Interview with Arnell Ando, The Great Godmother of Collage Tarots
Interview conducted by Diane Wilkes 

Interviewing Arnell Ando was a joy and a challenge. I found joy in honoring her many gifts to the tarot community by the act of getting the notoriously modest artist to talk about herself and her work and sharing it with said community. I felt joy from the actual experience of interviewing her. But because of our deep friendship, the challenge came in deleting some of her kind and loving asides to me, because I really don’t want to flaunt that appreciation in any way. The focus should be on Arnell Ando, but as you will read in this interview, she continuously pays homage elsewhere, deflecting the rightful attention she should be receiving onto others. I hope this interview is a move in the appropriate direction. 

Arnell Ando self-published Transformational Tarot, a 78-card tarot deck/book set, in 1995, prior to the creation of the online tarot community we enjoy today. Unlike the disparate collages found in the Voyager Tarot by James Wanless, Transformational Tarot’s cards depict complex ideas using one symbol-rich picture for each archetype. This cohesion allows viewers to enter the entire card and see—and feel--a harmonious whole vision using new concepts based on the Rider-Waite images without ever resorting to repetition. Using this deck brought my readings to a new and improved level, encouraging me to fully leap into using my intuition because of the emotional and artistic resonance these cards aroused in me. 

I wrote a review of Transformational Tarot in the currently-defunct Tarot News, which Arnell read and responded to via email. Being able to dialogue with the artist who created my favorite deck was a real thrill, and I used the opportunity to ask specific questions about these cards I loved so deeply. We established an online friendship that grew when we met at the first ITS conference in 1997 in Chicago. I shared some of the ideas I had written about in a book called The Storyteller Tarot, a Majors-only book about each card that was based on a story in some form. Arnell responded with typical generosity, offering to create the art for the deck. Until she sent me five cards based on my rough draft of the book, I didn’t begin to re-write it. She believed in my dream more than I did, and inspired me with her faith and her artwork to write a better book than I could ever have imagined based on that initial rough draft. This working relationship created an even deeper bond, and I think of her not only as a friend and sister of the soul, but an inspiration. 

I am not alone in being inspired by Arnell Ando. Alexandra Genetti (Wheel of Change Tarot) also created a 78 card collage deck after attending one of Arnell’s workshops. She says, “In the summer of 1998, Arnell and I both presented at a Tarot event in Denver where her workshop was on putting together a collage deck of your own. I had done a lot of collage here and there and saw in her presentation that it would be a fun learning experience to create a Tarot in this way. As soon as I returned home I began work on my collage deck, Jumbledance Tarot. What inspired me the most in her presentation and work was that she kept the collages so small (the finished size of the card), which I thought would be very difficult to do but it turned out to offer many more possibilities and choices for source material.”

Tarot icon Michele Jackson, who has created several collage decks, is even more effusive on the subject of Arnell Ando:

“Had it not been for Arnell Ando's outstanding workshops, I would never have attempted to create a Tarot deck of my own. If you have never attended one of her workshops, do so. I was so pumped up after the first workshop that I bought not one, but two, blank decks. Although it took another workshop and some personal encouragement from Arnell to get me started, once I made the first card, I never looked back.

"Arnell's beautiful collage work and artistic vision have had a profound impact on how I see not only Tarot, but the world at large as well. She is a teacher, a mentor and a role model for me in my artistic endeavors, both Tarot and non-Tarot related.”

K. Frank Jensen, founder and editor of Manteia, is known for his razor-sharp reviews and discriminating mind. When I asked him his thoughts on Arnell Ando, he responded thusly:

"Arnell's contribution to the world of tarot? She popularized collage art and generously taught people how to create their own collage tarot decks (but her own Hero's Journey Tarot is still my favorite). On a personal level, it was Arnell's year-long deep friendship and continuous encouragement that finally brought me back to tarot after the long break I entered into when I stopped publishing Manteia."

I never knew that about Arnell. But that's how she is. A loyal and modest friend, as well as a brilliant artist. I hope you enjoy this glimpse of her.

Diane: How did you get involved in collage art in the first place?

Arnell: Mostly out of frustration! I've never felt comfortable drawing or painting (too many critical tapes going on in my head from past art teachers) and, although I did sculpture for a few years before and during my first collage phase, it only partially satisfied my need to express myself visually. Collage is the medium where I feel the most free to express myself. If nothing else, I feel I do have a sense of arranging parts that make up a bigger picture that are aesthetically pleasing to the eye. Collage gives me a great sense of inner calmness. 

I'm very detail oriented, and also a bit anal and perhaps overly concerned with the chaos of what it means to be human and a reluctant party to civilization. Collage soothes me, as I feel like I am fitting all the pieces of the puzzle together to make a cohesive whole. It somehow puts order in the chaos, and is therefore very healing. 

Another thing I love about collage is that it incorporates something already out in the world, a viewpoint, symbology, or art form that people relate to or are struck by in some way, and then rips it from its familiar surroundings and puts a new spin on its meaning or context. It's that creation, destruction, recreation that appeals to me, as I personalize the universal... 

Diane: When did you discover the tarot, and what was your experience with it?

Arnell: I lived in Japan in the early 80's (where I resided for nearly a decade).  I had a dear friend of Japanese/Italian decent, Teresa Taranto, who collected decks and would occasionally do a reading for me. I was fascinated from the get-go and she made me realize it was a medium expansive enough that I could both relate to and communicate through.

That was a first for me. So, I began searching out all available Tarot decks and books in English that I could find in Tokyo. Rachel Pollack's 78 Degrees of Wisdom made the strongest impression on me, and really helped the Tarot resonate within me on a deeper level then any other, philosophically, as well as symbolically. Unfortunately Mary Greer's Tarot for Your Self was not available in Tokyo and I did not discover it until much later, after I had done both Hero's Journey and Transformational Tarot. I think it would have been a great comfort and spiritual guide to my process of journaling and creating Tarot decks

Diane: Why did you ultimately decide to create your own deck?

Arnell: Again, out of pure frustration, and nothing else. Back in ’91, when I first started making Hero's Journey Tarot (HJT), there weren’t as many wonderfully expressive, refreshingly unusual decks available as there are now. This was before the Internet took hold, too. So I was really in my own little world creating a deck for myself to work with because I was rather annoyed with the depiction of certain 'archetypes'. The Hierophant, for example, distressed me. Being brought up Catholic and having never quite mended from that experience, the image of the Pope as a spiritual leader really got under my skin. It also grated on me that the view of the Sun and Moon, as they were depicted in most early books and cards that I came across were perceived as a very unequal pair. The Sun  (masculine) was seen as warm, optimistic, bright, and cheerful, where as the Moon (feminine) had a lot to do with deception, fear, secrecy, luna-lunacy...you get the picture. I felt the female psyche was being oppressed, yet again. I felt it important that I work with a deck that saw these cards as having equally positive and not-so-positive qualities. There were other cards that bothered me as well that I felt a need to redefine for myself, but I think you get the idea...

Diane: What was the experience like?

Arnell: It was all consuming. I took a break from serious dating and would work on my cards late into the night. Sometimes I would still be awake when my kids got up for school. And I would often have intense dreams and synchronistic experiences related to the cards I was working on at the time. Usually I would only be able to complete a card or two in an evening as I was very slow and methodical about choosing the symbolic imagery and mood of each card. I often recreated certain challenging cards several times over. I thoroughly enjoyed the process of making my first deck, which you later named 'Hero's Journey'.

Diane: Most people find creating tarot decks to be life work, yet you soon created a second deck AND wrote a book. How did you find the energy?

Arnell: Well, the energy was there because I felt like I was on some sort of personal quest. When I made Hero's Journey it was just for myself, but then soon afterwards I befriended a woman, Sue Silva, who was also into Tarot and she wanted a color copy of my deck. Then we began to study with Jungian Tarotist Art Rosengarten (who gives fascinating workshops by the way), and I was introduced to a few more Tarotists who showed an interest in my deck and my personal interpretations of the cards. So, I was beginning to feel for the first time a connection to a larger Tarot tribe.

When I looked into publishing my first deck I learned about the whole issue regarding copyright law. This was back in '93. Until that time, I had naively assumed that the society at large valued collage as an art medium in its own right, as I had, and was disappointed to realize this was not the case. I learned I could get sued for reproducing my collage Tarot deck for resale because I had incorporated a lot of the contemporary imagery that spoke to me.

I guess I could have given up there, but my friend Sue encouraged me to create a new deck using art that was 75 years or older and therefore (generally speaking) in the public domain and permissible to include in collage work. When I spoke to a lawyer who had his assistant look into copyright law with regards to art, I was told I would be safe within those parameters. Now I know the whole issue of copyright is much more complicated than that, but I digress.

Diane: How does Transformational differ from HJT?

Arnell: They are both personal decks, but since Transformational Tarot emerged a few years after HJT, during a time of transformation in my life, it depicts some changing views, while some core elements of my personality and perception remain the same in both decks. Since Hero's Journey was a gift to myself, it shows my completely honest, raw, uncensored views of Tarot cards as they relate to my philosophy of life. Transformational displays better manners, I guess you could say. She is more polite and is more my public persona rather than the side of myself that only my close friends see.

I was very impressed and deeply touched with Paula Gibby's extensive article on Tarot Passages comparing these two decks. She is extremely perceptive and I would have loved to discuss this topic at length with her as her article really got me excited. I felt understood and valued...how awesome is that?!

Diane: Do you have a preference between the two decks?

Arnell: I guess if I had to choose, I would say I prefer Hero's Journey, because it is my most 'naked,' truest work to date. Transformational Tarot is also very honest and sincere and heartfelt, but it's a more polished version of myself and the edges of my personality have been softened.

With my first deck, I was free to incorporate any imagery that struck a chord with me, from comic book art to classic works, into my collages. I wasn’t concerned with copyright law, nor other people's opinions of my sometimes-offbeat interpretations.  It was also an important time for me. I was trying to reclaim my inner voice, which I felt I had lost after years of oppression while living as a wife and mother in patriarchal Japan. I was studying psychology and discovering who I was and transferring these insights into a personal deck of philosophy.

It was a monumental period for me, a person who, before that time, had difficulty finishing a project because my Gemini nature would keep me leaping from one interest to the next. I felt completely open and free at that time. It was wonderful.

Diane:  Are there cards you prefer in each deck?

Arnell:  There are certain cards that I relate to more deeply in Transformational now then I do to her older sister, HJT.  I prefer the Queen of Wands in Transformational, as that is the Queen I most relate to, and I had come to a point of self-acceptance by the time I made this second version of the card. Also the 10 of Coins, Ace and Two of Cups, Five and Eight of Cups, and Prince of Wands in Transformational are more personally true to me now, as well as a being more artfully-made cards. 

It felt brave to express my view of the Devil in HJT, but I personalized it even more with my own image thrown into the mix in Transformational. The Three of Swords is a good example of my more 'polite' expression of the anger and heartbreak of betrayal in Transformational, and my more raw emotions of that experience shared in the HJT version. I prefer the Strength card in Hero's Journey, both aesthetically and visually.

My Strength card in Transformational is a good indication of why I should not be allowed to draw. That dragon is really dreadful.  I like both versions of the Sun and Moon, although they are quite different in style. I prefer the Emperor and Empress of Hero's Journey artistically, but the version in Transformational is just as valid to me. I greatly prefer the 10 of Cups and Ace of Coins of HJT to their Transformational counterparts. Many of my cards have the same viewpoint behind them, but I was a bit more selective in the artwork used in Transformational, so its look and feel is more consistent and harmonious, whereas Hero's Journey is all over the place. 

Diane: You decided to self-publish Transformational Tarot. What was that experience like? Do you have any advice for people who might be thinking of self-publishing? 

Arnell: It was a Fool's Journey, to say the least. I did not know what I was doing, but had a strong motivation to move forward and I learned a lot from my many mistakes. I self-published the deck before the Internet was really well-established, so I was not aware of a larger Tarot community. I had never been to a Tarot conference or met anyone remotely interested in Tarot (beyond getting a free reading from me), except for my few close friends. So it was a huge leap of faith that anyone outside my little world would give a damn about my deck.

But my husband, Michael, was extremely supportive, as he always has been with me, and he gave me much practical advice and assistance, as did my friend Sue Silva. I jumped out of the plane without a parachute, because if no one had shown an interest in my deck, I would have been in debt for $15,000.

But it worked somehow. Not at first, as it took some time to get myself known at all. Thank the Gods the Internet was available and there was a forum such as Tarot-L for Tarotists to communicate. The first review of Transformational was horrendous and I cried for days. I wanted to retreat into solitude. I don't take criticism or compliments well, and I'm very sensitive to other's perceptions of me. I know I shouldn't care, but I do. 

But soon after that initial slap in the face, you and Michele Jackson wrote wonderful, heartfelt reviews of my deck and several other credible people wrote positive reviews as time went on, so I gained confidence and pushed myself to overcome my anxiety of public speaking and the discomfort of 'selling myself'. 

It's all been a big, fat lesson which I've always been open to sharing with others interested in publishing or creating their own deck. That has been my main theme for the workshops I've done over the past few years and I have articles on my website with both practical and personal information regarding the process so I hope people do check them out when so inclined. I hope folks will always feel free to e-mail me about their own process of making a deck, either for encouragement or practical advice. I like to feel that I am of use to the community in this capacity. 

Diane: You later generously offered to illustrate my deck, the Storyteller Tarot. What was that experience like for you as an artist, to design a deck based on someone else's concepts?

Arnell: Well I don't know about 'generously'...I don't do anything artistically unless I'm inspired to do so. Quite honestly, I was very taken by you as a person, as well as your concept for this project and your actual selection for the cards, as well as your articulate way of depicting Tarot archetypes in these stories, fables, songs, etc. I really connected with your words and ideas. I thought it was brilliant and I was jazzed to be a part of this orchestration.

I felt we were on the same vibrational wavelength and was completely comfortable in sharing my vision of your concepts through my cards.  You gave me so much encouragement and seemed to understand all the subtle symbolic innuendoes and the bigger picture so well that it was a deeply gratifying experience for me.  I don't know if I could ever work as freely with anyone else. I'm too much of a loner and don't follow instructions very well. But you gave me the space to explore, and so it was a great pleasure to work with you. I'm very proud of this joint production and see it as one of the keynotes in my life. 

Diane: There are now many other collage decks out there, most inspired by you. Michele Jackson, Alexandra Genetti, and Paula Gibby have all cited your work and/or workshops as pivotal in the creation of their own decks. How does that make you feel? 

Arnell: Well, I don't know what to say to that. All these artists and decks that you mention—Jumbledance (Genetti), Blue Rose and Animal Tarot (Gibby), and all of Michele's decks, but most notably to me, her Evolving Tarot, I consider at the top of my list of all-time favorite decks. These decks are deeply evocative, symbolically rich, and aesthetically inspirational to me. 

If I thought that I'd given even a spark of inspiration to such incredible artists...well, that would make it all worth the struggle, wouldn't it? That what I created might have touched another artist and motivated them to challenge themselves in new dimensions…It doesn't get any better than that, does it?

Diane: What has been the most satisfying experience for you as a tarot artist?

Arnell:  The connections with others that understand my work and feel comfortable sharing a bit about their own journey, such as you, Diane. I don't want to embarrass you, but ours has been a most important and deeply healing friendship. You are so supportive of my work, I often wonder whether, if we had never connected, I would have pushed myself to do things that are so intimidating such as...doing workshops at conferences and shamelessly promoting my own work. I might have continued to do Tarot art but probably no one would have ever seen it.

I feel very honored that people sometimes take the time and trouble to send me e-mail, or handwritten letters of support or share some of their own collage work and ask for feedback. I keep a notebook of all this wonderful correspondence and artwork I get from Tarotists who connect with my work and share a bit of themselves, often from folks I've yet to meet in person. I use plastic protective sheets to store them, because they mean so much to me. The notebook is brimming with good vibes and so packed with messages that it takes up a large chunk of a bookshelf. This connection with others means the world to me.

For an introvert and outsider like me to have a sense of being a part of a larger tribe who accept me, well it's more than I can express in words. It's as if I have found a place where I fit inside the larger collage.

I also love how the Tarot has no limitations to its interpretations through many artistic mediums. I see the world through the lens of Tarot. When watching movies, I can't help but identify Tarot archetypes...and music, too, but I am “in tune” with Tarot themes in songs due to your CD compilations on this theme, Diane, so thanks for that. These days I enjoy experimenting with introducing the Tarot in new formats that I've never seen made commercially available before, such as handmade fabric dolls of the court cards, miniature Tarot shops, Tarot-themed mirrors and shadow boxes.

My house is full of Tarot art, both mine and that of other artists I resonate with. It looks like one huge collage, I'm not kidding. I have all this cool Tarot imagery that people have sent me, or of my favorite cards filling the entire back wall of my studio, and my fridge is covered from head to toe with Tarot magnets and such. I have favorite Tarot cards in frames on the walls and Tarot dolls and shops populate the shelves. It's a bit much, I guess, but it feels like home. 

Diane: What are your future plans? 

Arnell: I plan to continue to do my Tarot art projects, as they give me the most satisfaction these days. But I also need to get a grown-up job, as I can’t really continue to live on my meager Tarot income, gratifying as it is. My husband has never pushed me to go back to a 9 to 5 job, but we hope to move to Italy one day soon and we can’t do it unless we start saving some dough.

I want to take a break from doing workshops for a while. People told me it would get easier with practice, but apparently that just isn’t so for me. I'm not that comfortable articulating myself in words, so I prefer my work to speak for itself. I like a big project that I can sink my teeth into, such as the miniature Tarot shops that I began making a couple years ago.  I think I've made around 12 shops so far and that's been great fun.

I’ve also been making Tarot mirrors recently, which I enjoy. So far, I've made several using the themes of the Lovers, Strength, and the High Priestess. I rather like the idea of a Tarot Major Arcana theme to mirror oneself in, whatever issue you are challenged by in your life at the time. I think it can work as a powerful affirmation. I'd like to make a few more of these mirrors with other archetypical Tarot themes that challenge some of us, such as Temperance, Chariot and The Moon. And I enjoy making Tarot shadow boxes, although they are a bit more challenging as they seem to have a mind of their own.

I really don't know what's ahead. Stuart Kaplan approached me at that magical Chicago ITS conference this past May, and said US Games would like to publish Transformational Tarot. They had indicated an interest a few years past and even sent a contract at one point, but then later on their lawyers got nervous about it being a collage deck, despite how carefully and consciously I created Transformation. It looks like collage work that uses artwork considered in the public domain is now better defended in lawsuits then it was a few years back.  So I'm optimistic that Transformational Tarot may finally get published. I'd really like my little deck to see more of the world. And many people have written such wonderful letters asking me to reprint it that I'd really be grateful if this could happen.

Diane: What is the one thing you want the tarot community to know about you?

Arnell: That I deeply appreciate knowing I am a part of a larger Tarot tribe, and that I am thankful for all the support and generous openness to my work...that I'm really shy and to calm my nerves I ate far too many chocolate kisses during this interview process...I don't know. That I will continue to express myself artistically as long as it feels authentic and meaningful. And that I'm thankful to all the Tarot artists and writers that have inspired me thus far and will keep me fired up in the future.

                                    *********************************************


Arnell may be thankful to them, but speaking for myself, I am the one who is thankful to have her as a friend, tarot artist and author, and muse. I think I speak for the tarot community as well, many of whom truly recognize her work.  One of them is the eloquent Paula Gibby, creator of the Blue Rose and Animal Tarots, who had this to say: 

“I was fortunate enough to obtain a copy of Arnell's Transformational Tarot at a time when I had sworn off collage decks.  I found them confusing, erratic - an artistically messy series of images that just didn't have the tarot's voice.

Yes, voice.  For although the tarot is a compelling blend of evocative images, it DOES have a voice.  A voice that sings an ever-evolving melody of highs and lows, lights and darks, with a shivering interplay of every tone in between.

At the time, I had many tarot decks in my collection that sang a note or two.  Ten or twelve if I was lucky. 

But when I met the Transformational, I finally had what I wanted.  An entire symphony of tones.  The images in this deck sing, notes swirling in and out of each other.  Sometimes soft, breathlessly lyrical and intensely romantic. Other times, edgy, contemporary and ablaze with honesty and forthrightness.

Meeting the Hero's Journey Tarot, I found the counterpoint melody that threads its way as an undercurrent in the Transformational.  The song is wild and untamed versus the sophisticated, polished Transformational.  Songs within songs.  Perfection.

Has Arnell's art inspired me?  Of course it has.  It can be elegant, refined, sweet and charmingly innocent.  It can also be frank, raw, earthy, sexy and original.  And the delight is flipping through her cards experiencing the constant, stimulating juxtaposition of styles, moods and effects.

Has her generous sharing, encouragement and instruction in how to make one's own deck inspired me?  Again, yes.

But the most important inspiration of all is that Arnell has communicated, through her work, the magical song that weaves its way through our journeys, leading us ever forward, seeking out all the little places so that we don't miss a thing.  For Arnell's work, seminars and gentle communications clearly tell us that one's own method, art style and technical approach can and will fall into place...as long as the song is allowed to fly free.  If it can, if the vision is carried by the voice within, then everything else will be as it should be. 

And once the song has been awakened, it will find its expression.  No, not find, demand. 

Arnell's song woke me up one day.  More importantly, it awakened my own voice - my own song. 

And I've been singing ever since.”

Paula’s words are not just beautiful, but reflect what Arnell Ando’s work has given to the Tarot community. May she--and her work--continue to motivate us all to each find our tarot voices and sing out our individual tarot songs. Nothing could make her happier.


Interview and page © 2002 Diane Wilkes
This interview originally appeared in Celebrating the Tarot.