Fool’s Journey: The Fascinating Life of Pamela Colman Smith

For those who don’t know the name, Pamela Colman Smith, she’s the artist behind the most popular tarot deck in the western world, the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot or RWS. This deck is generally referred to as the Rider Waite Tarot, omitting Colman Smith’s name.

via spiritwalkercrystals.com

via spiritwalkercrystals.com

As an artist, she changed the face of tarot, illustrating the world’s first “mass market” deck. And hers was one of the very first to have illustrations on every card in the deck. Her work inspired my life to take this whole different direction, and if you’re reading this, it’s probably had an impact on yours too.

Despite this, she died penniless, in obscurity, as so many women artists did and do. But she was a fascinating, truly original woman, and I want to celebrate her life and give thanks for her work in this article.

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Pamela Colman Smith was born in 1878 in London and was the only child of an American father and a Jamaican mother. She grew up moving between Manchester, London, Brooklyn and Kingston.

Her family were arty, theatrical types and after her mother died Colman Smith joined a theatre group, spending the next five years on stage, touring the US and abroad with them. She also worked as a set designer. For a woman in the early 1900s, that must have been an incredible life. And it had a powerful influence on her work — with its bizarre costumes and often very ‘staged’ settings, many of the RWS tarot cards have a very theatrical feel. (If you’re interested in this, Rachel Pollack has an interesting section on the ‘stage card’ in her book Seventy Eight Degrees of Wisdom.)

A drawing by Colman Smith of herself (left), Edith Craig and Bram Stoker, drawn on a transatlantic crossing in 1900. She was 22 at the time.

A drawing by Colman Smith of herself (left), Edith Craig and Bram Stoker, drawn on a transatlantic crossing in 1900. She was 22 at the time.

Colman Smith studied to be an artist at the experimental, avant-garde Pratt Institute in Brooklyn but didn’t graduate — nonetheless she became an illustrator providing artwork for WB Yeats, Bram Stoker and more. Some pretty major stuff! She wrote and published several books (including an illustrated collection of Jamaican folk tales, Anancy, which is still published today) and started her own magazine. She provided the artwork for posters for all kinds of events, and exhibited her work in a prestigious gallery in New York City.

She was also a strong supporter of women’s suffrage and provided poster and cartoon artwork to the movement as part of the Suffrage Atelier, a group of political artists.

poster

If you Google Pamela Colman Smith, you might uncover speculation about her sexual orientation. What you don’t find is pretty much anything about her romantic life. Personally, I’m certain she was as queer as nine bob note, but no-one knows for sure.

She certainly did share her household in the later years with a Mrs Nora Lake (to whom she left her entire estate), but as K. Frank Jensen points out, “…but at that time it was not unusual that two single women lived together to support each other and share expenses, without it necessarily indicating lesbianism.” Yes, one of her best friends was Edith Craig [pictured in the ‘pirates’ sketch above] who was a lesbian. Yes, her circle of friends did encompass many men and women who were homosexuals. Yes, she was eccentric. Yes, she did design feminist political posters (during her activity in the women’s suffrage movement), and finally: yes, she never did marry. Any possible intimate relationships of hers remain equally unknown.

Tarotpuu

So there you go.

Aside from the tarot deck, Colman Smith’s most notable works were ‘synesthetic,’ meaning that senses are ‘blended.’ In Colman Smith’s case, she was able to ‘see music.’ Sound and music created powerful visuals in her imagination and she was able to translate these into paintings. They’re amazing, mystical and beautiful:

Chromatic Fantasy - Bach

Chromatic Fantasy – Bach

Illustrating the tarot

In 1901, Colman Smith joined the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, a British occult society. Here she met Arthur Edward Waite, with whom she co-created the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, and Aleister Crowley, creator of the Thoth Tarot. The group later disbanded and Colman Smith and Waite both ended up in a splinter organisation, and meanwhile, he asked her to illustrate the tarot he had conceived.

Colman Smith was largely left to her own devices in terms of the card illustrations, particularly the minors. She was the first person to illustrate the cups, pentacles, wands and swords with actual scenes of their own, (apart from one Italian deck, The Sola-Busca, created in 1491) rather than simply showing two cups, or six swords. This was a groundbreaking idea which has changed the way many people see tarot today.

She also had her own pioneering ideas about how the cards should be read, which were very different to her occultist peers’, but which suggest a very modern approach, echoed in today’s ‘learn tarot’ books:

Note the dress, the type of face; see if you can trace the character in the face; note the pose… First watch the simple forms of joy, of fear, of sorrow; look at the position taken by the whole body… After you have found how to tell a simple story, put in more details … Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! … Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.

From “Should the Art Student Think?” published in The Craftsman, July 1908

The deck was published first by Sprague and Co, and then by Rider and Son in 1909 costing six shillings. It was a Big Deal. There weren’t any mass-market tarot decks (most tarotists used the Tarot of Marseille and that was pretty rare). This was the deck that began the popularisation of tarot.

With all of this, you would think Pamela Colman Smith would be a widely-celebrated person. Shockingly, she received barely any money at all, little payment and no royalties, for the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot deck whilst Waite, naturally, enjoyed fame and financial comfort. She made various attempts to make money throughout her life but none succeeded. In 1918 she moved to Cornwall, UK, and little is known about her from this point onwards. She died penniless in 1951.

PCS 2


I’m writing this post as a way of saying thank you.

Pamela Colman Smith will never know how beloved she now is in the tarot community, how many decks of her cards have been sold, how her artwork is the most often-seen in the tarot. The boss of US Games, who continue to publish her deck, says she could have been a millionaire today. As it is, her tarot deck and many of her other works are an example of women’s work and art and contributions being continually brushed under the carpet, continually undervalued, unpaid, taken for granted.

But Pamela Colman Smith was awesome. She never sold out and perhaps she had the chance to. She was a woman who forged her own path in life at a time when few women were. She was an amazingly original person, a creatrix, a boundary-pusher and a mystic, and from where I’m standing, it looks like she lived an amazing life of adventure and passion.

PCS 3

Without her work, I wouldn’t be a tarot reader, I’m pretty sure of that. Without her work, many others reading this would’t either. Her art and vision and unpaid work opened up so many doors into tarot and was a massive part of bringing about a revolution in tarot reading that makes it so easy to learn and acceptable to practice today. I think her artwork is incredible. Mystical, dramatic, colourful, symbolic, original, beautiful, disturbing and very powerful. The look and feel of the RWS Tarot isn’t for everyone, but it’s always going to be one of my very favourites, and is my ‘home deck’ — the one I always return to when I feel lost with tarot.

I am so grateful that she lived, and that she created these amazing cards I use every day.


References and further reading

I’ve drawn information from a whole bunch of sources to compile this post:

Mary Greer’s Tarot Blog

Holly Voley’s whole big brilliant website about Pamela Colman Smith – I think she might be her biggest fan.

The Works of Pamela Colman Smith – a gallery.

And also the Pamela Colman Smith Commemorative Set, a box-set of cards and two books created to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the publication of the deck. As far as I can find, the book here about Colman Smith’s life is the only published book about her. It’s fascinating, but all too brief.


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Beth Maiden is a tarot reader and writer based on the Isle of Skye. She has two cats, a hot builder girlfriend, far too many tarot decks and not enough coffee cups. She's really into bread, the colour red, camping and brand new notebooks. She'd love to cut your hair, read your cards or hang out with you on Twitter!

Beth has written 89 articles for us.

74 Comments

  1. Thumb up 3

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    Oh I adore Pixie and her work so much! Her deck and her life is so fascinating! I was lucky to see one of her paintings in London at a friend’s house who collects occult art. It was majestic and decidedly synesthetic!!

    I also love that Rachel Pollack gets a shoutout in here. She is a huge influence on me as a tarot reader,witch, and feminist. Rachel was openly transgender and a lesbian in the 60s – amazing woman!

    Thank you for this series. I LOVE reading it… And thank you Pixie Coleman Smith, we love you!!

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    Very cool article. I hadn’t heard of her before this.

    I’m not very knowledgeable about tarot, but it sounds like she lived such an exciting, interesting, and influential life. I would’ve loved to have met her!

    It was also interesting to hear about the synesthesia. I have grapheme synesthesia, which is related to colored numbers/letters, but it is much more mundane than the type of synesthesia that she had. (For people interested in synesthesia, “Wednesday is Indigo Blue” is a fascinating read.)

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      Synaesthesia is fascinating. What’s really bizarre is that there tends to be some baseline correlation between people’s grapheme colours. The most cited example is that a lot of people see “A” as red which you probably know from Cytowic, and that higher numbers (from 1-10) are often darker.
      Some profound implications for the development of written language here, and sound influencing shapes (i.e., of hieroglyphs and alphabets) and vice versa. It could be that the very originators of human language were synaesthetic. (Personal theory, needs more exploring by someone in academia!)

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    Hi Beth

    Thank you for celebrating the life and work of Pamela.

    You may like to know we have spent the last few years conducting further research on her work with the Tarot and have discovered many new photographs (of Pamela and her friends) and information.

    We have included our own thoughts and lots of new facts about Pamela and her background, etc., in our forthcoming book, “Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot” (Llewellyn, April 2015).

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0738741191/ref=as_li_tl?ie=UTF8&camp=1789&creative=9325&creativeASIN=0738741191&linkCode=as2&tag=templumkabbal-20&linkId=7BPFB4DXRCOJUUXM

    Thank you again for recognising her contribution to tarot, which is ground-breaking.

    Marcus & Tali

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      Oh good! I know a lot of people don’t relate to her artwork and that’s cool, but sometimes knowing that someone was so kickass (and possibly queer) can help eh?

      I do get that the ‘historical’ costumes and strong colours can be off-putting to some – for me, knowing that they are highly influenced by her work in theatre really adds to the charm.

      🙂

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    Wow Beth thank you for this! I don’t know much about the history of tarot at ALL because I think everyone finds such a personal way to relate to it, but *so many* gaps in my life are now filled with the knowledge that it’s popularization rests in the legacy of a probably super queer woman.

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    Cool but this “herstory” is inaccurate Waite Commissioned her to illustrate the deck… she was not asked, nor was she a collaborator, she was Hired as an Artist and was paid for her work on the original deck.

    If the Artist did not foresee royalties it is not the commissioners fault.

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      I think it’s fair to use the term ‘co-created’. Waite conceived the deck and wrote the book, commissioning (see ‘asking’) Colman Smith to illustrate it. She was given a great deal of artistic freedom and her contribution was inarguably a creative one.

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      1. “Herstory??” Excuse us for assuming one half of the human race is deserving of equal biographical exposure.

      2. Please describe in what way taking primary responsibility for both the conceptualization and design of the entire minor arcana is not a “collaboration”.

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        Waite provided instruction on the deck, He was not an “Artist” The Design was His concept not hers. And any Artist would provide feedback on nuances not not perceived by the commissioner of the artistic piece.

        AS I mentioned to a friend this would be akin to saying Alexander Graham Bell should have been richer than Bill Gates, or Thomas Edison, or, or, or, and the list goes on.

        Is the Artwork actually Splendid. Not really it is simplistic in its design I have seen much more ornate and beautiful tarot cards. The complexity comes in the “perceived” symbologies represented on each card and on the whole.

        Really when it comes to tarot this was probably one of the first mass produced cards out there. Before that you made your own, or hired some one to make them for you.

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          1. Correspondence between Waite & PCS about where the designs originated has yet to be found. True, Waite did educate PCS about the tarot, for instance he would have introduced her to the Sola Busca deck.

          But: comparing Waite’s own book accompanying the tarot to the illustrations isa great starting point for thinking about the degree of artistic license she used: there are countless details per card that he omits from his analysis. That’s where we can begin to find her.

          The discrepancies between Waite’s bare-bones symbolism in the Key to the Tarot and the actual images themselves tell a story very different from, for instance, what we know to be true of Crowley’s collaboration with Frieda Harris, which is very well documented and which Crowley exerted an incredible deal of control. But there’s no point in using one artistic relationship to describe another.

          2. Regarding your larger point about History, or Herstory. Am I really going there? You bet I’m going to go there.

          Your invocation of Bell, Gates, and Edison is a perfect illustration of what you’re overlooking about Beth’s post: you just so happened to alight upon three of the BIGGEST Invention Myths there are to deflate. Great choices!

          These invention myths have been deflated; each of the ‘inventions’ attached to each name are embedded in a long history of innovations and collaborations they built upon.

          Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone was built off of countless innovations in the way information is transmitted (i.e. the telegraph system, advancements in acoustics, etc). If he was even the first – Antonio Meucci in Italy came up with a similar invention.

          Thomas Edison was actually just a good businessman, and here is a good comic explaining his innovations in business: http://theoatmeal.com/comics/tesla.

          And I don’t think I need to discuss at length how many people are involved in computing, civilian and military. But a google search about Bill Gates speaks for itself…the guy has lots of quotes on teamwork and even this youtube video you can watch in my stead: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xWz6HUIhmwo

          What was it Isaac Newton said? “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.” Exactly. The purpose of re-visiting moments of creation in history is to highlight the acts of human interaction and collaboration, people building off of one another, that lurk in every corner behind-the-scenes. That’s what this post on PCS does very beautifully. It gives Waite his proper context, and her some proper attention. We all owe it to ourselves to tell stories that are rich and complicated and mysterious like this, not stories that are simple and, by that same token, simply untrue.

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          sigh. Bottom line Kevin. Your sarcastic use of “herstery” opens the door. Boys hate girls. Girls do not hate boys nor do they envy their pee pees. And as my wise father said “the female is superior” And the failures on the part of the male to yield to female leadership in this Family of humanity, is ending this world. It is about done. I follow two logical trails to find the taproot of evil and this was it, not money. This world is going to look like a male prison yard without the guards I’ve been observing rape gangs forming on facebook who want to “ram it in till she bleeds” and the girls giggle about that.

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          I have observed that the new narcissitic robotic mindset puts quotation marks around scary intimate things like “love” and “artist” as The evil man put air quotes around thingsin Austin Powers. I am highly amused (and have grieved deeply) by the regression of humanity. Fear of art and artistic expression is called “expansive thinking” and is a sign of “bi-polar disease” which means you are not uni-polar, which means you have access to both the linear and the intuitive which means you are a human being and not a puppet.

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      Sorry Kevin. You are quite wrong. Pixie was indeed a collaborator in more ways than one. Waite was not at all interested in the Minor Arcana compared to the Major. I’m sure you know this from reading his “Pictorial Key to the Tarot” as well as his work written post Sociteas Rosicrucia in Anglia as well as his writings pertaining to Rectified Order R. R. et A. C.. Pixie was given carte blanche to devise images to reflect key themes in the minors.

      Incidently, you speak with such certianty about the relation between Waite and SMith… How are you the only one living who is certian she was not *asked* by Waite? Were you actually there? Do you have a copy of the contract?

      I don’t think anyone at the time foresaw the manner in which these images would impress themselves upon the popular consciousness for over a hundred years. I don’t think anyone expects back royalties to be paid but some recognition would b nice… especially considering the fact her name was not even on the deck untiol quite recently.. She was most certainly a collaborator in that she created the imageson the cards…. If you think this is immaterial I invite you to work with a Wang Golden Dawn Tarot for a few weeks… In the mean time I invite you to pursue the work of Mary Greer who is more than qualified to write on Waite and Smith, having thoroughly researched both. She has presented materials concerning the relationship between Waite and Smith with regards to the collaboration and how much of a “free hand” Smith actually had in the design. I specificaly refer you to her lecture “Secrets and Sources of the Rider-Waite Smith Minor Arcana”

      Viva Pixie and her Herstory.

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      Well, Kevin. If you ever enter a relationship, I recommend a two year dating period, preferably with an older woman as chaperone, because if you hook up with a woman out to leave you in a hotel room and she has the kids the house and the car, its nobody’s fault but yours because you did not “forsee” but instead trusted in someone just doing the right thing.

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    Hi Beth,

    What a terrific article! Also, your personal tarot blog, http://littleredtarot.com/ is fantastic. I’ve been a professional tarot flipper for years but have learned new things and gained new perspectives on the craft by reading your tarot articles.

    I agree the Rider Waite deck isn’t for everyone but the symbolism is just so rich I sure wish more “serious” tarot readers would take the time to “get to know” the deck.

    Hopefully, I’m not overstepping any boundaries by letting folks here know that I have tons of free metaphysical reference material on my website. In particular, I have super in-depth descriptions of each of the Rider Waite tarot cards, plus the suits. It’s all cross referenced with the correlating element, crystal, zodiac sign, etc.

    http://www.buildingbeautifulsouls.com/tarot-card-meanings/

    Thanks for all you do in tarot community Beth!

    Warm regards,
    Bernadette

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      Hi Michael, Tali Goodwin explored the geneaology for Pamela and Waite’s lines, and other allied material, and concluded that Pamela’s parents were (on record) American, although she was born in London before they moved North to Didsbury, Manchester for several years as Pamela grew up. We show Pamela’s passport in our book, which demonstrates she had dual nationality, and much more. The book is published in April 2015, so not long now for all the facts to be revealed!

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        <3 I think the Jamaican misunderstanding comes from Wikipedia ….. which is clearly incorrect as you point out Marcus. Maybe someone could take the time to correct some of these fallacies, its a pity to see such a widely celebrated lady's life being veiled in modern misunderstandings?

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      You’re right. Her Mother was the daughter of Samuel Colman, she was a white American. Pamela Colman-Smith lived in Jamaica, she had lots of friends and extended family who were “of colour”, but she herself was white.
      There is no evidence to suggest she was gay either.

      I’m also uncertain were the idea she died penniless came from too. She owned several properties at the time of her death.

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        Thee is no evidence to suggest that she was gay” the intuitive is dead. This means that there is not a videotape or a sgned affitdavit saying that she was homosexual. she was gay kay?? the left brain takes over metaphor and intuition; that’s it, as I heard from another; that ends the world;

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    Great to see a blog on Coleman-Smith, however there appears to be quite a few inaccuracies in the article and its meta description which appears when sharing the article. One of the worse fallacies perpetuated about Pamela Coleman-Smith that she is somehow “ignored in esoteric history” – simply not true.

    Another that she would have been a “millionaire” today. Certainly her deck has generated a lot of sales, but seriously most popular and bestselling tarot decks today rarely make their artists a basic living wage in compared to the time and effort that goes into its creation!

    For a more balanced biography of this important lady’s life, see http://home.comcast.net/~pamela-c-smith/bio.html (which is not by me, and not even recent!)

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    Thank you! She is beautiful! And that she developed the minor arcana makes me wonder that it wasn’t Waite guiding her, as written by someone, but the other way around. She has intuitive genius! I was excited while reading your article. Beautiful. Yes, you don’t need gaydar to know this woman loved women. 😀

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    Here’s where the ego, hidden, the great puppeteer distorts perception in the istener. I say “I have an apple; please repeat back” they say either “I can’t” “I won’t” or if they still think they can get something from me, they try and say “you said you stole an orange??” (because they have projected their own disowned thief onto me) You cannot sell a true Tarot reading for money because if done right it is LOVE from one realized soul helping a human being to find their way back to their soul. Love is not sold for pieces of paper and round circular metallic objects. The ego won It is over. Kali yuga continues on.

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      I know now EXACTLY how it feels to be a child being walked to the killing ovens by a nice lady guard who smiles at me. She knows that it is a necessary thing to be done. We are non-human beings and must be taken out. (There is nothing we can do so we walk forward) To her, it is a fact; we are the cause of all misery in this world. She knows this. She is proud of her daughter who is taking care of her baby brother while mother is doing her work like putting down too many dogs, some must go. We don’t feel it. It is a kind way to do it. They are the good people. And they are at that point in time, as good as anyone can be with any ego at all in their mind It is over and done. Too far away from the thoughts in heaven went the remnant; dunces dance down to eternal reincarnating in one unconscious dreadful drama after another. This tiny period of wealth for many goes quicky away…into dreadful misery..forever. men made hell

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    Hello All

    We’ve just updated a lot of new information on Pamela’s life and work with Tarot over at our site in support of the book “Secrets of the Waite-Smith Tarot” which is out on 8th April. If you’d like some information from primary source material, we have lots of new information including Pamela’s passport photograph, etc.

    http://www.waitesmithtarot.com/pamela-colman-smith/

    Enjoy the life and times of Pixie 🙂

    Marcus Katz & Tali Goodwin

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      uh, I have the first up on a lot of google searchs because I am actually contruting to a discussion that is founded on the mission “do good” An I’ feeling a real “what’s in it for me” spirit so …. just to curb my enthusiasm and not go into a a hilareious enactment of den of vipers and all…I will just exit stage left ..you have your tarot and I have mine …they are divine bye

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    Amazing story of the one artist I’ve always felt close to, since I was born with a tarot deck in my hands. I’ve always called the deck the RWS Tarot and it is my favorite (besides my own) that I use for in-depth guidance. I appreciate the comments and links to the additional information.

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    I don’t say this to at all disparage Smith’s work which I think is excellent and should be acknowledged, however I don’t think Waite profited much off the deck either, for both of them it seems to have been more of a side project with unexpected popularity. If anyone is profiting off it unfairly it would be Stuart Kaplan/US Games who somehow managed to claim a copyright over the deck and will go after anyone who so much as publishes the deck images in a book, despite the fact that they should be in the public domain at this point. (I believe they make minor adjustments to designs and colors and so forth) The decisions for illustrating the minors and the specific symbolism and imagery of the deck are part of a larger body of Waite’s fiction and fairy tale writing, and are entirely of his design as he explains in the Pictorial Key. His intention was to “rectify” the symbolism to create more consistency and to fit in with his own mystic ideas, largely uses Catholic imagery, and mystical ideas of the Golden Dawn. The theory that Smith originated the designs or was “left to her own devices” has been very popular lately and it’s an idea that is very appealing on an emotional level, however there just isn’t enough evidence to support it. This does not need to take away credit for her excellent execution of the designs, I just think it’s important to give credit where it is due even if we are reluctant to give that credit to Waite because we like to think of a female artist having a greater role in the project than she actually did. But I am glad that more people are referring to it as the Rider-Waite-Smith deck these days because her execution of the designs is lovely and she does deserve credit for that much.

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    OMG. No really oh my God. Yet again a woman and a woman of color like myself, she was in part Jamaican- and completely overlooked apart from her name! I can’t imagine what a life she must have created for herself in those times. Even if she has some guidance on the cards–she changed the face literally of tarot…this is funny given the recent hashtag #tarotsowhite (or some such.) The irony in this is just amazing. I’ve been reading some comments were people are obviously offended if one mentions adding in some symbolism and characters from other world cultures to the Rider-Waite. So ironic.
    THis hidden in plain sight woman, who like female artists up until very very recently were overlooked, paid less for their art-if it sold at all. The few 19th c. female artists were often upper class-Mary Cassatt comes to mine and able to be in a circle that included well known male artists. The 20th c. artists (women) are more well known but still not in as high regard and sale prices as men. Well it’s all changing…the younger generation is seeing the balance of male and female restored in all areas and hopefully this can save the death spiral we as a species are in.

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      She was not a woman of color, at least according to all the most recent scholarship. She played up her familiarity with Jamaica, as she spent time there, but the records show she was born of English caucasian parents. Of course, those records could be incorrect, but that has to remain supposition.

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