J. The Jewish News of Northern California via JTA – A wildfire, speeding up a mountain. A turtle, deep in the earth. A dark sea, rough on the surface and always below.
These images, carved on blocks and printed by artist Ava Sayaka Rosen, are part of a card game that is both a work of art, a spiritual tool and a call to connect with nature.
“I was looking for a way to educate people about ecology, but also to make that connection between taking care of the Earth and taking care of yourself, and human relationships,” Rosen said. “I felt like tarot was a good way to fill all of these things.”
Rosen, 33, created the tarot deck as a 2021 member with LABA East Bay, the one-year Jewish Artist Fellowship hosted by the JCC East Bay in Berkeley, California. It is a project that merges his passion for nature and text-based art with his Jewish roots.
“My Jewish upbringing, combined with my parents’ love for nature, really instilled in me a deep sense of belonging and connection to nature,” said Rosen, who is mixed race (her mother is Japanese and her father is an Ashkenazi Jew). “And that was really the inspiration to make this deck.”
Rosen, who lives in Oakland, grew up in San Francisco and holds an MFA in Creative Writing and Book Art from Mills College. Her first artistic job was at Congregation Emanu-El as a teenage assistant in the art room, helping the art teacher. Today, she herself is an artist and art teacher at the San Francisco Synagogue, with her own school-aged Jewish assistants.
“It was my first job and I really liked it,” she said. “And it’s just hilarious to me that I come full circle. I’m back there as an art teacher with teenage assistants.
While his art study was in a school setting, his tarot experience was personal.
“I was first drawn to imagery. I didn’t know anything about the meaning of the cards, or their history, ”she said. “As I started to learn more about it, I really got into the practice of tarot reading as a way to investigate myself and my relationships. “
Tarot cards date back to 15th century Italy. They were adapted for mystical purposes, notably as a tool for divination, in 18th-century France, and social media brought new interest to the practice. During a tarot reading, cards with evocative images are taken from a deck and interpreted through a special lens. Some rely on Kabbalah in their readings; other modern Jewish artists have also mixed tarot with Jewish mysticism.
As an artist, Rosen has said that creating your own deck is a natural step. The deck she designed as a member of LABA is not a particularly Jewish work of art, although it does contain Jewish texts to help deepen understanding of each image. But the LABA grant allowed him to take an existing concept and develop it. It also gave him deadlines to meet.
“It’s a very ambitious project to create original concepts and sculpt them, print them, write them – write the descriptions for them – so I knew I was going to need some help with it. accountability, in a major way, ”she said.
Of the 78 cards that make up a tarot deck, Rosen completed 39, mostly during the LABA scholarship. She plans to look for a publisher once the game is over.
“This LABA scholarship really set my ass on fire and gave me a deadline, and I just worked really, really hard to produce about half of the game now,” she said.
Rosen began each design by drawing a card from his copy of the Rider-Waite deck, the best-known tarot deck (first published in 1909, he is famous for his esoteric imagery and this is what most people think of when they think of tarot cards). She let this be a guide for the inspiration and interpretation needed to create her own version.
Thinking about traditional interpretations of each card, she would find a concept of a related nature and create a description with “writing prompts for self-reflection questions,” she said.
For the Moon card, which shows a bright full moon slightly surrounded by clouds, the questions included: What do you know? What are you drawn to? The Compost card guide, which shows shiny mushrooms growing on a log, has a well-known section from Genesis: “You are dust and you will turn to dust. “
“Working with other Jewish artists really opened up ideas for me about what Jewish art is,” Rosen said.
She named the project “TARO :: TORA” after two images from the traditional Rider-Waite game, illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith. “The connection between tarot and Torah, to which the title refers, is mysterious but very present in traditional card archetypes,” she said.
Rosen was able to see the power of “TARO :: TORA” in person during a LABA live event on November 7th at JCC East Bay. Her corner, where she read with her deck, was more popular than she expected.
“I didn’t think a big line would form,” Rosen said with a laugh.
Musician David Israel Katz was one of those who got a reading. He said he was drawn to the project for how it combined “the visual language of freedom and playfulness on the one hand, and aesthetic cohesion and in-depth research on the other.” .
“As minimal as the reading in its exterior format, it intimately illuminated the interior,” he told J. in an email. “The map I drew spoke to me immediately, and Ava was able to accurately and concisely describe the different facets of the image.”
Sarah Wolfman-Robichaud, director of public programs at JCC East Bay, said the JCC looked forward to having Rosen in the fraternity not only because of her talent and connections to the art and Jewish worlds, but also because of his experience in teaching children. . The JCC intends to expand the LABA by incorporating artists into preschool and after-school programs, and Wolfman-Robichaud said Rosen was an obvious choice for this as well.
For Rosen, LABA was a unique opportunity for her to participate in a group with others like her: Jewish artists who could explore concepts of Jewishness, art, and Jewish art together.
“The study of text combined with artistic creation really appealed to me and felt unique to me,” she said. “It really allowed us to have in-depth conversations around these ideas and to really form a community.”
This story originally appeared in J. The Jewish News of Northern California and is republished with permission.