When I was a kid, my eccentric magician grandpa—aptly named Merlin, (seriously)—gifted me a pack of Rider Waite tarot cards, complete with a lesson on how to read fortunes. As a hormone-fueled fourth grader, my immediate thought was impress all the girls at my school with my newfound paranormal prowess. Of course, they thought I was more awkward nerd than otherworldy sorcerer, and to add to my embarrassment, I was sent to the principal’s office for bringing blasphemous material into an elementary school.
If only I could have had Chris Ovdiyenko rolling with me.
The Central Ohio artist, whose Kickstarter campaign recently raked in more than $190,000 for his hand-drawn Arcana Playing Cards, bases his work on the tarot, and he could explain to my principal that the origins of the tarot deck are far from sacrilegious.
“The first card decks in Europe were tarot, and they weren’t used for divination but actually for casual gaming,” he said.
Connecting the tarot deck to our modern deck of playing cards isn’t too farfetched when you think about it. They both have four suits, a lively cast of royals, and each serve as a catalyst for divination or a remedy for boredom—depending on your culture.
But it’s not the playing cards’ function that has attracted over 3000 backers and 190,000 smackers to Ovdiyenko’s campaign. It is his laborious attention to detail and iconic form that has made his campaign a success.
“The amount of sweat and work that goes into these projects is a lot, so to have people around the world appreciate it is just crazy rewarding,” he said. “I have been blown away. People just really latched on to the idea.”
He is not exaggerating. Each card design takes an estimated 40 to 50 hours of work, which includes research about the specific card, creating a new composition, and rendering it to his style. Multiply that by the 78 cards in a tarot deck and you get roughly 17 months worth of sweat and work.
Ovdiyenko’s conceptualization for his design is based of the 1910 Ryder Wait Smith tarot deck—the one you have probably seen behind a glass case at Barnes & Noble and wanted to buy, but couldn’t justify spending 30 bucks on.
“Just on an artistic level [head artist for the Ryder Wait Smith deck] Pamela Smith’s illustrations are very simple, almost like cartoons,” Ovdiyenko said. “But there is so much symbolism that is woven into them and so much room for whoever is reading the cards to put their interpretation into them.”
Iconography is a major part of Ovdiyenko’s work, and arguably a major reason why so many people have connected with his campaign. His art is intimate and familiar, and it evokes a commanding insight into Europe’s draconian past. This is no coincidence considering another key player in his spectrum of influence is medieval Italian printer William Caxton, who is best known for his grim woodcut illustrations in The Canterbury Tales.
Ovdiyenko uses a technique called “scratchboarding,” an illustrative method in which the artist uses sharp knives to etch into white clay, which is then coated in black ink. From there, he refines and tweaks the images on a tablet. He emphasized that each of his images is organically created and crafted by hand.
“I’m meticulous about making sure the final imagery works at the relatively small scale of playing cards,” Ovdiyenko told the followers on his Kickstarter page.
Initially, he only planned on doing the standard 56-card deck, substituting the two jokers and two extra cards with the four most iconic arcana cards from the tarot: Death, The Tower, The Lovers and The Fool. However, given the astonishing demand for his art, Ovdiyenko decided to do the whole shebang.
“In the major arcana there are 22 archetypes, which loosely I would say align to Jungian archetypes, the way people view themselves, and different stages of development,” he said.
The back of each card is an original design depicting a blooming tree juxtaposed against a mirror image of its roots, representing Ovdiyenko’s grandmaster existential theme. “In alchemy there is a principle called ‘as above so below,’ so I thought of that and how it influenced the symmetry of the piece,” said Ovdiyenko. Birth, death, and resurrection: the infinite circle of Hermetic reflection.
My poker game just got a whole lot more metal. Grandpa Merl would be proud.
Odinyenko’s “Arcana” deck can be purchased later this year from his website deadonpaper.com.