Deck creator forum – Quantum Tarot by Chris Butler
The following is a new entry in my blog’s “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.)
Chris Butler is the artist behind the Quantum Tarot, which he co-created with Kay Stopforth, creator of the Universe Cards. Chris holds a Bachelor’s degree in Theology from Heythrop College, University of London, and since 2002 he has worked full-time as an artist and illustrator, working through the medium of digital imagery since 2004. He learned his digital skills from Ciro Marchetti, the award-winning illustrator and creator of the acclaimed Gilded Tarot and Legacy of the Divine Tarot. Chris’s forthcoming project, The Son Tarot, will be published by Schiffer Books in the Autumn of 2012.
James: You’ve stated that when Kay Stopforth approached you with her idea for a Tarot deck using Hubble Space Telescope images as source material to create space themed fantasy art around basic tarot archetypes, you just knew you had to do it. Why is that? Why did that seem like such a no-brainer, such an exciting idea that you had to jump at the chance?
Chris: Kay and I first met in early 2006 at an Aeclectic Tarot meet up in London. I was familiar with her Universe Cards (published by Thorsons in 1999) and she was aware of my work on my first decks, the Butler Tarot and the then still in progress Son Tarot (to be published by Schiffer Books in Autumn 2012). She’d been on the lookout for an illustrator for her concept and felt my style would suit the job.
For me, her ideas for the Quantum Tarot were totally unique and very exciting. I loved the prospect of working with NASA photographs as a starting point for tarot images but above all, the concept was so totally different from anything I would have dreamed up myself. Those kinds of project are guaranteed to take you well out of your comfort zone as an artist and they usually present the steepest and best learning curves. This certainly proved to be the case; I learned a huge amount during the project and through both the creation and revision stages my Photoshop skills came on leaps and bounds.
How did you create the artwork for your deck? What would you like to say about that process?
The process was collaborative from start to finish. We worked together for two days a week over a period of roughly three months. During these sessions, Kay tabled her ideas for each card and sat with me at the computer as I built the basic images. When there was no firm idea of how a card should look, we would improvise different ideas until we struck the right formula. These work sessions were often very intense and invariably exhausting. Towards the end of the process we were doing three days a week to get the deck finished before I moved out of London. The deck was subsequently revised for both commercially published editions but I had to undertake this on my own as I now live at the other end of England from Kay. Nevertheless, we found the same pattern of working persisted to a certain extent, albeit by phone or email.
How did you get the rights to use NASA’s images? Was that hard to do?
NASA has a fantastic and very generous image policy. All of our source images are available in high-resolution from the NASA website. They are happy for anyone to use them but they do ask that you notify them, particularly if there’s a commercial purpose behind a project such as ours. I suppose they would veto inappropriate usage of their images but when Kay approached them, all they asked for was that the images be credited in full, either on our website or in the book. We owe them a huge debt for their generosity in this respect.
I read on your website that you learned from the collaborative process of creating this deck that “a genuine and successful partnership doesn’t hinge on there being no conflict; rather it depends on an ability to flow through conflict arising from the creative process.” Do you have any interesting stories about this that you can share with us?
If working together had to be a no conflict zone we would have given up on each other within a couple of weeks. Working in the way we did was as intense as it gets for creative collaborations. We were often putting together two or three card images a day from scratch over an eight-hour period. We were also having to get to know each other and get used to our respective ways of working.
We’re both strong-willed and both had a strong vision for the project. When those visions didn’t match, particularly after seven hours of intense computer work, tempers were bound to fray. It took me a long time to learn, but I realized you just have to factor this into the working process.
It’s also good to have someone challenging your stubbornness. One of us would say ‘no more’ yet the other would say ‘let’s try something else’. Yes, we argued like hell but in every case, those were the times that yielded the most magical images. One such card was the Magician. I was ready to give up and settle for version 4 but Kay pushed for more and more changes. We ended up with version 7 but I have to admit, it’s been one of the most enduring images in the whole deck. Furthermore, it required virtually no revision at a later date when other cards were being heavily re-worked.
Your website states that this deck “combines the revolutionary theories of 20th and 21st century physics with traditional tarot wisdom,” and I can see that the imagery certainly combines modern astronomy with traditional Tarot images. But in what ways do you see this deck combining modern physics and traditional Tarot in terms of its concepts and themes? Can you give us some examples?
Each Major Arcana or pip card in the Quantum Tarot draws a parallel between its ‘traditional’ tarot meaning and a scientific theory. The Devil is one of my favorite examples of this. This card traditionally represents the dark side of the psyche or the bondage/entrapment that results from negative thinking and behavior. Kay also chose to assign the scientific theory behind Black Holes to the card. The Black Hole is a super gravitational mass that is so strong, even light can’t escape from its pull. It is all-consuming, all-devouring. Quite a good parallel to the Tarot Devil in many ways.
Perhaps the simplest and clearest parallel comes with the Fool. He’s the archetypal beginning. The Zero card. In the Quantum Tarot, the Fool is represented by Event One – the Big Bang, the beginning of beginnings. All the cards are the same. You have your traditional tarot meaning that’s expanded upon by drawing parallels with astronomy or the laws of physics.
Your website also says that each card draws “parallels with scientific theory or the ancient myths behind the planets and the constellations.” How does it do that?
The Court Cards are where we meet the constellations and planets of myth. Each court has been assigned one or the other. In doing this, Kay sought to choose mythological figures that reflected the Courts as we commonly interpret them. The messenger Mercury, with winged feet becomes the Page of Swords. Mars with his fiery disruptive energy becomes the Knight of Wands while the Earth as Mother of us all becomes the Queen of Pentacles.
Now I’d like to talk about a few of the specific cards in your deck.
Your Justice Card has Planck’s constant written on it. What is the significance of that in terms of this card?
Planck’s work more or less started the whole ‘Quantum revolution’ in proposing a theory that clarified how electro-magnetic radiation is emitted and also how light/heat emissions increase as temperatures rise. Kay certainly explains the theory more eloquently than I do but the crux of the matter is that Planck’s work brought clarity to a previously muddy and misunderstood area of physics, just as the sword of Justice cuts through murky uncertainty to find the truth. Without his work, we wouldn’t have modern Quantum physics as we know it.
I find a bit of ironic amusement in your placement of an illustration of the heliocentric view of the universe on the Hierophant card given that the Catholic Church took such a long and adamant stand against that view. And who is the person on this card? Can you tell us about your thinking behind your selections for this card?
The Hierophant in the Quantum Tarot is Sir Isaac Newton, the scientist who first understood the concept of gravity. In effect, he’s the Father of modern science. Traditional Tarot decks invariably show a spiritual teacher and father figure. Kay thought it was fitting to show a scientific Father and teacher in a science themed deck. What made Newton so apt a choice for me is the fact that he was also a secret alchemist at a time when the practice of alchemy was outlawed by both law and the Church. He truly is a figure in whom science and mysticism go hand in hand. Kay chose the Solar system image as the background as it shows the effect of gravity on a grand scale. Gravity is the force that shaped the Sun and planets as spheres and it’s the force that keeps the Solar System bound together with planets orbiting the Sun while held by its superior gravitational pull.
I’m also amused by your inclusion of the equation for the law of universal gravitation on the Lovers card, given that it defines the attractive force (F) between two bodies. However, I might have put the images from the Voyager probe on the Chariot card instead. Did you put it here on the Lovers because it shows a man and a woman?
I loved the natural progression from the Hierophant to the Lovers – Newton proposed gravity as a Universal teaching and in the Lovers we see it as a binding principle on the human level. We’ve seen that heavenly spheres are attracted and bound together through mutual influence. Now we see a parallel principle at work between human souls and with the physical body, yet another parallel occurs through sexual attraction.
The Voyager probe etching was a new addition to the Lo Scarabeo edition of the Quantum Tarot. We’d previously features real faces on the Lovers card but I suggested this motif to Kay and she responded very positively. I think it’s quite apt – this image is how the human race has primarily chosen to represent the principle of the Lovers to any extraterrestrial intelligence that may stumble across the Voyager probe. Humanity is not presented as an individual. It’s presented as a couple; complementary and totally essential to each other for the survival and pro-creation of the human race. Of course, couples come in various different combinations of genders but the principle and message of this simple image remains very powerful to me. It’s awesome to think that something on this Lovers card is duplicated on a probe that’s hurtling millions of miles out into space. It’s what this deck’s all about.
There are mythical and astrological symbols on many of these cards, but especially on your court cards. To give us a feeling for how you assigned them, can you explain how you chose those associations on one card?
Our use of astrological symbols throughout the deck is quite loose. There isn’t an astrological system running through the deck in the way you would find in a Golden Dawn based deck. Rather, we’ve used planetary symbols on an individual basis where applicable. They also have different modes of meaning. On the Queen of Wands you’ll see the glyph for Venus, as the card represents the planet and the goddess herself. You’ll also find the Venus glyph on the Empress but here it represents the wider principle of femininity and the feminine gender.
On many of the courts, you’ll find constellational maps and diagrams. The Queen of Cups shows the constellation of Andromeda as Kay felt there were certain parallels between the myth of Andromeda and the Queen of the water suit. Andromeda was bound to a rock against her will as a sacrifice to the Kraken, a great sea titan. Enforced stillness often leads to much needed reflection and introspection; positive qualities of this Queen. Kay also points to the fact that Andromeda is a victim archetype, and the darker side of victim mentality with its ensuing self-pity, bitterness and potential for manipulation is also very much a part of the dark side of the Queen of Cups.
The second edition of your deck includes two new Major Arcana cards. I’d like to ask you about both of those.
First, ‘The Phoenix’ shows blasts of supernova energy and it symbolizes rebirth. However, “Rebirth” is traditionally associated with the Judgment card. Can you tell us why you created a new card for this concept?
The concept is similar to the Judgement card on one level but different on another. Kay assigned the theory of ‘Multiverses’ to the Judgement card and on the card itself you can see mysterious stellar portals that could lead to other dimensions and realities. Whilst Judgement is about rebirth and expanding consciousness, you could say the Phoenix is almost the Fool reborn. This time however, he doesn’t just have one Universe to journey through. His passage beyond Judgement and the World means the possibilities are so much greater again. This is one of the fundamental differences between the traditional Major Arcana and the Quantum Tarot’s Major Arcana. The traditional Fool’s journey is cyclical. You pass the World and you’re back to the beginning. By contrast, the Quantum Majors are an ever-expanding upward spiral, taking in different dimensions and modes of existence with the completion of each phase. One wonders which new archetypes you would discover once you passed Judgement and the World a second time round. You would encounter the Universe and the Phoenix again but maybe you would also encounter a few more multidimensional archetypes too, then more and more, ad infinitum at each turn and expansion of the spiral. Many of these would pass beyond our current understanding.
The other card, “Universe,” is labeled with a lemniscate. Can you tell us more about it?
The ‘Universe’ card, like the Phoenix, ‘goes beyond’ the traditional Majors. In some decks, the World is re-named the Universe but Kay wanted to have the two concepts as distinctly different cards. The World represents the sum of our existence and our perception of the Cosmos within the infinity of the Void. The Universe card takes this further. It is literally the infinity of the Void. It’s the created Universe that we can know and it’s the unlimited emptiness beyond it as well. The challenge of the card is to allow our consciousness to be expanded beyond what we can know and perceive.
Are there any other non-traditional elements of this deck? If so, why did you make that change and what is its importance or significance?
The main non – traditional feature of the deck for me lies in the assignment of the suits to the four universal forces as well as to the four elements. Accordingly, Wands represent the Electromagnetic Force, Cups represent the Gravitational Force, Swords represent the Weak Force (the force regulating the rate of decay within atoms) and finally, Pentacles represent the Strong Force (that which binds particles together within the nucleus of atoms).
Other than this, we both made a concerted effort to keep the imagery within a fairly traditional framework (Space Shuttles on Chariot cards excepted!). We wanted the Quantum Tarot to be useable ‘straight out of the box’ as well as with its companion text. We used a loose Rider Waite style framework as the foundation and many cards echo the Waite deck’s symbolism. It may not be an easy deck for a beginner but anyone with a decent grasp of the Rider Waite tradition could pick up the Quantum and read with it fairly quickly. The book can then be read at your leisure, expanding and enriching your basic experience of the deck. We both thought the same on this; a deck that reaches to the infinity of space needs its feet firmly on the ground to make it useable and accessible. Maybe this has been the key to its success. It’s mind-blowingly different but vaguely familiar at the same time.
Are there any other remarkable or unusual features about this deck that you’d like to talk about?
Lo Scarabeo came up with a first when they published Quantum Tarot 2.0. This is the first ever deck to feature UV spot varnishing. It’s a technique we’re all used to seeing on book covers; key elements or maybe the book’s title are highlighted in gloss varnish against a matt background. In the Quantum Tarot, elements from each image are highlighted in the same way. Sometimes extra elements are added. It’s a subtle but startling effect in its own way. You only notice when you turn the cards in the light. They shimmer and come to life, adding extra emphasis where required.
I know this may be a tough question, but what is your favorite card from your deck? Why is it your favorite?
That’s easy, believe it or not. The Moon has always been my favorite card. I love the source image (Giant pillars from the Eagle Nebula). These are vast Star factories and I loved the idea of them doubling as the traditional towers you usually see in Moon cards. The Moon was only the third image to be completed from the deck yet from the start it seemed to encapsulate the whole ethos of the project. Its scientific background of multiple dimensions and Super string theory is for me one of the most fascinating and, quite early on we decided it would be the most representative image for the box cover should the deck be published. Both Kunati and Lo Scarabeo ended up featuring it as the cover image.
The original publisher of this deck, Kunati Books, went under during the 2009 global economic crisis, but then Lo Scarabeo decided to publish a new edition of it. The book and deck have been revised for this new edition, and I’ve read that most of the changes made where the result of user feedback from users of the Kunati edition. Can you give us a few examples of those sorts of changes?
One of the best things for both of us was receiving huge amounts of encouragement and feedback from the Aeclectic Tarot Forum at every stage of the deck’s development and publication history. We almost ‘blogged’ the deck’s creation process on the Aeclectic boards. We held an online launch party on Aeclectic for the Kunati edition and subsequently remained heavily involved in the discussion threads about the deck. The main weakness with the Kunati edition that many people commented on was our use of real faces in the Court Cards and on many of the Majors. A lot of people (though not all) found this to be a stumbling block. Some users said the human faces made the heavenly archetypes seem less heavenly and also less powerful. As time went on this was a view I came to agree with wholeheartedly, particularly where the court cards were concerned.
In the new edition, some real faces remain, particularly where they were central to the card’s meaning. (The picture of Einstein on the Chariot card is the best example). Otherwise, what human faces are still there have been made to look a whole load more ethereal, often being switched into negative, as on the King of Wands (Ciro Marchetti incidentally! We couldn’t take him out as he was my Photoshop mentor!). Thankfully, we were able to source a wonderful set of antique etchings of the various mythological figures behind the constellations. These have been employed on the new courts to wonderful effect. The cards have much more of a resonance with their respective myths now. Where etchings weren’t available, we used paintings or statues of the relevant figures. My favorite of these is the Queen of Wands which incorporates a gloriously sensual portrayal of Venus from the Victorian era.
What is the most interesting discovery you made about your deck after it was done, either through your use of it for doing your own readings or from comments by other people, etc.?
I’ve never stopped being amazed at the kinds of passionate response the deck seems to illicit from people. I’m convinced it’s the sheer beauty of the Hubble images and their enduring fascination at the root of this. From the day we started posting images on the Aeclectic Tarot Deck Creation forum, we were bombarded with encouragement.
The Tarot is a very earthy and personal phenomenon yet the scientific parallels Kay drew together and the grandeur of the NASA images seem to take the card archetypes into a much vaster realm that people love and appreciate. It certainly gives a unique slant to readings when you start drawing on science as well as mysticism. I’ve had both surprise and raised eyebrows from my own querents when I’ve started talking Black Holes, Calabi-Yau shapes and Planck’s Constant!
I’ve never experienced that kind of fervent response to my work before or since. I’m certainly not the best digital artist out there; there are much more accomplished guys (Ciro Marchetti, Stevee Postman or Baba Studio spring immediately to mind) whose work rightly garners ‘oooh’s and aaah’s’ for its own sake. I kind of cheated and got a leg up on this one – NASA’s images of the splendor of the Cosmos gave my work an unfair advantage!
Kay wrote the companion book for this deck, but did you work with her on that as much as she worked with you on creating the cards?
I had no input where the book was concerned. This and the basic concept really were Kay’s baby. My job was to take that fully formed concept and to make my best stab at translating it into visual terms for the cards.
Is there anything else you want to say about your deck?
It was one hell of a journey. I just hope everyone who buys it enjoys the ride as much as I did!
All images from the Quantum Tarot deck are © Chris Butler and Kay Stopforth.
NOTE: If you have a deck that you would like to have featured here, contact me about it.
 Subsequent to our interview, Chris told me this: “There’s a Calabi Yau shape ghosted over the moon itself in the Moon card. Kay saw the Moon card as symbolizing the hidden extra dimensions encapsulated within the Calabi Yau manifold – all the things we don’t understand and sometimes fear that start to manifest when the Moon rises.”