Several years ago my friend and colleague Greg Bishop invited me to join into a private UFO group he was putting together. Now, I know that if you read “private UFO group” you immediately think of shadowy organizations in which government whistleblowers leak sensitive information to a privileged cadre of insiders, but that’s NOT what my friend had in mind at all.
You see, Greg has always been of the opinion that big UFO organizations are often ill equipped to tackle the complexity of the phenomenon –they become too rigid in their collective thinking, and in the end become more preoccupied with securing funds to maintain their over-inflated bureaucracy (e.g. MUFON) instead of actually going out to the field and investigate reports– which is why he wanted to try and get a small band of like-minded associates to organize regular salons with them (of the virtual kind, in our case). These reunions were not only meant to chat with friends and share the latest UFO-related gossip with them; Greg also intended to put all that brain power together and direct it to very specific tasks.
It was during one of those salon sessions that Greg mentioned to us how he had always fantasized with a Tarot deck inspired by the history of UFOlogy. Greg has actually studied Western mysticism for many years (he even joined an esoteric organization for a while) which taught him how the Tarot is not so much a ‘divination’ system but a tool to explore hidden areas of your own subconscious; which is why he thought using researchers and personalities from the annals of UFOlogy would not only be cool A.F. in a fanboy kind of sense, but would also allow the user to view these individuals from a different perspective –as part of a larger tapestry in which the mystery of UFOs has ended up shaping the lives of the people devoted their lives to studying it (or those who came in contact with the Other on serendipitous circumstances) as much as their ideas or experiences have shaped the way society at large perceives and interprets the phenomenon itself.
When Greg proposed this idea to the group (I think he might have actually mentioned it to me on a private conversation previously) it was also at this time that I was seriously thinking about how I could leave my mark in the field of UFOlogy. Once you spend enough time immersed in the wacky world of flying saucers and attain a certain level of visibility, people sooner or later begin to nag you with the question: “So when are you going to write a book, RPJ?”
The query is bothersome for various reasons, not least of them the fact that in a field as informal as UFOlogy it seems that the only qualification one needs to be considered a ‘professional UFOlogist’ is to have at least one book published under your belt. It doesn’t matter if it was through a self-publishing company or if all the pages are filled with derivative nonsense, if you are able to paste your name on the cover of some god-awful paperback then BOOM: You’re a bonafide UFOlogist, daddy-o! And not only can you demand that title to be included below your name if you get the chance to be interviewed for television or a film documentary, but you can also confidently call people like Dr. Jacques Vallee or the late Stanton Friedman your ‘peers’ (Sheesh…).
Which is why whenever someone threw out the question to me at the end of some podcast roundtable or radio interview, I always escaped the situation by giving the same answer over and over: I will only consider writing a book about UFOs when I feel I have something genuinely original to say about the subject.
And the problem with that premise, as my fellow UFO nerds know fully well, is that just when you think you actually figured out something new and interesting about the phenomenon, you risk opening up a yellowed copy of some out-of-print book and discover that same ‘novel idea’ had actually been proposed decades before you were even born!
With that weighing heavily on me, I began to consider I could perhaps “make my mark” by combining my other abilities –namely, my drawing skills. I had already began doing that by designing the cover of some UFO books, like Reframing the Debate, and I was trying to create an apparel business through Zazzle to design t-shirts or coffee mugs based on Fortean culture the same way pop culture was conquered by geeky imagery –people who were born after the 90s can’t understand how uncool it was to go out wearing a super-hero t-shirt! Other projects I was toying with were creating a graphic novel, something I had ZERO experience on –although the few people I had mentioned the idea to warned me it would be an insane amount of work for just one person.
So now let’s circle back to the Skype meeting when Greg brought out the UFOlogy Tarot idea to our fellow salon members. Everybody unanimously got excited with it; well… almost everybody, because I knew fully well there was only one person in the group Greg was thinking of to take the full brunt of the project —Me.
As much as the concept potentially appealed to me, I was hesitant to accept it because (a) I didn’t feel I had the necessary artistic chops to pull it off, and (b) I didn’t know I would have the necessary time –the Tarot consists of MANY, many cards, in case you didn’t know…
Greg –either because he had more confidence in my skills than I did… or because he simply didn’t have anyone else to ask!– begged me to at least consider it for a while before flat out refusing. I thought it over and finally agreed that I would start by making one card; if the end result was a complete disaster then that would be it. Choosing which would be the first card was a no-brainer: The Magician, which could only be none other than… Jacques Vallee.
Before I even started sketching the card –which we all agree should be based on the popular Raider Waite Tarot deck, which may be the most easily recognized by laypeople like myself– we began discussing among the group how we could change the symbolism of the artwork in order to suit with the particular history of our UFO Magician. Vallee started his career as an astronomer and later in life he switched into computer science, where he made important contributions in computer networks when he worked in the development of the primitive ARPAnet, the forerunner of our modern Internet. He also was involved with SRI and the controversial Stargate ‘psychic spy’ program, and of course he’s famous all around the world for his seminal book Passport to Magonia, which proposed how the UFO phenomenon might be behind ancient myths of fairie encounters and ‘cloudships’ manned by wizards who were blamed whenever crops were lost during the Middle Ages. We thus began to brainstorm into how we could insert all these subtle ‘Easter eggs’ into the artwork that would become an encoded hidden history of UFOlogy.
At the same time I began to think into the art style I wanted to employ for the cards –I don’t really consider myself as someone with a very defined style, unlike most recognizable artists, but that gives me on the other hand the advantage to attack any new project from a very fresh perspective. I reminisced my love for the the old Pendulum Press’ Illustrated Classics my mom used to buy for me when I was a child, and my deep admiration for Nestor Redondo and other little-known Filipino artists who drew and inked those masterpieces.
I knew fully well I couldn’t capture Redondo’s mastery of nib pens and inks as much as I tried (even though I had the advantage of the digital medium) but I could still use it as a reference on how to approach the line art. I also wanted my artwork to have a certain antique flavor, like the engravings of French artist Gustave Doré, in which the volume of the shapes is informed and highlighted by the careful crosshatching laid out by the artist.
At the same time, I wanted to utilize a contrasting use of halftone dotted patterns and grayscale shading in the tradition of modern Manga publications. I am a personal fan of Kaoru Mori’s A Bride’s Story and find her use of inking techniques in order to bring light and texture to her vignettes to be absolutely breathtaking.
From the beginning I wanted to employ a limited color palette, rather than create ‘full paintings’ like many other Tarot decks out there –I even (foolishly) thought such a strategy would help me save up time! (yeah right LOL). After studying what was on the market I decided that the cards with the less amount of colors seemed ‘classier’ and more sophisticated; so in the end I decided to make use of black-and-white line art with traditional crosshatching techniques to give a certain amount of contained volume to my characters, combined with grayscale patterns and shading to bring more textures to the piece, and just to highlight certain important elements of the composition here and there I would ‘cheat’ and paint them in red –like the little girl in the movie Schindler’s List.
After showing the finished artwork to the salon members, however, our friend David Metcalfe suggested to also use blue for the main background. At first I was against the idea, but after trying it out I had to admit he was right and so blue was grudgingly added to my Spartan color palette.
Once I had proven to myself I could actually pull this thing off, I proceeded to design an adequate layout for my cards. Again I sought a mixture of old and modern styles, and also took inspiration from the geometric patterns found within English crop circles whose creators (human… sorry to spoil the mystery) are fond of employing ‘sacred geometry’ motifs, like the famous Vesica Piscis on top of the card’s title.
And thus I slowly began working on other cards. The Emperor was next, and once again figuring out who that person should be was an easy task for our group: the late J. Allen Hynek, a.k.a. the man who coined the term ‘Close Encounters of the Third Kind’.
Time went by, and a dreadful realization dawned on me: The idea that I complete the project within during my ‘free time’ was unrealistic, for the simple reason that freelance designers such as myself rarely have much free time at their disposal. If you are on your own instead of being part of a studio or company, either you are doing something that will pay the bills this week, or you are simply not making money and getting into debt.
So I told the group: Either we manage a way for me to work on the UFOlogy Tarot project full time –with no other side gigs and major distractions– or we would see the completion of the deck taking YEARS –if I didn’t abandon it altogether.
A crowdfunding campaign seemed like the ideal solution, even though most of us –with the exception of Josh Cutchin– had no experience in setting up one. Greg began studying the benefits between Kickstarter, Indiegogo and GoFundMe and crunching the numbers of our potential printing expenses, along with the rewards for the backers; while others chose other assignments –David Metcalfe and Susan Demeter would be in charge of writing entries to explain the cards for an accompanying book, while Josh would be tasked with final edit of it, as well as a smaller booklet that would be included with the card deck*. Greg would manage the campaign and the dealing with the printer, freeing me to focus on the artwork and design issues.
Greg’s video editing skills would also be put to good use with a promo clip that was set up for the campaign. We even had the help of Susan’s husband Massimo Teodorani, who was gracious enough to allow us to use one of his original musical compositions. In the meantime, I quietly reached out to several individuals I respect in the UFO/Fortean world and asked for their support. My deepest appreciation goes to Greg and Dana Newkirk, John L. Tenney and Michael M. Hughes for granting us with blurbs we could use in the campaign, and for the excitement they expressed when I showed them the cards for the first time.
Also many thanks to Dr. Vallee and Whitley Strieber for their personal endorsements**.
I am proud to announce that despite the fact our Kickstarter campaign was launched yesterday, it is close to reaching half of our initial goal.
Obviously we still need to call out to more people so the project is fully realized (with Kickstarter, if you don’t reach your goal you get NADA) so if you haven’t done so and are interested in our project, then I encourage you to click on it as soon as you can and also help us spread the word through social media; and if we do manage to surpass our goal, that will allow us to come up with new ways to reward our backers and enrich the project.
(*) As it is clearly stated on the Kickstarter’s page and the video, the current objective of this initial campaign is to finish the 22 cards corresponding to the Major Arcana. Both the style I chose to render the illustrations and the amount of symbolic elements we are ‘encoding’ into the cards simply cannot allow me as an artist to ‘rush’ the work, even if I’m committed to it 24/7. We know fully well that the ultimate goal is to complete the whole Tarot deck, and even though at some point it was considered to use a less intensive method just for the Minor Arcana cards (i.e. copy/pasting elements using Design software) In the end I felt that wasn’t fair to the people interested in acquiring the deck. Furthermore, it would be a complete wasted opportunity to keep honoring the rich history of UFOlogy, by highlighting some of the most important cases in the literature –think about Kenneth Arnold’s sighting, or the Antonio Vilas Boas’ abduction!
I can assure you, if you support us on the initial phase, we WILL complete the task.
(**) Greg had the chance to personally show The Magician card to Jacques himself, because we thought he would be interested in the project due to his life-long interest in Western esotericism and magical practices (see his Forbidden Science Journals for further info). At first Jacques didn’t show the enthusiasm we were expecting –and that seriously jeopardized the project as a whole– but once Greg took out his tablet and showed him my artwork, Vallee slowly began to change his mind. He also was pleased to learn his old mentor J. Allen was our choice for The Emperor.
And speaking of The Emperor, Greg also had the opportunity to show an incomplete version of the artwork to Hynek’s son, Paul. His words after watching his dad sitting on his throne were more or less, “I don’t know what that is but I want it once it’s done!”.
As for Whitley Strieber, who is also very knowledgeable about Tarot himself, Greg sat down with him and explained the project, for which he also showed a lot of enthusiasm. When Greg asked him who he wanted to be in the cards –because of course we needed to include Whitley Strieber in our UFOlogy Tarot!– he himself suggested The Fool, which couldn’t have been a better selection. He’s also seen the card, I am told, and was pleased with the end result –which brings me much joy, to say the least!