How the Bright Idea Deck came to be


Having illustrated my own use of the Bright Idea Deck and my own work at creating a specialized Tarot deck I was very curious about how the Bright Idea Deck was created. So I simply went and asked if Mark McElroy might agree to an eMail interview. And he actually did!

MS: What was the initial idea to create the Idea Deck? From your books and website(s) I know you have been using Tarot cards for creative brainstorming for quite some time. So what was the initial idea to create a new deck of cards?

MM: My professional focus on creative uses for the cards put me in touch with many people who weren't traditionally "Tarot people," including business executives and children. Using a traditional Tarot deck in a corporate or classroom setting can be difficult, because many decks contain spooky images or depict nude characters.

Another factor: Americans in general are mythically illiterate. The symbols and mythic references on many cards are lost on many of the people I work with on a daily basis.

So I had a crazy idea: what if I created a deck that would be:

a) suitable for use in a business settingy
b) non-threatening for children (and adults!), and
c) easily understood by every day people?

That's essentially what the Bright Idea Deck is.

MS: What did you set out to create?

When starting work on the Idea Deck, what was your main objective?

MM: I wanted a flexible, colorful, attractive deck that "non-Tarot" people could use as a creativity tool...

... and I wanted to design a deck that "Tarot people" would recognize and see as an alternative to decks set in a medieval or fantasy setting.

I wanted a deck for everyday people, capable of addressing everyday questions with images taken from everyday life.

MS: How strong are the ties to the traditional Tarot?

For people familiar with the traditional Tarot, the concept in the Idea Deck are rather familiar. Some of the cards - like card 0 "Freedom" - feel very much like direct translations of the traditional cards (here: "The Fool"). But otheres differ more. How strong are the ties between traditional Tarot and the Idea Deck? Where did you change things? And why?

MM: I've got a series of CDs/MP3s coming out soon called "Backstage with the Bright Idea Deck." Those recordings are a guided tour of the deck from a metaphysical point of view. They explain many of the choices I made, and reveal a lot of the esoteric symbolism that can still be found in the cards.

MS: Wow. Be sure to let me know when that becomes availeable!

MM: In short, though: I'd say the ties to traditional Tarot are fairly strong, in the same sense that a child's ties to its parents are strong. Parents inspire and shape children, but children are capable of transcending the habits of their parents and becoming something different. The Bright Idea Deck was inspired and shaped by Tarot, but the Bright Idea Deck is both more and less than a traditional Tarot deck--something different entirely.

Mostly, I sublimated or eliminated overtly esoteric or threatening content (titles like "The Devil," for example) and replaced unfamiliar symbols with familiar ones (making the very Catholic "Hierophant" into "The Guide," for example).

MS: The Idea Deck - like every Tarot deck - lives very much from the illustrations. In case of the Idea Deck we have the stunningly clear and simple-seeming illustrations of Eric Hotz. Eric has been known for his mediveal illustrations (e.g. for Roleplaying books). How did that collaboration come about? Why and by whom was Eric brought on board?

MM: I can't draw stick people (really!), so, after selling the concept of the deck to my publisher, I went online to find an artist with a suitable style: clean lines and bright colors. I found Eric Hotz's website right away, and liked what I saw.

Oddly, when I recommended him to my editor (Barbara Moore -- a true saint!), she pulled out a stack of his work. It seems Eric was already working for Llewellyn, illustrating another deck! The coincidence was amazing, and I took this as a sign that he was meant to be a part of the project. I was delighted when he agreed to Llewellyn's proposal.

MS: How did you collaborate with Eric Hotz?

How did your work relationship look like? How much did you interact?

MM: I would write page-long descriptions for each card: very detailed pieces, saying things like, "A man with an iron mask fastened to his head by a gold padlock stands in a rowboat. The water is calm. A large serpent is swimming toward him. At the same time, an arm extends from the surface of the water, offering a key that could open the padlock. Somewhere in the image, the following astrological symbols and planetary glyphs should be concealed..." You get the idea.

I would email these to Eric. He would quickly sketch the card, make that sketch into a computer-based line drawing, and then add color and shading. He would then email the card art to me.

About 90% of the time, he hit the nail on the head: Eric's card would look exactly as I imagined it. Occasionally, we would make changes in color or composition. Many times, he would make suggestions for simplifying the images; this proved very helpful, as I tend to come up with very busy visuals.

We emailed back and forth like this for a period of almost eight months.

MS: Taking one step back again from the illustrated cards, how did you go about developing each card?

MM: Before designing a card, I would look at parallel cards from over 100 decks in my personal collection. I would read what several Tarot authors had said about the card over the past 100 years. I would meditate about the meaning of the card, and think in terms of what elements of my own experience embodied the essence of the card in question.

I was very specific about what I wanted to see on each card. In one case, Eric replied with, "Mark, there's no way you're going to get all that on a card," and so I ditched that initial idea for another version.

In a remarkable number of cases, after this process, the card image would simply present itself, fully formed. All I had to do was translate the picture in my mind into words on a page.

I deliberately avoided RWS-inspired imagery as much as possible; I didn't want to do "The Rider-Waite-Smith Suite and Tie Tarot."

MS: Did you "translate" each of the 78 Tarot cards? Or did you re-create cards from their (numrological) basis?

MM: I began by trying to express the received numerological and divinatory meanings, but quickly went off on my own. In the end, I wasn't happy with how other decks (and numerological systems) express the numbers nine and ten, for example.

So I came up with my own numerological progression for the suits. My nines are complete; my tens go beyond completeness into excessiveness or staleness. I think the Bright Idea Deck is more consistent in its execution of this idea than the RWS is in expressing its concepts of "nineness" and "tenness."

Still, I wanted something "Tarot people" would recognize and get a kick out of, so I had to balance my drive toward innovation with a respect for existing themes and structures.


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Martin Spernau
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