The Woman At The Heart of The Rider Waite Tarot

Pamela Colman Smith was a painter whose legacy, at least in part because of her race, has been in danger of being forever lost in obscurity.

Although Pamela was born February 16th, 1878 in Middlesex, England, the country where she lived most of her life. She was the daughter of African Americans. She also spent time in New York and Kingston Jamaica.

Pamela led a fascinating life. As a nearly orphaned child taken in by the London’s Lyceum Theatre Group, the theater company of famed actors Ellen Terry and Henry Irving—where she learned to draw, paint and design everything from handbills to stage sets. Eventually she received formal art training at the Pratt Institute of Brooklyn and graduated in 1897.

It was in the circle of artists—authors, playwrights and performers—that congregated around the theater where she met and was chosen by several luminaries to illustrate their own volumes, most notably William Butler Yeats. She also created a wide variety of commercial art.

Pamela wrote and illustrated several of her own books about Jamaican folklore, including Annancy Stories that were about Jamaican versions of tales involving the traditional African folk figure Anansi the Spider.

Pamela was the quintessential artist as mystic—while still mustering the kind of professional artistic achievement that rated a show of her paintings in the gallery of Alfred Stieglitz, famed American photographer and modern art promoter. She was the only non-photographer to ever receive such distinction.

In 1909 she collaborated with author Arthur Edward Waite, a fellow member of the Order of the Golden Dawn, in the creation of her (and his) most remembered work. Pamela painted 78 of the best-known images of all time on themes suggested by her collaborator.

Pamela Colman Smith was a master of the language of the super-conscious mind. (The collective unconscious, sometimes known as collective subconscious or “super-conscious,” is an analytical psychology term coined by psychiatrist Carl Jung.) This refers to a realm of mind shared by a society, a people, or all humanity. It includes ancestral experience and contains such concepts as science, mathematics, religion, liberty and morality.

The super-conscious allows us to communicate with one another without a spoken language in common nor physical connection. The language of the super-conscious—and it does have a language—is that of images, archetypes and symbols. In a sense we all understand this language, even when our conscious mind hasn’t a clue. Pamela Colman Smith painted the first comprehensive “dictionary” of these symbols for the world’s most popular tarot deck.

The Rider Waite tarot deck, as it was known for many years, has been a perennial best seller, out selling all other tarot decks by a huge factor. Through her formidable talent and phenomenal life experience, Pamela Colman Smith opened a door to the realms of the super-conscious. Those who study and use her creations—perhaps without being aware of it—owe her a debt of gratitude.

Although she died in obscurity and poverty, her contribution is being recognized by an ever-widening circle of people and there has been a recent movement to amend the name of the deck she created by now calling it the Rider Waite Colman deck—naming the publisher, Pamela’s conceptual collaborator and finally, most deservedly, the artist herself.

Found on Facebook, posted to The Backroom Collective via Monica Rix Paxson.

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Last updated on November 3, 2018 10:22 am

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