Interview with Robin Wood
by Alex B. Crowther
Robin Wood is one of the Tarot world's recognised artists. The creator of the self-titled Robin Wood Tarot, Robin was also the illustrator for many of Scott Cunningham's Wicca themed books. A Wiccan herself, Robin Wood's deck transpires the mundane experience of living to elevate the reader through the esoteric artwork of Wicca in her deck. An accomplished artist, Robin Wood's talents are more than pen and ink drawings, she now has some beautiful computer art available for viewing on her website.
Let's start by discussing your Tarot deck. It is a beautiful rendition of your artwork. When was your first experience with using Tarot and what were the circumstances involved?
Thank you. I first picked up the Tarot in Okinawa, Japan, in 1980. I was there as a military wife, and was just beginning to study Wicca. I wanted to broaden my horizons, and I was hungry for esoteric stuff; but there wasn't a lot available there. I did find a Rider-Waite deck, though, and Eden Grey's book to go along with it, and started to explore.
Your deck has a definite period feel to it, say the 1970's or at least late 1960's. For those of our members who weren't quite around then (I wish I was one of them *smile*), when did you start to work on creating the Robin Wood Tarot and why?
You think so? I haven't heard that one before. I started work on my deck in 1980, almost as soon as I saw that first Rider-Waite. I didn't like the art on it, couldn't relate to much of the symbolism, and thought the colours were too dull for words. So I started to imagine my own symbols and colours on the deck. It wasn't long before I started to paint the pictures I was imagining on a blank deck I ordered from the States. I sent bad xerox copies back home to my friends, and several told me that they wanted my deck.
Since I knew that I didn't have a hope of being able to pay for colour separations, and I thought this was just going to be for a handful of friends, I decided to make pen and ink drawings instead of the tiny little paintings, and let the people who wanted the deck colour it themselves. In fact, I wound up selling several hundred colouring books of the Major Arcana (although a number of the cards evolved after that point,) and several hundred more complete black and white decks with the final designs on them.
When I sold the deck to Llewellyn, I sent them a painting of the Fool, and also the pen and ink with collared pencil, so they would have a choice. I did tell them that I would prefer to do the pen and ink style, however, because of the ease of black and white reproduction for books and things. And that, of course, is what they agreed to.
This leads us to Scott Cunningham. You did the illustrations in most of his books. Can you tell us a bit about your professional relationship with Scott Cunningham, how you came to be the illustrator of his books etc?
That was completely Llewellyn's doing. Terry Buske, who was the art director there at the time, gave me the interiors of Scott's Magical Herbalism to redo, and liked the "faux nouveau" style that I used for them. Eventually, I wound up doing most of his books, as you said.
Usually, there is no relationship at all between an author and the artist who is commissioned by the publisher to work on that author's books. Remember, from the point of view of publishers, artists are really just part of packaging.
However, in this case, I eventually did get to meet Scott on the phone, and we became friends. I had been illustrating his books for several years by that point. I don't remember talking much about the illustrations, though. That was really Terry's job, and she was very, very good at it. Scott and I talked about everything else under the sun, as friends do.
The only "professional" work I did with Scott was on the 1993 Magical Almanac. That year, he and Raymond Buckland wrote articles for the almanac, and I decorated it, wrote bits to fill in odd empty spaces, and laid it out in Quark. (In fact, I wound up giving Llewellyn camera-ready copy.) For that project, we called each other up, brainstormed, and just collaborated. It was fun, although his health was already failing by then.
In fact, while we are speaking about Scott, I have to tell you that the last conversation I had with him was a few weeks before he died. We were talking about what we were working on, and he told me that he had no idea what to write next. He had said everything that he wanted to say. I take comfort from that; I miss him still.
Your Wicca experience lends a great deal of influence to your Tarot deck and the artwork that you do. When and how did you becoming an initiate of the Wicca tradition?
For me, as for so many others, finding Wicca was like coming home. Everything I had always thought and believed, deep inside, was beautifully expressed in this faith.
I was raised as a Plymouth Brethren (a very strict Christian sect.) I was introduced to Wicca by my now ex-husband in 1979. He had been very secretive about his religion; just telling me bits and pieces and snippets. Then he let it slip that he was in a coven. It was a huge jolt.
But I realized at once that if he was a witch, then witches couldn't possibly be what I had been raised to think that they were. So I walked out into a field, and prayed to Jesus, asking if I was his kid. The answer I got was what I always got; nothing.
So I prayed to the Lady, and asked if I was her kid. And I felt the universe hugging me. There is no other way to describe it. I was instantly enfolded in such love and comfort and joy that I burst into tears. I have never looked back.
I was initiated by my ex a year and a half later. By that time, we were married and living on Okinawa, as I mentioned earlier. When we returned to the states, we joined a group, and I got more training. In fact, over the years, I've belonged to several groups in several traditions, and I've learned a great deal from all of them. The tradition we practice now is an eclectic one.
This is a question a lot of readers are intrigued about. Why are most of the people on your Tarot cards blonde?
The short answer is that they aren't, unless your definition of blonde is different from mine. There are 84 people with visible hair on my deck. 28 of them are blonde, 10 are red heads, 27 have brown hair, 14 have black hair, and 5 have grey or white hair.
Unless you consider a third to be most, then most don't have blonde hair.
However, when I was drawing the deck, I had several things in mind. Remember, there is nothing on any of the cards that is not symbolic in some way. When I was working on the Major Arcana, I used hair colour as a marker for duality. People with dark hair are those whose message or knowledge is secret or hidden; those who are showing moonlight forces at work. People with light hair are those whose message or knowledge is revealed or open; those who are allied with the sun. It's just the way my brain works, in visual puns. Light heads for revealed knowledge. Dark heads for hidden knowledge. Red hair for wilfulness and fiery temperaments. White or grey for years spent doing whatever the person is doing.
So, for example, you have the Magician and the High Priestess with dark hair, to show that their wisdom is esoteric and mystical. Then you have the Sun and the Fool with light hair, to show that theirs is completely open; what you see is what you get. The hanged man has light hair because he is revealing things from a different viewpoint. That sort of thing.
The one exception to this is the Star. I thought about giving her black hair, to show that she was part of the night. Except that it felt wrong. She needed to be blonde, so she could shine as brightly as possible. So I made her that way.
Working with the Minors, I more or less kept to the traditional colouring for the suits. Swords with dark hair and light eyes, wands with blonde or red hair and dark eyes, cups with light hair and light eyes, and pentacles with dark hair and dark eyes. Of course, you can't really see most of the eye colours; but they are there.
The exceptions among the minors are cards where I decided that the hidden/revealed was more important than the suit colour; for instance on the 2 of cups, where I wanted to show the duality.
It never occurred to me that there would be people who would be offended by the hair colour I chose to give people. That seems so silly to me. If you don't like the deck because you think too many of the people are blonde, don't buy it. There are plenty of others to choose from.
I'm used to seeing blonds all over the place. And remember, I live right next to Detroit. Many of those blonde hairs are on African Americans. Hair colour, at this point in history, is pretty much completely a matter of choice.
You have made an obvious change to the Minor Arcana in that the Swords are Fire and the Wands are Air. Could you explain this and how it relates within your deck?
This isn't a change. The Rider-Waite deck, and many, many others, use these correspondences as well. In fact, so many decks are this way that I wasn't aware, when I first began to work on the deck, that there were any that used the Wands/Air, Swords/Fire system.
It was pointed out to me by a friend almost as soon as I got back to the States, and started to show the first designs for the Court cards around. He told me that many decks had it "wrong," and he instructed me to get it "right" and use Wands/Air, Swords/Fire. His rational was that wands would burn up in fire. (I thought that was part of the point.)
I thought and meditated for quite a while on the topic, and read everything I could find about the controversy. The arguments for both sides seemed equally valid. Finally I came to the conclusion that, when you got right down to it, I was doing the cards for me. (At the time, I had no idea that the deck would ever be published.) I have had problems with my lungs since infancy, and it often hurts to breathe. It hurts like knives, not like bludgeons. So, for me, air (especially cold air) is exactly like a sword. It made sense, then, to keep that interpretation.
However, just for Jamie, I made the wands out of crystal and silver, so they wouldn't burn.
An interesting comment you make on your website "....I advise you not to look at the booklet, for my deck or for any others. I find it works far better to look at the card, and assign it the meaning that feels right for that particular reading." You have written a book discussing this (and I would urge people to get it), but could you briefly explain why you approach the Tarot from this prospective?
It has to do with the way I think the Tarot works. Briefly, our unconscious minds are open to the Universe, and the unconscious minds of others. So, in a very real sense, we already know all the answers at that level. The trick is to get that level to the conscious mind.
When you look at a Tarot card without a cut and dried "meaning" memorized, it allows your unconscious mind to point out the symbols on the card that are important in that reading, at that time. It also allows you to have a visceral reaction to the card, which can tell you a lot.
You see, we have three ways of collecting knowledge; our minds, our emotions, and our bodies. When we pay attention to all three, we can triangulate pretty well, and get a fairly accurate picture of what is going on. When we ignore one or two, our assessment of a situation, and our decision about how act in that situation, can be very faulty.
So, when you read the Tarot using the symbols on the cards you have chosen as the book, instead of printed meanings, you will find that certain things are popping out at you; often things you never noticed on that card before. For example, in my deck, you might look at the 6 of Cups and see that there is a knight in armour on the wall behind the boy, where you never noticed it before. This might give you the feeling that the person you are reading for is waiting for a knight in shining armour to rescue her. Or you may see the shields on the cups, and feel that the querens is using naiveté and innocence as a protective device. Those things are not in any of the meanings in a book. But if you pay attention to them, your readings will be more accurate.
There are obvious similarities to the Rider-Waite deck in the Robin Wood Tarot, however I would suggest you have made yours still quite unique due to the Wiccan theme. How instrumental was Arthur Waite and Pamela Smith in your experience with your deck and the your reading technique?
Well, as I've said, it was the first deck I had, and the only one I had ever seen when I first began to design mine. But I finished that process over the course of ten years, and I had seen hundreds of decks, and read dozens of books about the Tarot, by the time it was done.
I think that there are more differences between my deck and the Rider-Waite than there are similarities. After all, I put a lot of thought into the symbolism on each one of those cards. As I said, there is nothing on any of them just for design or "pretty." Even the expressions on the faces are deliberate devices to elicit the visceral reaction I wanted to associate with that card.
Still, I did decide, after a great deal of thought, to keep the same suits, names, and numbers as the Rider-Waite deck. The symbols and situations that I kept are, in nearly all cases, common to a large number of decks down through the years. When I found that those symbols resonated with what I found to be the meaning of the card, I didn't see any reason to change them.
There is a kind of esoteric inertia; things that have been done for many years flow more easily in their usual channels, and it seems sensible to me to take advantage of that.
When I read, I usually just use a plain old Celtic Cross. It's always worked well for me, and, as I said, I don't change things just to change them. That is too often counter-productive. When I change something, it's for a very good reason.
There are other Wiccan-type decks around, how does yours differ from these?
I have no idea. Most of them were printed after mine was done, and I haven't seen them.
See, the thing about designing a deck is that you get to live through each card. It's not easy, but when you are finished, you have internalised all of it. This means that now, in order not to see the patterns in the world around me, I have to close my eyes, cover my ears, and sing, "I can not hear you! La la la la la!"
This means that I very rarely read the cards these days. When I do, I use my own deck. After all, I designed the thing to speak directly to my own unconscious, and it does so very well.
It is a source of constant amazement to me that it speaks to the unconscious minds of so many others, too.
I have asked this question in many of my interviews and as you may have guessed the answers are varied, but in your experience and opinion what are the origins of the Tarot?
There is a very good book about this. It's called, "A Wicked Pack of Cards," and was written by Ronald Decker, Theirry Depaulis, and Michael Dummett. According to Amazon.com, it's out of print at the moment, but you might be able to find it at your local library.
The Tarot started as a card game in Italy in the fifteenth century. It's still a card game all over Europe. A very convoluted, complex game, which totally captured its audience, because people like convoluted, complex things.
It started being used for occult purposes in France in the late 18th century.
But, at this point in history, it has become as esoteric as anything. People have been pouring esoteric meaning into it for over two hundred years, and thousands of decks have been designed with those meanings in mind.
In my opinion, how it began isn't nearly as important as what it's become.
Besides, the Universe is so eager to get information across to us that we could do divination with bottle caps! All that is really required is a willingness to listen, and it will tell us everything that we want to know. Sometimes, however, we don't want to listen, because what it has to tell us isn't something that we want to hear. Often that information would require work or change on our part, or would quash the expectations that we have built up. So we ignore it.
This is why you will have people coming to you over and over again with the same question if you let them. The answer never changes, but they keep hoping that it will. Kind of like opening the 'fridge over and over, hoping that something you want to eat will have magically appeared there. (grin)
We mostly recognise there are three main Tarot systems (ie Marseilles/Visconti, Rider-Waite and Thoth). Whilst your deck may be compared to Rider-Waite (I might suggest the Wicca tradition is a fourth system) do you see the Tarot as losing its esoteric value due to commercialism?
No, I don't, because of the answer given above.
I've never understood why commercialism is such an issue, anyway. If you don't want to buy something, don't buy it! If you think something is too flashy and glossy for you, pass it up in favour of something else that suits your own taste.
When I look at what other people see as commercialisation, I don't see exploitation. I see expanded choices. I like choices. The last I heard, there were over 5000 tarot decks in print, with more coming out every week. I think it's great. With all those choices available, anyone who wants a deck should be able to find one that really suits them.
On the subject of Wicca. Much debate has been around concerning the meaning of Wicca. For example only women are called Wicca, the origins of Wicca, what it means to be Wiccan. Could you tell us what it means to be Wiccan from your perspective and how it compares to the path of a solitary witch.
LOL. So, do you want an interview here, or do you want another book?
In my opinion, which is only mine, Wicca is a religion. Anyone who says that they are Wiccan is; just the way that anyone who says that they are Christian is. Of course, there are those who say that this one or that one isn't really Wiccan, just as there are those who say that this one or that one isn't really Christian. But I'm not about to judge the quality of anyone else's experience with their Deity.
For me, being Wiccan means being a Priestess of the Goddess and God. It's who I am, and what I do. This is the position from which I view the world and everything in it.
This doesn't change, whether I'm working with a large group, a small group, or by myself. For me, there is no difference between being Wiccan and being a solitary practitioner. Sometimes I'm solitary; sometimes for years at a time. Sometimes, as now, I'm primarily working only with my family. Sometimes I have a teaching group with fifteen members. Sometimes I find myself involved with large, public rituals.
But it's always the same me, and the same Goddess and God. What makes me Wiccan is my relationship with them, and that doesn't change.
What is your opinion on words like wizard, warlock, magician?
Like anything else, it depends on the context. None of these words offend me; but then, very little does. (I can't think of anything right off hand. Things that make me sad, yes. But not things that offend me.)
I know a number of magicians. No other word adequately describes them, and what they do. Ceremonial magic is just that, and Magician is the proper term.
Warlock actually means "traitor;" but when it's used as a term for a male witch it's usually not meant as an insult. I can forgive quite a bit of ignorance. After all, we were all ignorant of most things at some point.
The book written by Janina Rennee titled Tarot Spells uses your deck as the illustrations. Do you use Tarot spells and, for the novice, what is your advice regarding the use of Tarot spells.
I agreed to let Llewellyn use my deck for that book before I saw the manuscript. After I saw it, I wished that I had refused; but a contract is a contract.
In my opinion several of the spells in that book are unethical, dangerous, and/or stupid. For instance, spells that cause a particular individual to fall in love with you.
Magical ethics are no different than ethics in other realms. If you think it would be unethical to put a gun to someone's head and force them do something, it's just as unethical to force them by any other means, including magic.
I wrote a whole book about ethics, called When, Why... If because of Janina Rennee's book. It's a long story, and I'll spare you here. But my advice would be not to use any spells like that.
In fact, if you are a novice, I would recommend not doing spellwork at all. Study with someone who knows what they are doing first. Otherwise, you can get yourself in serious trouble. This goes double for anyone who has tried a spell, and gotten a blinding headache afterwards.
Do you have any plans of writing another Tarot related book?
Yes, I still plan to write a book of spreads and exercises some day. Real Soon Now. But I'm working on the Philosophy book, and I want to finish that one first.
If there was one thing in this world you could change (we'll pretend you have the power and influence to make any changes as you see fit), what would it be and why?
I would have Critical Thinking taught in every school, at every level, all over the planet, beginning in kindergarten.
Most of the people I meet have no idea how to think clearly, openly, and objectively about anything. It's a skill, like any other, and can be learned. If you don't know it, you are easy prey for people who would manipulate you, and for propaganda machines. If you do, you can easily point to the logical fallacies in their arguments, and not be swayed.
As I mentioned earlier, I believe that we need to pay attention to our intellect, our emotions, and our bodies. This isn't possible if you cannot use one of them. We are being taught now to recognize our emotions; to name them and own them, and this is, I think, a good thing. But we need to know how to use our minds as well, and at this point there is a lot of pressure not to do that. Many institutions and society at large are telling us to listen to our appetites, and not to think; just to do what we are told to do. To substitute emotions for intellect, instead of tempering intellect with emotions.
It's a dangerous situation, because it allows a huge imbalance as a few make decisions for many. And those few seldom have the welfare of the many in mind; they are usually working only for themselves.
If everyone could think, and was encouraged to do so, and encouraged to use their voice, then I think that together we could work through most of the other problems in the world.
If you were stuck on a desert island and could only have one Tarot card with you, which one would it be and why?
The blank card, so I could write a note asking for help, and put it in a bottle.
I'm sorry; but I can't think of what use any individual card would be on a desert island.
If you actually mean, "Which is your favourite card?" I don't have one. I have a few least favourites (the 10 of Swords springs to mind,) but no favourite.
Who would you regard as one of the greatest influences of the Tarot in the 20th/21st century and why?
Probably Stuart Kaplan, from US Games, oddly enough; simply because he has made so many decks so widely available.
What advice can you offer to our members in regards to their experience and use of the Tarot?
First, figure out what your own, personal symbol set is, and find a deck that uses those symbols. You will know when you find it, because it will seem to speak to you.
Don't be afraid to change decks. Our own symbol set can change over time, as we have different experiences that colour the way we look at the world around us. For this reason, you may find that a deck that you have always used no longer seems to fit as well. This is fine.
Follow your own instincts. If someone tells you have to do something that doesn't feel right to you, think about why they may have said that. You might learn something valuable. But don't do it unless it feels right. Just because it's right for them doesn't mean it's right for you. All three channels, remember?
Set limits. Don't read when you are too tired, and don't endlessly answer the same question for the same person. (Not even for yourself.) Nothing new will be in that fridge until someone puts something new in there. Things in your life aren't likely to change for the better until you change them. Looking and looking and looking and not doing anything does nothing but waste time.
Release your expectations. Too often, we build up such elaborate scenarios in our minds that we cannot accept the reality when it happens. (Even if it's really better.) This is self-defeating. The older I get, the more I see this as a problem. We build bad scenarios, and arrange self-fulfilling prophecies. We build rosy ones, and feel cheated (or inadequate) when they don't happen just the way we imagined them. Remember, we all have free will; billions of us. This makes for a very fluid and exciting world. So pay attention as it unfolds, instead of telling yourself stories about what you expect to happen. Your readings, (and your life,) will be the better for it.
Keep a journal. You will be able to see how accurate your readings are, and improve the accuracy, as you compare what you saw to what actually happened. It's the best way I know of to hone your instincts, and to really learn the language of your own unconscious mind.
Have fun! Life is too short to be serious all the time. If you are not enjoying something that you do, figure out what about it can be enjoyable, or figure out a way to stop doing it. Being miserable all the time isn't good for the soul after all.
© Alex B. Crowther
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