Tainted Tarot, May 2005
Interview with Joseph Vargo and Christine Filipak
by Clare McHale
Whose concept was The Gothic Tarot and how long did the project take to complete?
Joseph: I had considered doing a Tarot deck as early as 1981, but I just didn't have the patience to commit to such an extensive project back then. As the years passed, and my portfolio of work grew, I began thinking that a lot of the images that I had created could be used for a Tarot deck, and since my forte was gothic fantasy art, it stood to reason that my Tarot deck should embrace the darkside.
Once I began discussing the deck with my friends, everyone seemed to love the idea. A lot of them kept after me to begin the project. Occult author Michelle Belanger is a good friend of mine and she really prodded me about doing the Tarot deck. She even shared some of her concepts about the Major Arcana based on some of my pre-existing paintings. If it wasn't for my friends and fans pushing me to do the project, The Gothic Tarot may have remained in the development stages for quite awhile.
As far as the actual time frame for the project, the finished deck consists of paintings from my entire professional career, so although the actual project took about eight months for Christine and myself to complete, The Gothic Tarot actually represents over ten years worth of work.
What research did you do before creating the deck?
Joseph: Christine and I were both familiar with the Tarot, but once we began working on the project we did extensive research into the history of the Tarot and the variations of the decks through time. We also looked at several popular decks and made notes of what worked and what didn't. I wanted to create a deck that was true to the concepts of the Tarot as well as being completely gothic, without sacrificing anything from either concept.
Christine: We looked at dozens of classic and modern decks and familiarized ourselves with the most artistic and popular ones before we began putting The Gothic Tarot together. There are several decks that utilize artwork from well-known artists, but the images seem to have little or nothing to do with the actual meaning of the card it is featured on. We really strived to match the artwork to the traditional meaning of the card, albeit with an original gothic theme and connotation.
It's very dark and sexy, why a Gothic Tarot? And what were your influences for the deck?
Joseph: Early in my career, I was very heavily influenced by fantasy art icon Frank Frazetta, and most of my early paintings were patterned after his style. I love the way he sets a mood, and his work has a primal sensuality to it. His muscular male characters depict savage masculinity while his exotic females portray the essence of desire. As I developed my own style, I always tried to maintain a certain level of sex appeal in my art.
Gothic literature is very romantic at its heart and I think that vampires are the most seductive creatures of the night. For this reason, I try to capture a very sensual mood with many of my depictions of vampires and ghosts. Also, several of the images used in the deck depict characters in Tales From The Dark Tower, an anthology of gothic tales concerning gargoyles, ghosts, vampires and dark angels.
Christine, you joined Monolith Graphics in 1992, how did that come about? Had you met or heard of Joseph Vargo previously?
Christine: Joseph and I had been friends since about 1988. I had moved to Cleveland, Ohio the previous year and was just beginning college for graphic design. I actually met him through his sister, with whom I was friends. I was aware that Joseph was an artist, but I had never really known just how talented he was until one day, a few years later, I peeked into his studio and feasted my eyes upon about a hundred various works with wildly beautiful women, strong, heroic men, and fearsome beasts. I was in complete awe! He obviously was not the type to say "Hey, look what I've done." He kept most of his work locked away in an upstairs room of his home studio. He had to practically drag me out of there that day.
It was around 1992 when Joseph and his sister invited me to attend a Renaissance Faire where he was selling framed prints, posters and t-shirts of some of his images under the company name of Monolith Graphics, which he had started the previous year. It was a lot of fun and we did the fairs together for several years, each year building up the selection of products. Eventually we began to seek other venues to showcase his work.
As I neared graduation from college, I began to contribute more of my computer and pre-press knowledge to his projects (photography, layout, and transferring his images from canvas to digital files then preparing them for printing). We began marketing his work to stores here in the US, and it just took off like wildfire. Eventually, the Monolith business became so successful that I was able to quit my other design job, which I hated, so that was nice. In 1997, Joseph and I opened a fantasy art gallery in Cleveland called "The Realm." Later that year I began to develop the company website which went online in 1998.
Christine, you cite "Alphonse Mucha, master artist of the Art Nouveau movement" as your inspiration at the Monolith Graphics website, that's a bit of a jump from Gothic art, or is it? Did you have any trouble connecting with Joseph's vision for The Gothic Tarot?
Christine: The Art Nouveau movement is not all that different from today's Gothic revival. The lines are more fluid, and the themes seem lighter, but the sense of freedom is the same. There is a definite crossover appeal between both styles. I think that anyone who sees my artwork and is familiar with Mucha would agree that I was heavily influenced by his style. In any case, I only made mention of it in reference to the Madame Endora Fortune Cards. As for The Gothic Tarot, that deck is all Joseph's work. Once he made the final decisions as to which images would be used to represent the various cards, my job really began. I did the layout, the type, and prepared the images for printing, and also worked with Joseph to design and write the LWB.
In the decks LWB there is a credit for some of the art work used on the Aces, who is Charles Klimsch and how did you discover his work?
Christine: I discovered the works of Charles Klimsch from an old reference book that my father had (my father was a designer as well, and I inherited many of his books). The book, Florid Victorian Ornament was compiled by Karl Klimsch, who I am guessing was the grandson of Charles, and is still published today by Dover as a copyright-free pictorial archive. The Klimsch family was of German origin and was well known in the early 19th century for their fine engraving work. It is the type of work that, although appreciated, did not garner fame. I see this work and am amazed that such intricacies were possible before the invention of the home computer. In fact, I have yet to see this kind of detail even today with the aide of technology. We wanted The Gothic Tarot to be completely original, and yet, we felt that the Aces could benefit from an intricate design motif for the background. Klimsch's work was available and it fit our needs, and so we used it, but we felt it was necessary to give credit where it was due. This particular artist has all but fallen into obscurity and that is a sad thing, when he should be revered for his painstaking work.
Joseph drew a detailed rendering of each of the suit icons (the sword, chalice, wand, and pentacle). These images were later set against Klimsch's ornate filigree. I think the end result is an elegant blending of two artistic visionaries.
Joseph, I read in a couple of reviews that some of your previous artwork was adapted for the deck. This was when you originally planned only pips for the Minor Arcana. Why did you decide to expand The Gothic Tarot and use the Rider Waite example of a fully illustrated deck?
Joseph: I always like to point out that although the deck is commonly referred to as the Rider-Waite deck, Rider is just the name of the company that originally published the deck in 1910. Waite is credited as researching the deck and adapting the Minor Arcana into artwork based on principals of the Order of the Golden Dawn. The artwork was actually done by Pamela Colman-Smith. Somehow down the line, Colman-Smith's name was dropped from the title and the publisher's name was attached to the deck. I like to point that out because I strongly believe in giving artistic credit where it's due.
The Waite Tarot was a milestone deck because it was the first deck to utilize illustrations to depict the Minor Arcana. It is probably the most commonly-used deck today. I wanted The Gothic Tarot to be easy to interpret and comprehend, so it was patterned after Waite's deck. I have a lot of respect for his artistic ingenuity, and once I began working on the project, I began to realize that Waite had thrown down the gauntlet for anyone who attempted to create their own deck. A pips-only deck would have been like taking the easy way out. I realized that if I really wanted The Gothic Tarot to be special, I would have to illustrate all 78 cards. It really was a challenge, but I look back on it as a labor of love.
Once we started compiling the images from my existing body of work, which at the time consisted of over 200 images, it was strange how many of them fit perfectly into place with little or no alteration. I think of it as serendipity. It was just meant to be, or perhaps I was always subconsciously painting images for The Gothic Tarot without being aware of what I was creating.
Why 8 for Justice and 11 for Strength, the Rider Waite has it the other way around?
Joseph: The Tarot itself is centuries old and experts still debate its exact origins. I wanted to create a deck that harkened back to the Old World style, such as the Marseilles deck. Waite had his own reasons for his decision to change the position of these two cards, but I preferred to go with the older, traditional way.
How much artwork was created specifically for the project?
Joseph: A majority of the pre-existing images that were used in The Gothic Tarot were altered to fit the deck. These alterations were usually subtle and consisted of simply adding the various suit icons, but in some instances, the alterations were more dramatic. For example, the angel that depicts Justice was originally painted in brilliant hues of gold set against a radiant sky. The figure also held a shield in her left hand, which was later replaced by a scale. The enchantress that adorns the Temperance card originally held nothing in her hands as she conjured forth a demon from her fiery cauldron. The demon was removed from the painting and chalices were later added to her hands. Other cards like the Ten of Swords, The Hanged Man, The Wheel of Fortune and The Chariot were created specifically for the deck, as well as the Aces, Two's and most of the Three's.
There's a very nice moody photo of you and Christine in the Bio section of the Monolith website, are either of you in the deck? If yes, which cards?
Joseph: I like to think of Christine as my muse, because she inspires my creative side. A lot of people comment that several of my blonde, fair-skinned women that I've painted look like Christine. Although it wasn't intentional, it probably was done on a subliminal level. The beautiful spectre in the Eight of Swords, however, is based on a photo of Christine. As for me, they say that artists always paint themselves in their own work, so I suppose that a lot of my personal traits do appear in the deck, however, none of the cards are intentional self-portraits.
Do you have a favourite card from The Gothic Tarot, and if yes, which and why?
Christine: My favorite image is "Possessed," which is the image used for the Strength card. It completely embodies the concept of a strong female archetype. She seems at peace with her own nature; her head thrown back, eyes closed, lips partly open, looking quite seductive, while the wind and storm clouds swirl around her; her long flowing gown creating a soft backdrop for the harsh demeanor of the living stone gargoyle that stands alongside her. I see this card and consider that the gargoyle is her protector, while she is ultimately in command of the forces around her.
Joseph: Hey, I was going to say that was one of my favorites. Okay I guess I have to pick another one. You know, it's kind of like asking a mother which of her children is her favorite. Alright, my second favorite would be The Emperor, which depicts Dracula in his blood-red throne. This one really incorporates a lot of gothic elements and the emperor strikes a commanding presence from their midst.
Do you use numerology and/or astrology in the deck?
Christine: Astrological concepts flow throughout the Madame Endora deck. There are four cards that specifically represent the elements that govern the 12 signs of the western Zodiac. The figure on The Seer card is set against a motif consisting of the signs of the Zodiac. The Hand of Fate Card shows the astrological symbols as they pertain to palmistry. There are also cards that depict the sun and the moon using Egyptian motifs as well as other cards that depict talismans and runes.
Joseph: The Gothic Tarot is filled with mystical symbolism, but I don't like to reveal all of its secrets unless someone asks me about a specific element. I feel that some things should remain a mystery and open to personal interpretation.
Is there any significance to the number of skulls and wolves in the Knight of Pentacles; 3 wolves, and what looks like 8 skulls?
Joseph: Not specifically. I use skulls to represent death, so usually the more skulls that are in an area, the more foreboding the place is meant to be.
The number 3 seems to crop up a lot3 ravens and 3 skulls in the Fool; 3 skulls in the Magician; 3 columns and 3 gargoyles in the Hermitis that deliberate?
Joseph: Yes. The Emperor also has three brides and there are three archways in the Five of Pentacles and as well as the Ten of Cups. I think of life's journey in terms of past, present and future, and the best Tarot decks and readers fully embrace this concept. People consult the Tarot to find out what the future holds and to foresee the outcome of their current situation, be it romance, money, or health issues. The Tarot allows us to examine and learn from the past, enabling us to make the best choices for the path that lies before us. Many of the cards in The Gothic Tarot represent this concept of examining the past, present and future.
The Magician card usually only has one figure, why did you chose to use five?
Joseph: A lot of people ask about that image because it is so different. The Magician card may be the best representation of an existing image that was adapted to fit the concept of the card. I have actually painted three versions of that image. The original painting is titled "Seventh Son" and actually depicts the central magus figure (the father) presiding over a mystical ceremony to indoctrinate and endow the seventh son of a seventh son with six gifts. A male child was suspended in the flame and six hooded figures (the elder sons), each presenting a gift, flanked the sides of the staircase. The six gifts were: a crown, a sword, a book, a chalice, a scale, and a crystal ball, representing power, strength, wisdom, healing, justice, and clairvoyance. For The Gothic Tarot, we removed two of the six hooded figures and changed the remaining four offerings to coincide with the four suits of the Tarot. The child was replaced with an oroboros to signify rebirth, and the magician's hand is held high to summon forth the forces of Nature. The altered image represents a powerful magician who has been bestowed with a sword, chalice, wand, and pentacle. He has these mystical objects at his command, and the ritual fire enables him to clearly see into their governing realms.
The inscription on the staircase of the Magician has a much more elaborate history and meaning. The inscriptions in the stairs beneath the hooded figure's feet originally told what each of the six symbolic gifts represented. The symmetrical symbols are actually stylized letters of the English alphabet, vertically mirrored in order to disguise them. Though the symbols are virtually unintelligible at the size the tarot cards were printed, I left the original inscriptions in the steps because I felt they were very appropriate for the Magician.
Why Green for the Devil?
Joseph: I thought that red would be kind of cliché. I thought that green was more eerie and it also hearkens back to the medieval depictions of the devil being the horned goat of the woods, originally associated with the pagan Greenman.
You list reversed meanings in the LWB, but the backs of the cards aren't reversible, did you consider making them so?
Joseph: Yes, we originally designed and considered several other motifs that were perfectly symmetrical, but I eventually decided on using the Realm Icon for the backs of the cards because it represents the intertwined concepts of the opposing forces of the universe-light and darkness, good and evil.
Which figures, if any, are repeated in the deck and why? Have you taken any of the Major Arcana characters and used them in the Courts or Minors?
Joseph: Yes, however, this is mainly due to the fact that many of these images were taken from the Tales from the Dark Tower anthology. The two main characters are depicted in The Lovers, and they reoccur individually later in the deck on cards such as Strength, The King of Pentacles, the Four of Wands, the Five of Cups. They also appear together again in the Ten of Pentacles.
Some of the Cards have Latin writing, hieroglyphs and mystical symbols; The Magician; High Priestess; Temperance; Knave of Pentacles; IV  of Swords; VI  of Cups; IX  of Swords; What do the phrases/symbols mean?
Joseph: The symbols on the pedestal below the Knave of Pentacles are letters of the Alphabet of the Magi and spell out the word "Golem." This is the title of the original painting, which is based on the ancient tales of stone servants that could be brought to life through magical incantations. The Latin inscription above the mausoleum gate on the Six of Cups, "Noctem Aeternus," means "eternal night." The Latin inscription on the sepulchre in the Four of Swords, "Libera Animus Omnium Fidelium Defunctorum De Poenis Obscurum" translates to "Deliver the souls of the faithful departed from pain and darkness." The hieroglyphs that adorn the High Priestess and the Nine of Cups are the same. The Egyptian gods that are depicted on the pillars on both of these cards are Khonsu, the god of the moon (on the left), and Anubis, the guide of the Underworld (on the right).
The symbols in the mystic circle on Temperance have no actual meaning. They were based on the Theban Alphabet and the Alphabet of the Magi, however, they were designed purely as an artistic element to lend an air of mystery and mysticism.
Joseph, I've only seen your name on one card, the High Priestess, why this card?
Joseph: My signature is actually on all my paintings, but the card images are so small that it cannot be seen in most cases. The Moon contains my signature in the lower left portion of the crescent. The Emperor card contains my signature carved into the bottom left step, it appears in the lower right-hand corner on the Knight of Swords and the Four of Cups. In some of the images, my name simply got cropped out. Considering there are 78 cards, it became a bit redundant to have my name showing up on every single corner edge, unless it was worked into a more intricate border, such as with the High Priestess or the Nine of Cups, so when it appeared too prominently and became a distraction, it was cropped out. I wanted the image to be the main focus of each card.
The Empress, High Priest and The Lovers all share a doorway/frame, do you perceive a connection between these cards, or was it purely artistic?
Joseph: This is another example of serendipity in the deck. Although these three images were designed as a gothic triptych several years before the Tarot project, they perfectly exemplified the archetypes of these three cards. The figures depict the four main characters in the Tales from the Dark Tower anthology. The Empress represents Lilith, the Dark Queen, a powerful female who is rather tyrannical, the High Priest represents The Baron, who strives to be righteous, and the lovers represent Brom and Rianna, who are torn by the opposing forces of light and darkness.
The World card is a stone tablet with carvings; does it depict a battle between heaven and hell?
Joseph: This rendering of a carved relief depicts an imminent clash between the opposing forces of the universe. The central ring marks the earthly arena where the forces of light and darkness intervene in the affairs of men and sway mortals towards good and evil. There's a much more elaborate description of this image and the history behind it in Russell Novotny's short story "Sanctuary" in the Tales From The Dark Tower anthology.
Why did you choose gargoyles to represent the Knaves?
Joseph: I thought of the Knaves as pawns of the King and Queen of each suit, almost the counterpart to the noble Knights, so I decided to make them grotesques as opposed to handsome male figures. Also, I just love to design and paint gargoyles.
Did you always plan to publish The Gothic Tarot independently? Or did you try publishers like Llewellyn and US Games first?
Christine: It was always our intent to publish The Gothic Tarot through Monolith Graphics. We publish all of our own products from books, magazines and CDs to T-shirts, posters and calendars, so going through another publisher was never a consideration. It's a lot more work this way, but we have complete control of the project and retain all the rights.
Did you have an interest in Tarot before this project and what are your views on Tarot?
Joseph: Yes. I've always been fascinated with the Tarot. I think my interest was sparked at an early age when my aunt gave me a deck of Gypsy Witch fortune telling cards. A few years later, I picked up the Waite and Marseille decks. I loved the symbolism in the illustrations and how they could be interpreted a variety of ways depending on how they pertained to a person's life and present circumstances.
Do you use The Gothic Tarot at all, and/or other decks?
Joseph: No. I generally like to be surprised as to what the future holds. I do occasionally pull a card from the Madame Endora deck to see what it says about the outcome of current situation. It's a lot quicker than doing an entire Tarot spread, and it's surprisingly accurate.
Christine, how much say did you have in the project in relation to the main body of artwork?
Christine: Joseph had already completed many of the images on canvas. For those images that did not originally have an element such as a grouping of swords or wands, he illustrated them separately, then, I came in later and used my computer skills to add the various suit elements to the original work. We would throw ideas back and forth, but he had a vision of what this should be and I simply followed his direction.
My real work comes into play during production time, when choosing the right paper, the box design, and all the little technical things that hopefully makes a press run go smoothly. With that being said, we did have a few problems at the start. Our original printer sent the cards out to another company to die-cut them. Well, that's when the headaches began. One company refused to do the cutting because they thought the cards were "evil." They said they didn't want anything to do with "witchcraft." I just couldn't believe someone had that kind of mindset in this day and age! I was at a total loss as to how to even deal with that. I called the manufacturer and spoke to him, thinking that if he were to actually meet us, he would see that we are just a couple of artists trying to get some paper cut, but he was a narrow-minded idiot, and so I had to keep looking around. Another company had no problem with the theme, but just didn't have the proper equipment and messed up an entire batch of 2000 decks, which then had to be re-printed all over again. I finally found a company that wasn't stuck in the Dark Ages and could do the job right.
You are credited with design and text; does that include the overall look of the deck as well as the LWB, card titles, numbers, borders?
Christine: Yes, as well as adding the suit icons to the artwork. This took a lot of time and the process involved utilizing computer graphics programs which enabled me to redesign the images without changing the original artwork.
Do you plan on writing a companion book for The Gothic Tarot?
Christine: Yes, however, we have several other projects to complete before we even begin to think about getting started on a companion book.
You have some great products available on your website Monolith Graphics, including journals with artwork used in The Gothic Tarot, are there any plans for a new deck? If yes, any hints/previews?
Joseph: Thank you. We may eventually offer a companion deck for the Madame Endora deck, or expand the original deck to 78 cards. We have several new images and card concepts ranging from Oriental enchantresses to ancient Egyptian Gods.
Can customers buy signed copies of The Gothic Tarot?
Joseph: Yes, if anyone who buys the deck directly from Monolith Graphics includes a request to have the deck signed, I'm happy to do it. We've even included a separate signature card in both The Gothic Tarot and the Madame Endora deck for this specific purpose.
Christine, you've created your own oracle deck, Madame Endora's Fortune Cards. "Based on Old World myth and lore, illustrated in an elegant Art Nouveau style". Which deck came first, The Gothic or Madame Endora?
Christine: The Gothic Tarot came first. Madame Endora's Fortune Cards were created about a six months later. Madame Endora began as a regular feature in the magazine we publish, Dark Realms. In each issue Madame Endora enlightens the reader about different methods of divination, the meanings of symbols, natural elements, talismans, etc., as well as the historical significance of these and many other beliefs. The Fortune deck was a natural progression from this idea, and combines many of the concepts from ancient cultures, mythology and lore.
Did Joseph have anything to do with Madame Endora? Did you ask his opinion?
Christine: We actually created this deck together, and Joseph contributed some art to the deck as well. He did basic pencil drawings of several of the designs and I applied the color and backgrounds to them. My specialty is the Art Nouveau style and I love rendering female figures with elegant gowns and flowing hair as well as creating stylized artistic elements such as ornamentations and borders. I think our styles mesh together very well in this deck. Whereas I think it's obvious that I created the more feminine-looking cards such as The Seer, The Queen and Hindrance, I think people will recognize Joseph's style in cards such as The Greenman, The Golem and The Siren. Although in some instances, it is difficult to discern who did certain cards.
Do you have your own website?
Christine: No. The Monolith Graphics website encompasses everything we do together, so I do not have a separate website.
Joseph, you compose gothic music and I've listened to some great clips on the Nox Arcana website. I know you've found inspiration for some of your work from a haunted house, but has The Gothic Tarot influenced any of your work? Or Tarot in general?
Joseph: No, but as with my artwork, I always strive to portray the complete gothic spectrum, from the beautifully haunting to the elegantly sinister to the monstrous and horrific.
Have you considered a soundtrack for The Gothic Tarot?
Joseph: No, not yet. However, all of the CDs we've produced have contained 21 tracks, so there is a definite possibility of creating a concept album based on the Major Arcana somewhere down the line.
Or a Tarot calendar?
Joseph: Many of the images from The Gothic Tarot were previously published as calendar images, so it's unlikely that there will be a Tarot calendar. Images from the Madame Endora deck, however, are featured in Madame Endora's Calendar of Fortune, which does offer astrology and fortunes, and insightful advice for each month.