothing so silly or crass as that. The things I've heard about Prague that interest me are much more subtle and more special to each particular person.

I sometimes think the city has ways of letting certain people visualize their imaginings. For some, this is a frightening experience, for others a beautiful one. You have to remember how old and labyrinthine this place is.

The other day, I found a whole flight of ancient stairs -- quite wide and built of stone. I'd never seen them before, and yet they are very close to where we live. This physical sense of hidden places and the disorientation that the complexity of streets and buildings can bring about do seem, in some way, to free (or puzzle) people's minds. The Moon card relates very well to Prague!

There are two valid approaches to all this, of course. One is the "there are more things in heaven and hell...," which would acknowledge that unexplained things do happen (and might be concentrated around certain objects, places, dates, or people). The other would say that this is all in fact, perfectly logic and rational.

Taking the latter approach, I'd say that the reason people think our cards have a lot of energy in them may simply be because they use a wide variety of very old and powerful symbols from an ancient city -- symbols which in some senses have been "tried and tested" over time and so do carry the ability to move many people. When we made the deck, we very much wanted to capture and communicate this aspect of Prague. It is really full of signs and symbols that, in their own right, evoke a response.

In the end, I don't want to come down firmly as either a believer or a rationalist. I am still trying to work out for myself what I do believe. I'm completely happy for people to use our cards whatever their beliefs. If you think they carry magic, that's good. But if you think they are simply good-looking images that draw on a lot of historical images and symbols, then that's great too. Whatever works for you.

What's in store for the future?

Karen: Of course we'd like to share this. However, as yet we have very little to show. We're actually working on two decks. One we have had planned for some time: The Baroque Bohemian Cats' Tarot. It is still in sketch stage, and we are reluctant to show the sketches publicly as they are very rough and give the wrong impression. However, there are two that are almost complete and will give an idea of the proposed deck's "flavor." The deck uses real cats, some of whom we've come to know well. We want to create a fantasy world, something a little like a dream or a story. It's very important to us (as ever) that this is a reading deck, so although it's light in many ways, it will also have some serious symbolism.

The other deck came very unexpectedly. For some time Alex and I have both been very interested in the work of Zdenek Mezl, an artist here who has a very distinctive style and uses woodblocks of lace-like fineness. His work is technically breathtaking, but equally important is the fact that he draws on many old symbols and traditions -- but in quite a feisty, modern way. We were delighted to find in his work many of the symbols we used in Tarot of Prague -- but redrawn in woodblocks.

When we first met him, there was a mutual enjoyment in finding these elements to which we'd all been attracted. We also realized that we had many of the same books -- although I have to say that Mezl has some old and rare books on the history of cards that I've never seen and would give much for. He did a set of Oracle cards in 1967 (the time of the brief liberation known as the "Prague Spring"), and more recently, a set of Czech Taroky cards.

In any case, we found we have much in common. But we also realized that he is now a very ill man who urged us to work quickly if we want his active collaboration. So this is why this new deck has had to be started much sooner than we would have planned. It won't be an 'easy' deck. But I think it will have a tremendous life and vitality. It's an absolute privilege to be able to work with Zdenek Mezl. He feels his work has rarely been understood outside this Czech region. I do hope we can now bring it to a wider audience -- and I think a tarot audience will understand the sheer quality of his work far better than most people could.

© Dan Pelletier

Dan Pelletier is a co-owner of The Tarot Garden, a most highly respected resource for tarot decks and related information on the Internet.

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