Arts & Culture

Happy 139th birthday to Brooklyn’s forgotten Pratt grad: witch and tarot artist Pamela Colman Smith

Pamela Colman Smith tarot cards
Pamela Colman Smith in the early 1910s and eight cards from a 1st edition Rider-Waite deck, originally published in 1909 (photos via Wikipedia and The World of Playing Cards)

If you’ve ever seen a tarot deck, it was most likely illustrated or inspired by the drawings of Pamela Colman Smith, an England-born, Jamaica-raised, Brooklyn-educated artist. She graduated from Pratt Institute in 1897 and became a theater designer who was once hugely influential in the world of esoterica but has been all but forgotten today.

For those of you not in touch: tarot cards are an expanded, occult version of playing cards used to tell fortunes and perform other rituals. They’re believed to have originated in Europe in the late 14th century, and have since become a canvass for a variety of non-traditional illustration themes, including Lisa Frank tarot and Twin Peaks tarot.

Born Feb. 16, 1878, Pamela’s life was marred with rejections, a failure to gain commercial traction, and general disappointment with her work, according to a biography of her available in Rider-Waite decks. This was despite illustrating the 78 allegorical paintings which today compose one of the most popular tarot decks in the world, the Rider-Waite (increasingly known as the Smith-Waite) tarot pack

Today, on what would have been her 139th birthday, she’s still far from a household name, but her work been used to tell the fortunes of millions of fans worldwide over the years: indeed, if you’ve ever looked at a tarot card, you’ve probably seen her work, or some deviation of it. While the now-iconic images of The Fool and The Magician do not bear her name, they carry her legend through the centuries.

Pamela Colman Smith Tarot Cards
Photo courtesy Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, via Hyperallergic

Pamela made the Waite-Smith deck with the help of famed occultist Arthur Edward Waite, and her prints were published initially with his tarot guide.

Anecdotes on Pamela’s various drawing room programs (intimate performances given in private homes) featuring Jamaican folklore, fairy tales and English ballads dot the archives of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle — including one recital held [IN?] elite Brooklyn Heights school Packer Collegiate Institute in 1907 — which varyingly refers to her as a “talented young artist” in 1889 and as a “clever artist and monologist whose dark hair was dressed most effectively with a quantity of coral pins” in 1912.

Pamela died at the age of 73, unmarried, “penniless and obscure” according to a bio of her provided as the last card in the Rider-Waite deck. Her life had garnered no funeral procession, no memorial service. She has no known heirs, and had spent her final months with another older woman, her flatmate. She never married.

Honor her legacy and patronize your local tarot shop, such as Bushwick’s Catland (please, please, don’t get them on Amazon, that is very bad vibes, my friend) by buying her deck.

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