This month we’re going into the dark and glittery world of La Belle Époque London, where mysticism, masonic secret societies, and Art Nouveau blended into a heady cocktail known as ‘All My Favorite Things.’
At the heart of this world, lived an artist who made new and fantastical works, some of which went on to influence mystics for generations to come, only to die penniless, alone and relatively unknown. Well, no more I say!
Pamela “Pixie” Coleman-Smith was born in 1878 in London. She was the only child born to an American father and a Jamaican mother. For much of Pamela’s childhood, the family moved between London and Kingston, Jamaica. When she was just 16, she moved to Brooklyn to enroll in the still new Pratt Institute. Her time at Pratt wasn’t smooth sailing- according to many, she was sick throughout her time there, and in 1896 her mother died. Though Pamela left the school in 1897 without a degree, she did go on to become an illustrator (proving that going to school is what’s valuable, not necessarily the degree one obtains).
Just two years later, Smith’s father died. She returned to England where, it can be said, she had the richest moments of her career. In addition to her illustration work, she began to take on other jobs as well in theater design. She joined the Lyceum Theater group, led by the Lead Shakespearean Actress (and soon to be dear friend), Ellen Terry, along with Henry Irving and Bram Stoker. For five years, she toured with them, living what this Craft-loving, goth-lite, ex-theater kid can only imagine was a dark and exciting bohemian life. It was during this time that Ellen Terry is said to have given Pamela the nickname (for which she would be known for the rest of her life), “Pixie.” In 1901, Pamela opened a London studio, where she worked and where, once a week, she would hold an open house for all artists, writers (including WB Yeats and his brother Jack), musicians and other artistically minded folks. At these events, everyone would share what they were working on, and enjoy miniature paper-theater performances by Pamela which were often based on Jamaican folk-tales.
The height of Pam’s career came in 1907, when she met Alfred Stieglitz, the famous New York photographer and gallery owner. Being independent, proactive and generally charming, Pamela stopped into his gallery to show him her work. He was impressed with her work, especially given her young age (28) and decided ‘what the heck- let’s have a show!’, making Pam the first painter to have a show at 291 which, until then, had been solely devoted to the photo avante garde. The show, though low-attended at first, eventually enjoyed a huge critical success. A well-known critic of the time put her in the same category as Artist/Writer/Mystic William Blake, and said called one of her paintings “…absolutely nerve shattering,” that not even Edvard Munch “…could have succeeded better in arousing a profound disquiet.”
Perhaps Pamela’s best-known work, is that which she’s least known for: The “Rider Waite” Tarot Deck. In 1909, A. E. Waite, fellow member of the Golden Order of the Hermetic Dawn (a great wiki-rabbit hole if ever there was one), commissioned Smith to produce a tarot deck. While Waite is often credited as the co-creater of the deck, in truth he designed the 22 major cards through elaborate description, leaving Smith to interpret those and to design the remaining 56 cards with relative freedom- something which she took total advantage of. In just seven months, Pamela created 78 separate drawings, creating a deck which was the first since 1491 to have illustrations on every card and which was to be the first deck with mass-market appeal. Even decks produced today draw on Smith’s illustrations.
Sadly, Pamela received barely any money at all for the job (or in her words “I just completed a very big job for very little cash!”), and no royalties. What began as the Smith-Waite deck became the Rider-Waite-Smith deck (Rider being the name of the publisher) and eventually, the Rider-Waite deck. Pamela died in 1951, alone, relatively unknown and so penniless that her drawings and paintings had to all be sold to cover her debts. That the president of US Games believes that “She could have been a millionaire today” only adds salt to the wound.
Whether you believe in tarot cards and other “woo woo” things (as my aunt calls it all), I can only assume that in reading this blog you are not into short shrift given by the patriarchy. While I always love to highlight someone who may have been pushed into the margins, what really seals the deal on PCS for me, is similar to the praise that critic bestowed upon her during that first show: “Pamela Colman Smith is a young woman with that quality rare in either sex- imagination.” Imagination- the ability to conceive of what is not- is at the heart of my art/teaching/life philosophy. It is at the heart of innovation and, I truly believe, the quality most needed to find solutions to the ever-more complex problems we face as a species. So, for this month’s how to, we’re going to talk about how to practice, and strengthen your own imagination:
How to Use Images to Practice Using Your Imagination To Become A Smarter, Better, Less Boring Human.
For the sake of continuity (and because I’m a nerd who totally loves all this stuff), I’ll be using one of Pamela’s drawings, but these same prompts could be used with any image of your choice.
- First take stock of what you can see. Look closely- How close or how far are each of the elements? What expressions do you see? For now, try to suspend making any sort of judgement about the image.
- Once you’ve spent a good long while looking at the ‘what’ in the image, start to wonder ‘why- Why that expression? Who might it be directed at- someone in the image? Why are all these creatures gathered here? Where might they be (and why?) What do you believe is happening right at this moment in this image?
- Turn your attention now to the things you can’t see- What’s inside those towers? Or just beyond the mountains? Or under the water? Or in the mind of that weirdo lobster? If this is a moment in a story, what happened right before? What might happen right after? Or ten years later?
- Congratulations! You’re now using your imagination. Go forth and make the world a weirder, better place.