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Deck creator forum — Joanna Powell Colbert

December 3, 2010

The following is a new entry in my “Deck Creator Forum.”  I occasionally do deck reviews on this blog, but in this feature I have asked various deck creators to say a few words (or paragraphs, actually) about their Tarot deck.

By the way, you too can contribute to this discussion.  If you have this deck and have experience using it, please leave comments about your use of it.  (Note that I will be moderating the comments.)


Joanna portraitI’ve had the pleasure of meeting Joanna Powell Colbert at a couple of Tarot events, and I have been impressed with what a beautiful spirit she has, so it’s no surprise that the deck that has emerged from her heart is quite lovely as well.

Joanna devoted nine years to making the Gaian Tarot using an intricate process that employed colored pencils and which rendered images that are photorealistic.  (I’m constantly amazed at how well she did that!) The result, obviously a labor of love, is a powerful deck of rich symbolism, multicultural themes, and evocative beauty. And although it was created with an eye toward earth-centered spirituality, its appeal is universal.

Joanna graciously provided detailed answers to my questions for this interview, and I think you’ll enjoy reading what she has to say about her deck, which includes some fun behind-the-scenes stories.


Gaian Tarot book coverJames: What inspired you to create this deck?

Joanna: I’ve been walking the path of Goddess spirituality since the early 80’s and studied the Tarot for many years, especially the Rider Waite Smith deck and the Motherpeace deck. During the 80s and 90s, I taught classes in the Tarot and also did professional readings. In the late 90s, my spiritual practice shifted from an emphasis on ritual, Tarot, and astrology to a more nature-based practice of learning directly from the Earth Herself. I moved to a small rural island, and studied wilderness awareness techniques. I spent a fair amount of time learning about the native birds, animals and plants in our area. I really had no intention of picking up the Tarot again when I attended a conference in Chicago in the fall of 2000 and met Janet Berres. She was the founder of the International Tarot Society and encouraged me to create a deck. I felt divine authority speaking through her and returned home with a mandate. At first I wasn’t sure what the theme of the deck should be, but soon realized I would be a happy camper indeed if I could express everything I’d been learning about living in harmony with the earth, in this deck.


I see. So it’s like you had a real calling to do this deck!

Most modern Tarot decks fall into one of three “camps” — Marseille, Rider Waite Smith, or Thoth. With which of those is your deck most closely aligned, and why did you choose that “type” of deck?

Rider Waite Smith, because it was my first deck back in early 70s and the first one I studied intensively in the 80s.


What would you like to say about the theme for this deck?

The theme is healing the earth and allowing ourselves to be healed by the earth. It’s about creating and living a new/ancient paradigm that honors the earth as sacred.


The artwork for your deck is so lush and realistic. How did you create this art? What would you like to say about that process?

I based all of the images on photographs that I took of places and people who are special to me. After working out the composition in Photoshop, the final painting is composed of many layers of Prismacolor[1] colored pencils. This is a very time-consuming process, and is one reason it took me nine years to finish all 78 cards. There is anywhere from 40 to 100 hours in each card. I go into detail about my creative process on this page on my site:


On that page you say:

“Once I have a good idea for the composition of the piece, I think about all the people I know and who might embody the energy of that particular card.”

and you use your friend Betsy as an example for your creation of your High Priestess card.  Are there any other people you used as models that you would like to mention?  Any special stories about using them or about why you chose them for their particular card?

Gaian Tarot Temperance Sun Lovers

In some cases, it was fairly simple. I chose a friend who is mixed race (Chinese/Hawaiian and Anglo) for the Temperance card, because part of the message of that card is the creation of a “sacred third” from two opposites. For the Sun card, I chose a Leo friend with red hair who is a great dancer and had a lot of exuberance and joy in her life. I chose the Lovers because (in “real” life), not only are they both beautiful and sensual, they’ve also been together as a couple nearly 20 years. I admire their commitment to their marriage. They both pursue their own passions too (which for them, is music). “Follow your bliss” is part of the meaning of the Lovers card.

Gaian Tarot Guardian of Fire 5 of Earth 7 of Earth Chariot

In some cases, the cards are very literal. The model for the Guardian of Fire is a fire-tender at festivals, and he truly is as self-effacing as a big, bold man can be. The model for the 5 of Earth runs a wilderness awareness school, and teaches his students to build debris huts just like the one in the card. When he modeled for me, he was going through a very difficult financial time in his life, so that energy came into the card as well. The woman in the 7 of Earth owns a native plant recovery nursery — she has dedicated her life to rescuing native plants that would otherwise be lost, and to planting new forests on clear-cut land. The model for the Canoe card competes in intertribal canoe races. He built the canoe you see in the card and crafted his own paddle (also in the card). The island in the background is the island where I used to live, across the water from the reservation where the canoeist lives.

Gaian Tarot Nine of EarthI put myself into two of the cards, the 9 of Earth and the 9 of Water. I’ve identified with the 9 of Pentacles for a long time, and the years that I lived on Lummi Island while I was creating the Gaian Tarot were some of the best years of my life. I had a deep connection to the land, and was at a very fulfilled and content place in my life. The lavender field you see in the card is just up the hill from my house.

Gaian Tarot Nine of WaterThe 9 of Water is based on a photo taken of me while I was having a mystical experience, singing to the Ocean Mother, in Merlin’s Cave in Tintagel, Cornwall, England. Like the 9 of Earth, it was a peak experience, but this time it was an emotional, spiritual one.


What would you say is the thing that really makes your deck special?

It’s contemporary, multicultural and earth-honoring. And the images came from a very deep place in my heart and soul. The cards are really designed to be read intuitively. The images are certainly full of symbols, and the companion book gives good guidance, but I’ve found that the images really speak directly to people. They don’t seem to have much trouble knowing exactly what the card is saying to them.


Are there any non-traditional elements of this deck, such as a 79th card, unusual suit names, an extra suit, or something like that? Why did you make that change and what is its importance or significance?

Since this is an earth-based deck, I named the suits after the pure elements: Air (Swords), Fire (Wands), Water (Cups), Earth (Pentacles). I didn’t use one particular symbol to represent the suit. For example, instead of Swords, you will see many different symbols for air: feathers, birds, butterflies, clouds, flutes, pens, books.

I also changed the names of the Court Cards to match the stages of a person’s life. So instead of Page, Knight, Queen and King, we have Child, Explorer, Guardian and Elder. I also played with the gender of the Court Card characters; there are two male and two females in each category. So, for example, there are two female Elders and two male Elders, instead of four male Kings.

Gaian Tarot Two of Fire.

I really like your Two of Fire card because it illustrates the numerical and elemental meanings of “two” and “fire” so well. (One of my few complaints about the Rider Waite Smith cards is that I don’t feel that its Two of Wands does that well.)  So now I know this is a tough question, but what is your favorite card from your deck and why?

Gaian Tarot Guardian of WaterThe Guardian of Water (Queen of Cups) is my favorite card, because she seems to be most like a Divine Being to me, and I am dedicated to the Ocean Mother. She exemplifies the compassionate spirit of Tara, Kwan Yin and Mary: She Who Hears the Cries of the World.


On your “My Creative Process” page you end by saying:

“The very final stage is the feedback I get from people who see the image, and tell me what it means to them. I am constantly surprised, amazed and delighted to hear about the symbolism and wisdom that people find in my paintings that I didn’t put there consciously!”

What is the most interesting discovery you made about your deck after it was done, either through your use of it for doing readings or from comments by other people, etc.?

The most fascinating thing that has happened is the way that people who are using the deck are teaching me about it. Over and over again, I hear interpretations of the cards that strike me as brilliant, and are not anything I thought of myself. It’s as if the deck is a child that I gave birth to, but who is now growing up and making her own way in the world.


Can you give us any examples of symbolism and wisdom that people found in your paintings that you didn’t (consciously) put there?

Gaian Tarot High PriestessOne of the earliest ones, that left me with my jaw dropped, was when a friend asked if I had put the “white cross with the red center” into the Priestess painting intentionally. It’s an important symbol to her. I didn’t have any idea what she was talking about, and she had to show me. The white sleeves and body of the Priestess’ gown do form a cross and the pomegranate is definitely dead-center. But I didn’t do that on purpose!

More recently, the folks in my online Gaian Tarot Circle had a discussion about the Teacher (Hierophant) card. Gaian Tarot The TeacherMy conscious intention with this card was to show an elderly Asian man in the tradition of the archetypal hermit who lives up in the mountains and is a little bit crazy. I was very surprised to find out that many people saw the Teacher as female, and not necessarily Asian. We had a long discussion about the Teacher being androgynous or a Two-Spirit, and appearing to people just as they need him/her to be.

In the card, the Teacher is leaning up against a cedar tree. Carolyn Cushing noticed that earth, air and water are all represented in the card, but fire is missing. Then she saw that the bark of the tree looked like a halo of flame around the Teacher’s head. “A flame that invites us to enter into the dance!” So all four elements are accounted for in the card after all. Making the bark look like fire wasn’t intentional either, but I love it!

Gaian Tarot FoolDonnaleigh saw the body of the Teacher as mimicking the tree against which he sits, his back as the trunk and his feet as the roots. She saw him as the portal to enlightenment and wisdom, sitting at the base of the tree. She also saw the tree in the card as being the same as the tree in the Seeker (Fool) card, but the Seeker doesn’t notice it while it is the Teacher’s strength.

There was also a lot of discussion about the symbolism of the dandelion. My conscious intention was to show a plant that the average person regards as a weed, and yet it is a powerful medicinal herb, and the greens in spring are a delicious, nutritious food. Others ran with the dandelion symbolism and went in different directions. It’s a symbol of sunshine and happiness to some people, who have sweet childhood memories of gathering bouquets of dandelions. And Bev Haskins came up with this powerful question: “What do we tear out before giving it a chance to show us what it can be?” I love that. That’s now one of the core meanings of the Teacher card for me, and it’s not one I thought up!


Is there a companion book for your deck?  Who wrote it and does it come with the deck?

Yes, I wrote a full-sized companion book that comes with the deck.


Is there anything else you want to say about your deck?

Right now the Collectors Edition of the deck is the only one available, and it can be purchased on my website here: . It is an expensive deck and comes with a number of extras, like a handmade bag and a personalized amulet. The deck and book are completely “green” — recycled card stock, soy-based ink and an aqueous coating on the cards. It’s on special for the holidays now through December 8, 2010.

A mass-market version will be published by Llewellyn in September 2011.


Collectors Edition (1,000 copies) self-published, Spring 2010.
Mass market edition, Llewellyn, September 2011.
Website: Blog: Membership site:

All images from the Gaian Tarot deck are copyright ©2003-2010 Joanna Powell Colbert


[1] ® Prismacolor is a registered trademark of Sanford Corporation.

  1. As one of those who watched this deck over the years, I can’t begin to tell you how delighted I am with my copy. I keep promising myself that I will get another copy to keep back and safe. Yes, I use my limited edition deck constantly. In fact, it’s in my purse now. I rarely go anywhere without it.

    Joanna has not only created an amazingly spiritual deck, she’s also opened up a space on the web for those of us with this deck. We can gather in what feels to me like sacred space to share about this deck and more.

    If I sound like a cheerleader preaching to the choir from a bandwagon (how’s that for a run-on metaphor?), I am. There are not enough good things to say about this deck. It is a companion in my life more than just static cards.

Trackbacks & Pingbacks

  1. An interview with me about the Gaian Tarot — Gaian Soul
  2. Tarot Deck Creator Forum – An annotated index | James Ricklef's Tarot Blog

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