The Sculpted Tarot: Exhibition by Heather Ruthig
Myths from around the globe about the origin of human beings almost always speak of earth mixed with water–or clay–as the material with which a deity creates the first man and woman. In the origin myth with which we are perhaps most familiar in the West, that of Genesis in the Hebrew Bible, the name ‘Adam’ is derived from the Hebrew word for earth or ground: “adamah.” God breathes into the adamah so that earth and divine spirit combine to become adam, an “earth creature” and once there are two beings, the man, Adam, which is the Hebrew word for ‘red’. “Red earth” is thus at the center of the wordplay in which the writer of Genesis delights. Eve’s creation, as we all know, is somewhat more complicated!
That Heather Ruthig has turned her considerable artistic energies to working with clay is worth thinking about and then wondering at in light of the subject matter she has chosen to explore with her ceramics: the tarot deck. To create from clay her own tarot deck using beautifully nuanced bas- and high-reliefs of the very plants and flowers that grow out of that earth or clay as symbols on the ceramic “cards” is a brilliant synthesis by Ruthig that must surely create its own unique energy.
The material which is transformed by the artist (who along with priests have been considered for millennia as bridges between heaven and earth) offers, in Ruthig’s series, the wisdom of the natural world and its rhythms of life, death, and rebirth. We are all familiar with the observation offered at funeral services, “Earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Here we have the circle of life from birth to death, but left out of the popular use of this sentence are the words that come immediately after in the Anglican funeral service: “in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life.” We want assurances that time moves not in one direction only but from birth to death to rebirth and so on, which is to say we want to see ourselves ultimately as not bound by time and as having some access, even now and however mysterious, to the eternal.
With different symbols (drawn from alchemy, the Jewish Kabbalah, and other sources) the Tarot seeks in a strangely paradoxical way to lift us out of time during a ritualistic reading of the cards only to bind us to time in (if one is so inclined to believe) revealing our fate or destiny.
The tarot deck commonly understood is a set of 78 cards designed at first simply for card games to amuse the rich in Renaissance Italy almost 600 years ago, and still played in Europe today. The symbols chosen to decorate the early decks are much older than the Renaissance, and over time became invested with mystical powers as a tool of divination. It is important to note that while there are certain “standard” or classic tarot decks, such as the Marseilles, the Rider-Waite-Smith, and the Crowley Thoth, there are literally hundreds of variations as people have combined the symbol systems most resonant to them with the more or less standard tarot structure: 22 cards—the Major Arcana which begin with The Fool (0) and end with The World (21), and another 56 cards referred to as the Minor Arcana that are closer to our conventional deck of cards with four suits.
This exhibition features Ruthig’s ceramic tiles of the Major Arcana, from The Fool through The World, and a number of freestanding pieces that continue to work with the themes and symbols of the deck. She has also created a single tile showing her beautifully balanced design for the back of each “card” featuring the plants she chose for the four suits of the Minor Arcana: oak, borage, marsh marigold, and gingko.
Familiar with the Tarot since her teenage years when she was fascinated by the images and the colours which are themselves often symbolic, Ruthig wanted to use the ceramic process to hone her own intuition and then to send the tiles out into the world (eventually to be published as an actual paper deck) as a way for us to reconnect with our intuition, that other way of knowing which, since the Enlightenment’s championing of reason, and the Scientific Revolution’s championing of deduction and facts (which intersect with but do not wholly encompass truth) has been dismissed as unreliable at best.
In her choice of symbols for the Major Arcana tiles, Ruthig incorporates elements of the “language of flowers”. The concept of a “Doctrine of Signatures” can be traced back to ancient Greece, and posits (anthropomorphically, and therein lies its weakness) that the correspondence of a certain plant’s shape (morphology) to a human body part expresses the plant’s healing properties for maladies of that particular body part. For example, in Ruthig’s deck, she uses the flower Euphrasia officinalis, colloquially called “eyebright’ because it was thought to look rather like an eye and so was used to treat eye diseases. Likewise, a walnut’s similar shape to the brain was for some a sign that it would be helpful in treating maladies of the brain. That it turns out (thanks to modern scientific inquiry) walnuts contain high levels of Omega-3 fatty acids which are important for brain function is for some people a coincidence, for others an indication that we are all connected: to the earth, to everything that comes from it, and to all life forms.
Divination—the discovery of what is hidden, whether that be the future, the present, or the past—has a history almost as old as the first human beings (and perhaps that Edenic apple was the first human attempt at divination?).
Tea leaves, palm reading, comets and eclipses, astrological charts, tarot cards, election polls, the Magic 8 ball, the ancient practice of consulting the livers of animals, and a practice called the Sortes Virgiliana in which the Roman poet Virgil’s epic poem The Aeneid was opened to a random passage which was then read as the answer to whatever question had been posed; all of heaven and earth in one form or another have been consulted by us humans in an effort to know before we know, to turn time in on itself so as to establish the certainty that seems so much easier than not knowing, than being in the presence of and accepting mystery. The latter inevitably requires humility, another word that derives from an ancient language, the Latin word for “earth,” humus.
But there is another way to look at it, perhaps; something noble about our quest for knowledge which is as often sought in an effort to transform ourselves into more enlightened beings. The tarot deck is today used by many when turning inward to meditate and reflect on “what makes us tick;” no different than any number of self-help materials available on Amazon. However, it is the assertion that what may seem to some people merely chance or at most projection (like any other form of divination) becomes destiny or fate that has caused the use of the tarot deck to be condemned as dabbling in the occult (a word which also simply means “hidden”) or the “dark arts”).
Ruthig eschews utterly this shadow use of the tarot in favour of its meditative and reflective uses, not predicting the future literally, but by way of suggestion giving us some insight into our personalities and relationship so that we are more “in tune” with the energies in motion and can make decisions accordingly, from a ground of self-awareness and humility in recognizing the wisdom flowing through and thus offered by all living creatures.
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