Pamela Colman Smith is the artist who created arguably the world’s most recognizable tarot deck. Although, the Rider Waite deck wasn’t the first tarot deck with illustrated pips, her artwork is so down to earth and classic, it’s hard *not * to relate to them. The deck is named “Rider Waite” because of the then publisher, Rider & Company and the author who commissioned her work in 1909, Arthur Waite. Happily, US Games have rereleased the deck and renamed the new version (with the old pictures) the Waite-Smith tarot.
Her early art was full of illustrations for sheet music and books of poetry, as well as plays and folk stories. She was influenced by the different cultures she experienced in Europe, America and Jamaica. In the early 1900’s, her friend, William Butler Yeats (poet) introduced her to mysticism in the form of the Order of the Golden Dawn. Pamela began to create illustrations of Irish fairies and claimed to have seen them. I believe her. She likely had synysthesia, which is the production of a sense impression by stimulation of another – ie – hearing colors or painting music.
Her friends included JM Barrie – author of Peter Pan – and many other artists, actors and authors of the time. Pamela was described as “goddaughter of a witch and sister to a fairy”. She had many lovers and was quite openly queer. She lived a bohemian lifestyle, surrounded by art and friends. She would gather her people together in her home to tell stories and sing with them.
She was involved in the woman’s suffrage movement and illustrated posters for the War Refugee Fund of WWI. Although she was a prolific artist, she never succeeded financially. She died at age 73.
As Mary K “Mothaf&ckin” Greer said at NWTS this year, if you reduce Pamela to her ending – penniless and alone – you erase her amazing life. She was very much her own person, and people described meeting her as ‘truly enchanting’.
I wanted to write about Pamela because it’s important to know your history. When you touch your cards, you need to know who birthed them. She was the Mother of Modern Tarot, and her work has made our work possible. This article by Beth Maiden of Little Red Tarot is fantastic. Get to know your Mother, guys.