In Nakisha Elsje VanderHoeven's world, the White Rabbit holds illimitable dominion over all. With her recent creation, the Seattle-based artist has elevated her subject to new heights -- The Rabbit Tarot is rapidly becoming a must-have item for Tarot collectors and animal enthusiasts alike. Nakisha's account of her deck's evolution hints at a creative spirit that's as mature as it is child-like. Read the interview...
Tom Blunt: After working in so many mediums, what compelled you to create a Tarot deck? Did you start out with publishing in mind, or did this begin as a purely personal challenge?
Nakisha Elsje VanderHoeven: It was pretty much a natural progression. I had been illustrating children’s books featuring the Little White Rabbit (The Little White Rabbit A-Z, for example) and playing around with different images in the White Rabbit series. At first I though I would just make a few images from the Major Arcana, but once I got started it just grew. It was a personal challenge to be sure, but once I finished painting the Major Arcana I was positive I wanted to print the deck, and not just the Major Arcana, but a whole deck of 78 unique cards.
TB: How did you come to self-publish this deck? Can you share any surprises or complications that await those interested in designing or custom-ordering decks of cards?
NEV: Well, at first when I finished the deck I did contact some of the major Tarot publishers. Though they liked the artwork, they felt it was too much of a “niche within a niche” market. I had two goals in mind when I was going to self publish; that they would have to be playable, and that they would have to be affordable. I didn’t want to create a rare “Art Deck”; something nice to look at but too expensive and delicate to use everyday. After some dead ends with printing companies I found a playing card printing company I could work with. I did have to make some compromises in the layout of the cards to fit the playing company’s template, but I am pleased with the end result. I like the workability of the poker-sized cards, but hope to someday to have another version that is larger and shows more of the illustrations.
TB: What inspired your Minor Arcana card interpretations? In some places you seem to hew fairly closely to traditional imagery or meanings, such as those in the the Waite-Smith deck. In other cases, such as the Twos, they are much different.
NEV: I guess there is a certain naivety on my part that came into play when I was working on the Minor cards. For twenty years I had just the one deck that I would use, the Maddonni Tarot. The Maddonni’s Minor Arcana does not have individually illustrated cards. Though these cards they had great meaning for me, I wasn’t well versed in the imagery others had used for those particular cards. I sort of took the meanings I had for the cards and translated them into my own visual vocabulary.
TB: You included meanings for all the card reversals. Do you read reversals when you give readings, or are you just being extra helpful?
NEV: I generally read the reversed cards as external rather than internal forces at work. A lot of my reading is how the cards relate to each other and what the bunnies are looking at.
TB: In the recent MetaFilter thread about your deck, people pointed out that the Death card seemed to be a Watership Down homage. Are there other cards in the deck that you feel were particularly inspired by this book?
NEV: The Death card was actually the hardest card for me to visualize, especially since part of the concept of the deck is that it would be accessible to all ages. I also did not want to alienate my loyal customers and fans who would probably be horrified if I did a painting of a literal dead rabbit. I borrowed the general concept of the embracing wild black rabbit from Richard Adams, especially since it felt more like the transformation and transcending meanings for this card. There are no direct allusions to the book with other cards, but I think it’s easy to see the connection, since both my rabbits and the ones in the Watership down are very people like, with human emotions and thoughts.
TB: What is it like to give readings with a deck that is 100% your own creation? Has anyone given you a reading with the deck yet?
NEV: It’s been really surprising. I explained to a client once that there was a certain amount of culture shock reading the deck, and that the more I read them the more the meanings clarified and even changed slightly. It’s been rewarding and somewhat disconcerting at times, the rabbits can be pretty mischievous in how they tell me things. I have not yet had anyone officially read for me yet, that sounds fun!
TB: Tell me a little more about the decks you have used and admired the most.
NEV: I tend to get attached to things, I mean the Maddonni Tarot deck that I have had forever is pretty faded and Ten of Cups has a corner nibbled off from my only rabbit who passed away in 1992. (I don’t own any rabbits now.) I wasn’t one for collecting decks, though I admire many artists who have created them, and used to have the Bohemian Cats Tarot which I loved. When I discovered my World card was missing in January, I was told I couldn’t read from it anymore. In essence I had to recreate the world and used my predilection for the Little White Rabbit to do it.
TB: You're very active in the Etsy and Flickr communities. Can you tell me a little about how input from these communities influenced your work on the deck? How has your participation in them or your appreciation of their reach changed now that the deck has taken off?
NEV: I guess the biggest thing that happened while I was creating the deck was the encouragement and enthusiasm for the project from those communities, which often kept me going. I did very little marketing at first once the deck was available, but it was randomly discovered by several Tarot forums and it just took off. I was shocked to be honest; I thought that it would be mostly my “bunny people” who would want the deck, as these were the people who were initially giving me so much support. I guess I underestimated the appeal it had for tarot collectors and enthusiasts, and was quite humbled by the response.
TB: It seems to me that in your deck (and in your other work) the image of the White Rabbit serves as sort of a blank slate, upon which virtually any human thought or emotion can be projected -- something which I think has resulted in a deck that many people can connect with easily. Is that the function the Rabbit serves for you as an artist, as well?
NEV: The White Rabbit has evolved considerably since its early manifestation in my work. He’s become quite a character with a history and friends, likes and dislikes, as have many of the other animals that reoccur in my work. But he’s constantly changing, sometimes ‘he’ is a ‘she’, or he is a child or a wise old soul, sometimes he is very rabbit-like and not very personable, and sometimes he does very human things. I think that you are right that he expresses very human ideas and emotions, but then my work has always been that way. I rarely paint or draw people; it’s always been animals since my earliest memory.
TB: The Dutch Rabbits in the deck offer a sort of benign visual counterpoint to the mystique of the White Rabbits; they appear on 32 cards -- 33 if you count puppets! Most people are aware of the symbolism attached to rabbits, especially White ones. Does the Dutch breed have any sort of symbolic association that you're aware of, or is there a personal association that makes them meaningful to you? (Or am I over-thinking this? Are they simply cute and that's all?)
NEV: I like symmetry and balance. I also am in love with the Dutch Rabbit breed -- so elegant in black and white! I alternated the White and Dutch on the Minor Arcana to make it more interesting as I was working. Now the more I read using the Rabbit Tarot deck, the more the Dutch and Whites seem to group themselves in different ways and to give new insights. Sometimes they group together in opposition, and sometimes they balance each other out. It’s an unexpected element that I didn’t anticipate when I was painting the images. Creating my art is like Tarot reading, it’s is a very intuitive process for me.