People have been practicing tarot for centuries, looking to the cards for guidance and reflection.
And today, you can find any number of themed tarot decks, from cat tarot, to Star Trek tarot, to tiny tarot and tarot for kids.
But Unalaska artist Mariza Tovar is putting together a tarot deck filled with humpback whales, grizzly bears, red-faced cormorants and sea kelp — a deck uniquely Alaskan.
“Courage, resolve, patience and tolerance, kindness, the softer power of a loving approach,” said Tovar. “I couldn’t think of a better being than a humpback whale for this tarot card. The rainbow is the cosmic strength that we all have within us.”
Tovar angles her tablet, gesturing softly as she frames the image of a humpback whale draped in a rainbow. She recites the description of the strength card, which features the humpback. It’s one of the 78 cards that make up the tarot deck she has been illustrating since July.
“Our oceans are hurting with rising temperatures and acidification,” continued Tovar. “These gentle giants with their grace and mass. Every time I’m lucky enough to see them they remind me of their soft resilience. This piece is a heart full. I hope you love it.”
Tovar calls her deck “The Gentle Tarot.” She created it, in part, because she’s been practicing tarot herself for many years and hadn’t come across a deck with artwork that reflected the unique support and warmth she seeks while practicing.
While she said the idea has been budding for a long time, the concept took shape while she was counting sockeye salmon out at the Cape Wislow fish weir this summer — about 20 miles from Unalaska, in Reese Bay.
“Every time I’m at a weir, it’s a super creative time of the year, probably the most creative time for me,” said Tovar. “And I used to make a lot of music out at the weir. You’re off grid, you don’t have reception, no distractions.”
Tovar currently works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Dutch Harbor, but spent about three summers working at weirs in Kodiak, one summer at Orzinski Bay on the Alaska Peninsula and now two summers near Unalaska, at Cape Wislow.
She said she’s inspired by what is around her. And while a lot of her tarot deck features Aleutian scenery, she hopes to represent other parts of Alaska as well. Tovar said she is glad to draw from a variety of flora and fauna from her experiences across the state, and specifically to incorporate some larger animals, like bears, which are not found on Unalaska or Amaknak islands.
“I feel an energy, and I’m like, what animal would that be?” said Tovar. “So it’s nice to actually have more options.”
Tovar’s creative process is built on patient reflection and research. She said when she’s working on a card, especially when she is out at the weir, she’ll often read a description or two of a specific card before bed and then let that narrative “soak” in her thoughts, overnight.
“And then in the morning, it’s almost like it just kind of shows up in my head,” she said. “And then I’ll research it a little bit more, like, why do I see a humpback whale? And then maybe I’ll learn more about humpback whales. It’s like we know how to spell out a vocabulary word, but don’t even know what it means, but it’s in there somewhere. It’s kind of like that.”
Tovar said that while the deck is a display of what has been immediately around her in recent years, it also translates a unique depiction of the practices and ceremony she grew up with as an Indigenous woman, which are centered on balance with and reverence for nature. And she said she hopes that her deck inspires a similar harmony and reciprocation for those who end up practicing tarot with her deck.
“Like the image for the Two of Thunder, where she’s underwater — it’s like she’s at home in the ocean,” explained Tovar. “It’s reciprocal. She’s held and she’s taken care of there. And we also need to hold and take care of the ocean. I want it to be fluid, the connection.”
Tovar is using kickstarter to fund the tarot project. She said she has 33 days to meet her goal of $12,000. And she’s hoping at least 300 people commit to buying a deck.
While her artwork can be found across the island — at the Museum of the Aleutians, Grand Aleutian Hotel, and even on Etsy — she said this is her first big project, and her first time using crowdfunding. She said she’s hoping to have the project in production by mid-October and to have the final deck, which will come with a unique tarot guidebook written by Tovar, in hand by December.
Tovar said she will be donating a percentage of the proceeds from her Gentle Tarot to ocean and climate change research and planting two trees for every pledge she receives.