Adam J. Kurtz on Creating a Tarot Deck for Everyone
Adam J. Kurtz talks about his latest Kickstarter project, an inclusive, religion- and gender-agnostic tarot deck.
Adam J. Kurtz describes his work as “making magic out of paper.” OK Tarot, his seventh Kickstarter project, takes that idea literally.
For him, the magic of the deck goes beyond the obvious; it’s also about connecting to the rich history of tarot. “I loved being able to make something that is tied to a culture and a legacy that goes back way before our time,” Kurtz says. “I feel like I’m contributing to something that is much bigger than myself, and if that isn’t in the spirit of tarot, then I don’t know what is.”
Unlike the traditional Rider-Waite tarot deck, Kurtz’s deck is devoid of religious or gendered iconography. It’s illustrated in the trademark spare and gestural style he’s developed in his books, patches, prints, pins, and planners, which celebrate the art of creative expression through playful, light-hearted images and messages. (Take, for example, his Unsolicited Advice weekly planners, which offer creative exercises and words of encouragement alongside “gentle nagging you didn’t ask for,” like reminders to drink more water and take a breath when times get tough.)
Although the OK Tarot deck has the look and feel of something drawn quickly by hand, Kurtz put time and care into its development. Here, he talks about how he started the project and how it evolved through feedback from tarot experts and enthusiasts.
— Rebecca Hiscott
Kickstarter: How did the OK Tarot project come about? What inspired you to make it?
Adam J. Kurtz: The idea started as a surprise gift for my husband, Mitchell, who has been interested in tarot since he was a teenager. I love things that encourage people to find magic in their daily lives. I think it’s emblematic of larger trend right now: astrology, tarot, horoscopes, it’s all tied to self-care practice. We “millennials” — please note the sarcasm in my voice — we’re getting older, we’re more aware of the world, and we’re realizing that to get through this life, there needs to be something, and it’s up to each of us to find what that thing is. These kinds of individual rituals can [offer] guidance, clarity, or a sense of calm. I hoped that my OK Tarot deck could do that.
You talk on the project page about your decision to make the deck both religion- and gender-agnostic. Why was that important to you?
When I was first introduced to tarot, when you’re first looking at the cards, it’s really hard to not see a bunch of white dudes with crosses everywhere. It’s not just crosses — there’s religious iconography from ancient Egypt, there’s elements of Judaism, there is a lot of religion in these cards. I think it’s a product of the time that it was born out of. I’m thinking of the classic Rider-Waite deck, which is over 100 years old — it feels really out of touch with current reality.
It seemed really important to make a deck that was devoid of that [imagery] so that people could find themselves in it. We need broader representation, and my way of doing that is no representation. My way of doing that is just using hands. In that way, the cards are an extension of whoever is using them.
What you’re doing is also part of a bigger movement of people interpreting and updating tarot cards in various ways. Did you think about that as you were designing the deck?
Yeah. There are so many cool tarot decks out there, and that’s something that I really love about [tarot]. There are hundreds of decks, and people collect them. Different decks may bring a different energy to people’s readings.
Something that I’m always concerned about as a creative is to not be stepping on anyone else’s toes. I did a lot of research into decks that were out there on Kickstarter. I wanted to be sure that I was making something that was uniquely me, that was representative of who I am as an artist and my aesthetic sensibilities, but that was also different enough that you could have a really cool deck from another project creator or another artist and also have mine to accompany it.
I also wanted to make a deck that fits with my existing body of work, which is all about self-care practice and finding that small magic [in life]. My interactive journals, my planners, my most recent book are all about this tactile [experience]. It’s all about pencil on paper, holding a book, reading a thing. In that way, a tarot deck is just another extension of making magic out of paper.
The name “OK Tarot” seems like a perfect representation of your artistic style and sensibility. How did you choose that name?
When I first had the idea in 2016, I did an extremely rough sketch and I tweeted, “Hey everyone, what if I made a shitty tarot deck?” This wasn’t a commentary on tarot, it was a commentary on my artistic ability. As the project continued, as I went from these sketches to a more robust idea, there was the idea of [calling it] “Not That Shitty Tarot” and then “Pretty Good Tarot.”
I asked a friend of mine, “What do you think?” I was torn between “Pretty Good Tarot” or “Not Bad Tarot,” or other ways of addressing the fact that this isn’t an intricately illustrated deck, this isn’t going to have foil printing and embossing and letterpress. It’s just okay. It’s not amazing. She was with some friends of ours, and a minute later she was like, “Our friend James says you should call it ‘OK Tarot.’” As soon as I got that text I was like, “That’s it!” I love the word “OK.” I love the simple syllables of it. So it really came from this group [approach].
That’s true of the design, too. Because I am new to tarot, I didn’t want to just show up and be like, “Hey y’all, I’m making this thing that I think is cute.” I looked to my own friends, my online support networks, and my own audience, and was able to get feedback from people who not only like me and my work but are also deeply involved with tarot. I got constructive feedback to add layers of meaning, details like the number of points on the star or the type of flower illustrated on certain cards, to make sure that it was all the right fit.
It’s in my nature to create things very quickly. That’s part of the magic, I think, of what I do: I make work that is executed fast and is entrenched with this human touch and is often very reactive and responsive to current events or to a strong emotional burst. But with this deck, I put a lot more into it, to make sure that I could do something that really deserved to exist. That’s also what brought me to Kickstarter.
Tell me more about that — why did you bring the OK Tarot deck to Kickstarter?
I chose to do OK Tarot as a Kickstarter project because I knew that I wanted to make this project, but just because you want to make something, it doesn’t mean that other people want it — especially for something like tarot, where, for the most part, I’m an outsider. Kickstarter was an opportunity to be really democratic and see if people cared about this and wanted this. It really wasn’t until hitting my goal on the first day — which was nuts! — that I was like, “Okay, this is a good thing.” I was waiting for that feedback from the community.
Do you have a favorite illustration in the deck?
I love the Fool card. It really represents my own understanding of the Fool. I chose a depiction using the classic dunce cap, which is usually given as a punishment. But in this case, I added the word “bliss” to it. This represents my own perspective on life, which is that ignorance can be bliss. Sometimes being stupid is the best way forward. I don’t think that we can turn a blind eye to the events in the world. I don’t think we can turn a blind eye to reality. But sometimes being a little bit dumb is an act of self-preservation and a way to get through.
Also, in many of the classic decks, the Fool is carrying a flower. [In this deck] no one is holding the flower, the flower is just present. This represents the Fool’s desire to seek out beauty in the world. Of course, that can’t be the guiding force in your life. But I do think that if you’re someone who can find beauty in the world, then you’re someone who can get through. You’re someone who can create their own happiness.
Life is hard, and I think the Fool card really embodies that. It’s us trying to get through this life, this world that seems to get harder and harder the more aware of injustices we become. To me, the Fool represents my own hope. It’s like a prayer for myself: I hope to continue being able to find and create and enjoy the little things.