An Interview with Thalassa
© 2001 James Ricklef
The following was originally published in the December 1999 issue of (the now defunct) Tapestry Magazine. It is a wonderful bit of Tarot history.
Thalassa, a.k.a. the Queen of BATS, is the organizer of the SF Bay Area Tarot Symposium (BATS). In June of 1999 she was kind enough to give me some of her time for a quick interview while she was in the Los Angeles area. During this interview we talked about her experiences organizing BATS, what BATS is like now, and where she sees it going in the future.
James: Thalassa, you’ve been organizing the semi-annual Bay Area Tarot Symposium in San Francisco for a long time now. When did you put on the first BATS?
Thalassa: There had been Tarot Symposiums held in the Bay Area in the early 80’s, and Newcastle Publishing did one in the mid to late 80’s. Then they lay fallow for a while. I was associate editor of the “Tarot Network News” at the time, and I was talking to Jack Hurley, the publisher, and we were talking about how a Tarot Symposium would be a great thing. The symposiums that had been done in the 80’s were more interested in symbology and other things, and we were talking about the idea of a Tarot Symposium being primarily centered on Tarot and being sort of non-academic, a way of encouraging people to network and to schmooze, to try out new things. This was in ’91, and a small voice that I’m still not entirely convinced was mine said, “I think I could try that!” And so on a wing and a prayer, I asked a few people like Mary Greer, Jennifer Moore, who was still working on the photographs for her Healing Tarot, Gary Ross from “Tarot Network News” — several different people — and I said, “Well, let’s try to do this.” The first one was in May of ’91. It was actually a modest success, and I got this very clear direction from my gods, my muses, whatever you want to call them, that said I should do them in the spring and fall until I couldn’t do them anymore and they stopped being fun. So I had the second one in October of ’91, and I’ve done them every year since.
James: I’m sure it’s a lot of work to organize one of these events now, but back then it must have been especially hard to do it since you basically had to make it all up as you went along.
Thalassa: Oh, if I knew then what I know now, I wouldn’t do it. It was terrifying. It made me grow and expand in ways I never dreamed possible, and it destroyed my marriage. I finally learned I could do something, I could make a difference, and it was so terrifically encouraging. But when I first started doing them, I had no idea, and I really had to trust. The image that kept floating before my eyes for the first two years was the Fool. I had to keep taking that breath and taking that step knowing that there was a pillow right underneath the frame of the picture when I stepped off that cliff. And I didn’t know! They’ve never really been financially successful, and the first ones were just so difficult in terms of time and energy and just asking people that I had admired [to participate]. “Hi, you don’t know me. I’m the associate editor of “Tarot Network News”, and I’m doing this Tarot Symposium.” There was a real desire for a Tarot community back then that we don’t even blink about now. [Now] there are gatherings and things on-line, and there are so many different things that really do create a sense of community. But back then, there was just this need and no means of addressing it. I was answering a call, obviously. I was surprised at how few people gave me attitude. I was amazed at how many people were, like, “Wow! Sure. I’d love to do that!” Or suddenly the first time when Brian Williams came to me and said, “I really like this, can I come and see it?” I venerate this man’s work, and he’s asking me if he can play in my sandbox! It’s really strange how the difficult part was doing it, making it happen. The easy part was asking people, because most people said, “Sure!”
James: What were some of the biggest hurdles you encountered to get that first symposium off the ground?
Thalassa: If you don’t know what you’re doing, the hardest part is pitching it to the mundane world — just the idea of going to a venue and saying, “I want to do this. I need this.” And the hardest part was first finding out what you need. Things as mundane as [getting] coffee urns, negotiating contracts. I had produced small scale events for work, but to organize an event like this, not knowing the technical terms, not knowing how to negotiate a contract, trying to phrase the advertising in such a way that it would draw people without putting them off. Those kinds of things were very difficult. And then just from an internal stand point, getting the courage to ask people to participate. So there were internal hurdles and external hurdles.
James: What would you say is the best presentation anyone has ever given at a BATS?
Thalassa: Oh gosh, there have been so many brilliant people doing so many brilliant things — and I never see any of it! [She laughs] If I’m lucky I get little bitty pieces of it. The one that really stands out in my mind [was when] we had just moved into the Firehouse of Fort Mason, which when I first started working with it was a beautiful space. It was this little T-shaped building at the foot of a cliff right by San Francisco Bay. Mary Greer had just come back from her research for The Women of the Golden Dawn in England, and she did a guided meditation, a full Golden Dawn ritual, guiding into the card of the Empress. And when she called — it still gives me goose-bumps — when she called the quarters, the winds whipped around the building … in different directions. It was so awesome! We were really honored in May of ’98. Monte Farber came out and brought with him several of the original tapestries from the Enchanted Tarot and the Goddess Cards. And they’re exquisite. It was such an honor that he would bring them and display them in this funky old warehouse that we’re working in right now, that he would bring these exquisite pieces of sacred art out!
James: For the benefit of those people who’ve never been to a Tarot symposium, what types of things might they expect to find at one?
Thalassa: What I try to do is to confound the butt-numbing academic model of a symposium. What I really wanted was something that was active, that people would participate in. So each symposium is divided into five or six workshop periods. The workshops are generally forty-five minutes. I chose that very specifically. Forty-five minutes is a comfortable attention [span]. It also puts a burden of concision on the speakers. Forty-five minutes makes you really think of what’s important to say. During any given workshop period there’s a choice of two or three different kinds of workshop. Some of the workshops are very hands on, very experiential: how to do a spread, how to color cards, how to make divination tools. Some of them are just lectures. Some of them are presentations. Someone may have a new book or a new deck, and they’re showing that. And then there’s also the Tarot bazaar. The Tarot bazaar is not just a marketplace of Tarot-related materials. Very often it’s an exhibition space. Like Brian Williams has had his artwork out for people to see. A couple of years back, Julia Turk brought some of the original canvases from “The Navigators Tarot of the Mystic Sea”. The published deck does not do justice to those canvases. They were absolutely magnificent! There are also readings available. If people are getting excited about Tarot, they’re probably going to want to buy a deck or they may want to look at a deck, or they may want to get a reading, and I want to make all of those things available.
James: What do you think is the best thing about these symposiums?
Thalassa: Just the gathering of the tribes. The people who work with the Tarot get a chance to get together and network and schmooze. A lot of decks and books have come into being out of connections that were formed at the symposium. The most wonderful thing is for people to be able to meet the authors and artists that they admire. And to just talk, to be among people where you don’t have to explain what Tarot is. You don’t have to say, “No, it’s not the Devil’s picture book.” Or “No, it’s not just fortune telling … No, I’m not a gypsy wearing hoop earrings and a scarf.” You just sit and talk and get into these wonderful knock-down, drag-out discussions about esoterica. It’s the great variety of experience and the community-building aspects!
James: It would be great for the Tarot community if there were more of these symposiums. What advice would you give to anyone else who wants to organize a symposium like BATS?
Thalassa: [Laughs] Be prepared to lose your shirt! You can’t do it for money. You have to do it for love. You have to do it in a spirit of service, as a service to the community, as a gift of love. You have to be doing it to bring greater legitimacy and cohesion to the Tarot community. But don’t expect to get anything other than fleeting glimpses of glory. And the more organized you are and the clearer you are, [the better]. Do you want it to be small and intimate? Do you want to do a regional version of what the ITS (International Tarot Society) is doing? What do you want to do?
James: So you need a clarity of vision.
Thalassa: A clarity of vision and a willingness to serve and a sort of whimsical idea of what your profit and loss ratio is. It’s very time consuming; it’s very demanding. And it’s a terrific expenditure of energy and money.
James: Now, with eight years of experience doing this, what is your vision of what
BATS will be like a few years from now?
Thalassa: I want to continue to make it a place where people can try new things, where unknown people can try things, where someone who is established can try something different in an environment that is supportive without being sycophantic.
James: Is there anything you’d like to change about it?
Thalassa: I’d like to find a home, a permanent place that would comfortably accommodate the number of presenters and a greater number of attendees. I would like to make it a two-day event, a Saturday and Sunday, on two weekends per year.
James: Through your work with BATS you have a strong connection with the Tarot community. How do you see that community changing in the next few years?
Thalassa: I’d like to see it make a greater impact on the mundane world. I would like to see Tarot have a greater degree of legitimacy, less of a stigma. I would like to see the Tarot, and the images and concepts in the Tarot, sort of revitalize our currently decrepit culture. I would like to see what the Tarot has to offer individuals being offered to society at large, without the weird image that movies and TV continue to foster. It’s getting better, but it’s a slow process. There’s so much smarm still attached to “the fortune telling image” that we really have to work hard to change that image.
James: Internally, how do you see the Tarot community changing?
Thalassa: What I’m afraid is going to happen after a while is what happened in the Pagan community. There will be factions and there will be conflicts as the community finds its identity and then re-coheres. Right now we’re so used to being the underdogs, sort of on the fringes of the New Age, metaphysical community. As we become a more fully-fledged community ourselves, we’ll have some rocky times where there will be some power plays and personality conflicts. Then it’ll settle down into something very much like the Pagan community has grown into, which is not a solid block, but a block of individuals that more or less share similar principles and viewpoints. That’s what I would like to see, but inevitably there’s going to be a rocky period.
James: So what you see is that we’re entering into a nexus period?
Thalassa: Yes, because we’re growing. And we’re actually growing to the point where we have significant numbers. The first ITS Tarot Congress had an attendance of around 300, and I’m sure Janet’s going to double that, if not more, this time. And it will continue to grow. Any community, once it hits a super-saturated solution point, will have some growing pains. But we can just take that as its growing pains, and it shows that we are a vital, growing community.