The Pulp Tarot: A New Tarot Deck Inspired by Midcentury Pulp Illustrations

Graphic artist Todd Alcott has endeared himself to Open Culture readers by retrofitting midcentury pulp paperback covers and illustrations with classic lyrics from the likes of David BowiePrinceBob Dylan, and Talking Heads.

Although he’s dabbled in the abstractions that once graced the covers of psychology, philosophy, and science texts, his overarching attraction to the visual language of science fiction and illicit romance speak to the premium he places on narrative.




And with hundreds of “mid-century mashups” to his name, he’s become quite a master of bending existing narratives to his own purposes.

Recently, Alcott turned his attention to the creation of the Pulp Tarot deck he is funding on Kickstarter.

A self-described “clear-eyed skeptic as far as paranormal things” go, Alcott was drawn to the “simplicity and strangeness” of Pamela Colman Smith’s “bewitching” Tarot imagery:

Maybe because they were simply the first ones I saw, I don’t know, but there is something about the narrative thread that runs through them, the way they delineate the development of the soul, with all the choices and crises a soul encounters on its way to fulfillment, that really struck a chord with me. You lay out enough Tarot spreads and they eventually coalesce around a handful of cards that really seem to define you. I don’t know how it happens, but it does, every time: there are cards that come up for you so often that you think, “Yep, that’s me,” and then there are others that turn up so rarely that, when they do come up, you have to look them up in the little booklet because you’ve never seen them before.

One such card for Alcott is the Page of Swords. In the early 90s, curious to know what the Tarot would have to say about the young woman he’d started dating, he shuffled and cut his Rider-Waite-Smith deck “until something inside said “now” and he flipped over the Page of Swords:

I looked it up in the booklet, which said that the Page of Swords was a secret-keeper, like a spy. I thought about that for a moment; the woman I was seeing was nothing like a spy, and had no spy-like attributes. I shrugged and began the process again, shuffling and cutting and shuffling and cutting, until, again, something inside said “now,” and turned up the card again. It was the Page of Swords, again. My heart leaped, I put the deck back in its box and quietly freaked out for a while. The next day, I asked the young lady if the Page of Swords meant anything to her, and she said “Oh sure, when I was a kid, that was my card.” Anyway, I’m now married to her.

The Three of Pentacles is another favorite, one that presented a particular design challenge.

The Smith deck shows a stonemason, an architect and a church official, collaborating on building a cathedral. Now, there are no cathedrals in the pulp world, so I had to think, well, in the pulp world, pentacles represent money, so the obvious choice would be to show three criminals planning a heist. I couldn’t find an image anything close to the one in my head, so I had to build it: the room, the table, the map of the bank, the plan, the people involved, and then stitch it all together in Photoshop so it ended up looking like a cohesive illustration. That was a really joyful moment for me: there were the three conspirators, the Big Cheese, the Dame and The Goon, their roles clearly defined despite not seeing anyone’s face. It was a real breakthrough, seeing that I could put together a little narrative like that.

Smith imagined a medieval fantasy world when designing her Tarot deck. Alcott is drawing on 70 years of pop-culture ephemera to create a tribute to Smith’s vision that also works as a deck in their own right “with its own moral narrative universe, based on the attitudes and conventions of that world.”

Before drafting each of his 70 cards, Alcott studied Smith’s version, researching its meaning and design as he contemplates how he might translate it into the pulp vernacular. He has found that some of Smith’s work was deliberately exacting with regard to color, attitude, and costume, and other instances where specific details took a back seat to mood and emotional impact:

Once I understand what a card is about, I look through my library to find images that help get that across. It can get really complicated! A lot of times, the character’s body is in the right position but their face has the wrong expression, so I have to find a face that fits what the card is trying to say. Or their physical attitude is right, but I need them to be gripping or throwing something, so I have to find hands and arms that I can graft on, Frankenstein style. In some cases, there will be figures in the cards cobbled together from five or six different sources. 

These cards are easily the most complex work I’ve ever done in that sense. The song pieces I do are a conversation between the piece and the song, but these cards are a conversation between me, Smith, the entire Tarot tradition, and the universe. 

Visit Todd Alcott’s Etsy shop to view more of his mid-century mash ups, and see more cards from The Pulp Tarot and support Kickstarter here.

All images from the Pulp Tarot used with the permission of artist Todd Alcott.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Ethan Hawke Explains How to Give Yourself Permission to Be Creative

The most creative people, you’ll notice, throw themselves into what they do with absurd, even reckless abandon. They commit, no matter their doubts about their talents, education, finances, etc. They have to. They are generally fighting not only their own misgivings, but also those of friends, family, critics, financiers, and landlords. Artists who work to realize their own vision, rather than someone else’s, face a witheringly high probability of failure, or the kind of success that comes with few material rewards. One must be willing to take the odds, and to renounce, says Ethan Hawke in the short TED talk above, the need for validation or approval.

This is hard news for people pleasers and seekers after fame and reputation, but in order to overcome the inevitable social obstacles, artists must be willing, says Hawke, to play the fool. He takes as his example Allen Ginsberg, who appeared on William F. Buckley’s Firing Line in May of 1968 and, rather than answer Buckley’s charge that his political positions were “naive,” pulled out a harmonium and proceeded to sing the Hare Krishna chant (“the most unharried Krishna I’ve ever heard,” Buckley remarked). Upon arriving home to New York, says Hawke, Ginsberg was met by people who were aghast at what he’d done, feeling that he made himself a clown for middle America.




Ginsberg was unbothered. He was willing to be “America’s holy fool,” as Vivian Gornick called him, if it meant interrupting the constant stream of advertising and propaganda and making Americans stop to wonder “who is this stupid poet?”

Who is this person so willing to chant at William F. Buckley for “the preservation of the universe, instead of its destruction”? What might he have to say to my secret wishes? This is what artists do, says Hawke, take risks to express emotions, by whatever means are at hand. It is the essence of Ginsberg’s view of creativity, to let go of judgment, as he once told a writing student:

Judge it later. You’ll have plenty of time to judge it. You have all your life to judge it and revise it! You don’t have to judge it on the spot there. What rises, respect it. Respect what rises….

Judge your own work later, if you must, but whatever you do, Hawke advises above, don’t stake your worth on the judgments of others. The creative life requires committing instead to the value of human creativity for its own sake, with a childlike intensity that doesn’t apologize for itself or ask permission to come to the surface.

Related Content: 

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Airline Toilets Theatre Company: Watch One Man Stage Comical Shows in Airplane Bathrooms

When COVID 19 struck, theater lovers were faced with a choice.

Let go entirely, or expand our definitions of what constitutes “theater.”

We’ve had 14 months to get used to the idea of performances staged in closetsin podcast form, or as phone calls hinging on audience participation.

We’re sick of Zoom, but we no longer consider it mandatory for the players to inhabit the same space as each other or the audience.




This is all old news to Peter Brooke Turner, a member of the Ukulele Orchestra of Great Britain and the founder of the Airline Toilets Theatre Company.

The ATTC’s repertoire consists of great works of literature, song and dance… performed exclusively in aircraft lavatories, a true feat when one considers that Turner, impresario and sole company member, is 6’8”.

2015’s inaugural production, above, remains among the company’s most ambitious —  a 50th anniversary recreation of Bob Dylan’s 1965 promotional film clip for Subterranean Homesick Blues, shot on various flights throughout the Ukulele Orchestra’s US tour.

Before long, Turner’s carry-on was stuffed with props and costumes — a toga, three self-adhesive Abraham Lincoln beards, a fat suit, a plastic cigar, cardboard face masks of Jimi Hendrix and Queen’s Brian May, and a numbers of inflatables, including a woman, a horse, and a not particularly realistic handgun.

Staging solo, site specific mini productions struck Turner as a far more amusing prospect than remaining in his seat, watching a movie:

I don’t like passive consumerism — I’d rather make my own movie than watch some CGI blockbuster on a plane. 90% of touring is NOT performing but sitting around on a plane/train/bus staring into space — I’m just trying to do something creative to make the time pass. 

With advance planning, the simpler productions can make it into the can on a single take.

The James Bond Tribute, below, which called for costume changes, puppets and cardboard masks of Sean Connery, Roger Moore, and Daniel Craig, was shot in segments — London to Frankfurt, Singapore to Auckland, and Singapore to London.

Rather than projecting for the benefit of folks in the non-existent back row, Turner prefers to lip synch prerecorded lines, fed to him via earbud. This helps dial down the suspicions of flight attendants and fellow passengers. Once the “occupied” light comes on, he reckons he has between 7 to 10 minutes to take care of business. Should anyone question the length of his stay, or his large bag of costumes and props, his excuse is that “I suffer from haemorrhoids and need to change my pants. (Believe me, this is a conversation no one wants to take further.)”

Watch a playlist of the Best of the Airline Toilets Theater Company here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Join her June 7 for a Necromancers of the Public Domain: The Periodical Cicada, a free virtual variety honoring the 17-Year Cicadas of Brood X. Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Creative Thinking: A Free Online Course from Imperial College London

From Peter Childs (Head of the Dyson School of Design Engineering at Imperial College London) comes a free course that explores creative thinking techniques, and how to apply them to everyday problems and global challenges. The course description for Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success reads:

In today’s ever-growing and changing world, being able to think creatively and innovatively are essential skills. It can sometimes be challenging to step back and reflect in an environment which is fast paced or when you are required to assimilate large amounts of information. Making sense of or communicating new ideas in an innovative and engaging way, approaching problems from fresh angles, and producing novel solutions are all traits which are highly sought after by employers.

The greatest innovators aren’t necessarily the people who have the most original idea. Often, they are people- or teams- that have harnessed their creativity to develop a new perspective or more effective way of communicating an idea. You can train your imagination to seize opportunities, break away from routine and habit, and tap into your natural creativity.

This course will equip you with a ‘tool-box’, introducing you to a selection of behaviours and techniques that will augment your innate creativity. Some of the tools are suited to use on your own and others work well for a group, enabling you to leverage the power of several minds.

You can take Creative Thinking: Techniques and Tools for Success for free by selecting the audit option upon enrolling. If you want to take the course for a certificate, you will need to pay a fee.

Creative Thinking will be added to our list, 1,700 Free Online Courses from Top Universities.

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167 Pieces of Life & Work Advice from Kevin Kelly, Founding Editor of Wired Magazine & The Whole Earth Review

Image by Christopher Michel, via Wikimedia Commons

I am a big admirer of Kevin Kelly for the same reason I am of Brian Eno—he is constantly thinking. That thirst for knowledge and endless curiosity has always been the backbone to their particular art forms. For Eno it’s music, but for Kelly it’s in his editorship of the Whole Earth Review and then Wired magazine, providing a space for big ideas to reach the widest audience. (He’s also the reason one of my bucket lists is the Nakasendo, after seeing his photo essay on it.)

On his 68th birthday in 2020, Kelly posted on his blog a list of 68 “Unsolicited Bits of Advice.” One bit of advice that frames his thought process and his work is this one:

“I’m positive that in 100 years much of what I take to be true today will be proved to be wrong, maybe even embarrassingly wrong, and I try really hard to identify what it is that I am wrong about today.”

However, the list is more about wisdom from a life well-spent. Many fall into the art of being a curious human among other humans:

  • Everyone is shy. Other people are waiting for you to introduce yourself to them, they are waiting for you to send them an email, they are waiting for you to ask them on a date. Go ahead.
  • The more you are interested in others, the more interesting they find you. To be interesting, be interested.
  • Being able to listen well is a superpower. While listening to someone you love keep asking them “Is there more?”, until there is no more.

And this is probably the hardest piece of advice these days:

  • Learn how to learn from those you disagree with, or even offend you. See if you can find the truth in what they believe.

Other bits of advice have to do with creativity and being an artist:

  • Always demand a deadline. A deadline weeds out the extraneous and the ordinary. It prevents you from trying to make it perfect, so you have to make it different. Different is better.
  • Don’t be the smartest person in the room. Hangout with, and learn from, people smarter than yourself. Even better, find smart people who will disagree with you.
  • To make something good, just do it. To make something great, just re-do it, re-do it, re-do it. The secret to making fine things is in remaking them.
  • Art is in what you leave out.

And some of the more interesting ones are his disagreements with perceived wisdom:

  • Following your bliss is a recipe for paralysis if you don’t know what you are passionate about. A better motto for most youth is “master something, anything”. Through mastery of one thing, you can drift towards extensions of that mastery that bring you more joy, and eventually discover where your bliss is.

One year later, Kelly has returned with 99 more bits of advice. I guess he couldn’t wait til his 99th birthday for it. Some favorites include:

  • If something fails where you thought it would fail, that is not a failure.
  • Being wise means having more questions than answers.
  • I have never met a person I admired who did not read more books than I did.
  • Every person you meet knows an amazing lot about something you know virtually nothing about. Your job is to discover what it is, and it won’t be obvious.

and finally:

  • Don’t let your email inbox become your to-do list.

There is a small shift in Kelly’s 2021 list from his 2020 list, like a little more frustration with the world, a need for more order in the chaos. I wonder what his advice will be in a few more years?

via BoingBoing

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Ted Mills is a freelance writer on the arts who currently hosts the Notes from the Shed podcast and is the producer of KCRW’s Curious Coast. You can also follow him on Twitter at @tedmills, and/or watch his films here.

Kermit the Frog Gives a TED Talk About Creativity & the Power of “Ridiculous Optimism”

In 2015, 3.8 billion years after “creativity emerged” out of “sheerest emptiness,” Kermit the Frog was tapped to give a talk on creativity at TEDxJackson.

How did a local, one-day event manage to snag such a global icon?

Roots.

The famed frog’s creator, Jim Henson, spent his first decade in Mississippi (though Kermit was born of a ping pong ball and Henson’s mother’s old coat after the family relocated to Maryland.)




The conference took place 15 years after Henson’s untimely death, leaving Kermit to be animated by Steven Whitmire, the first of two puppeteers to tackle a role widely understood to be Henson’s alter ego.

The voice isn’t quite the same, but the mannerisms are, including the throat clearing and crumpled facial expressions.

Also present are a number of TED Talk tropes, the smart phone prompts, the dark stage, projections designed to emphasize profound points.

A number of jokes fail to elicit the expected laughs … we’ll leave it up to you to determine whether the fault lays with the live audience or the material. (It’s not easy being green and working blue comes with challenges, too.)

Were he to give his TED Talk now, in 2021, Kermit probably wouldn’t describe the audience’s collective decision to “accept a premise, suspend our disbelief and just enjoy the ride” as a “conspiracy of craziness.”

He might bypass a binary quote like “If necessity is the mother of invention, then creativity is the father.”

He’d also be advised to steer clear of a photo of Miss Piggy dressed as a geisha, and secure her consent to share some of the racier anecdotes… even though she is a known attention hog.

He would “transcend and include” in the words of philosopher Ken Wilber, one of many inspirations he cites over the course of his 23-minute consideration of creativity and its origins, attempting to answer the question, “Why are we here?”

Also referenced: Michelangelo, Albert Einstein, Salvador Dali, Charles Baudelaire, Zen master Shunryū Suzuki, mathematician Alfred North Whitehead, author and educator, Sir Ken Robinson (who appears, briefly) and of course, Henson, who applauded the “ridiculous optimism” of flinging oneself into creative explorations, unsure of what one might find.

He can’t wander freely about the stage, but he does share some stirring thoughts on collaboration, mentors, and the importance of maintaining “beginner’s mind,” free of pre-conceptions.

How to cultivate beginner’s mind?

Try fast forwarding to the 11:11 mark. Watch for 20 seconds. It’s the purest invitation to believe since Peter Pan begged us to clap Tinker Bell back to life.

Do you? Because Kermit believes in you.

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Jim Henson’s Commercials for Wilkins Coffee: 15 Twisted Minutes of Muppet Coffee Ads (1957-1961)

Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

Watch the “Greatest Juggler of the Ages,” Frances Brunn, Perform His “Painfully Exciting” Juggling Routine (1969)

When John Ringling North, then president of Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus, saw a pair of German  jugglers and acrobats perform in Spain, he immediately invited them to join “the Greatest Show on Earth.” A brother and sister team, Francis and Lottie Brunn would astonish audiences. In 1950, theater critic Brooks Atkinson called Francis “the greatest juggler of the ages. Not many people in the world are as perfectly adjusted as Mr. Brunn is. He will never have to visit a psychiatrist.” If physical grace and balance are reflective of one’s state of mind, maybe he was right.

When Lottie left the act in 1951, Francis went on to popular fame and even more hyperbolic acclaim. “After he performed before the queen of England in 1963, The Evening Standard called his show ‘almost painfully exciting,’” Douglas Martin writes at The New York Times.




“Trying to describe Brunn’s act is like trying to describe the flight of a swallow,” writes Francisco Alvarez in Juggling: Its History and Greatest Performers. He became a regular performer on The Ed Sullivan Show, “played the Palace with Judy Garland,” notes Martin, “and went twice to the White House, where President Dwight D. Eisenhower proclaimed him the best juggler he had ever seen.”

None of this should bias you toward the television performance, above, of course. (How many jugglers could Eisenhower have seen, anyway?) Judge for yourself. By way of further context, we should note that Brunn was known for perfecting “an austere but demanding minimalism. He was fascinated by controlling just one ball, and virtually compelled audiences to share this fascination.” Or as Brunn put it, “it sounds like nothing, but it is quite difficult to do properly.” As anyone (or virtually everyone) who has tried and failed to juggle can attest, this description fits the art of juggling in general all too well.

Brunn made it look laughably easy: “Large numbers of objects posed scant problem. He was believed to be the first juggler in the world to put up 10 hoops,” Martin writes. He also liked to incorporate flamenco into his act to compound the difficulty and the grace. “I do not consider myself doing tricks,” he said in 1983. “There is one movement for eight minutes. It’s supposed to be, let’s say, like a ballet…. I would love if the audience is so fascinated that nobody applauds in the end.” Brunn, I suspect, never got to hear the sound of stunned silence after his act.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Artist Makes Micro-Miniature Sculptures So Small They Fit on the Head of a Pin

The jury remains out as to the number of angels that can dance on a pin, but self-taught artist Flor Carvajal is amassing some data regarding the number of itty bitty sculptures that can be installed on the tips of matchsticks, pencil points, and — thanks to a rude encounter with a local reporter — in the eye of a needle.

According to Tucson’s Mini Time Machine Museum of Miniatures, where her work is on display through June, The Vanguardia Liberal was considering running an interview in conjunction with an exhibit of her Christmas-themed miniatures. When she wouldn’t go on record as to whether any of the itty-bitty nativity scenes she’d been crafting for over a decade could be described as the world’s smallest, the reporter hung up on her.




Rather than stew, she immediately started experimenting, switching from Styrofoam to synthetic resin in the pursuit of increasingly miniscule manger scenes.

By sunrise, she’d managed to place the Holy Family atop a lentil, a grain of rice, the head of a nail, and the head of a pin.

These days, most of her micro-miniature sculptures require between 2 and 14 days of work, though she has been laboring on a model of Apollo 11 for over a year, using only a magnifying glass and a needle, which doubles as brush and carving tool.

In a virtual artist’s chat last month, she emphasizes that a calm mind, steady hands, and breath control are important things to bring to her workbench.

Open windows can lead to natural disaster. The odds of recovering a work-in-progress that’s been knocked to the floor are close to nil, when said piece is rendered in 1/4” scale or smaller.

Religious themes provide ongoing inspiration – a recent achievement is a 26 x 20 millimeter recreation of Leonardo da Vinci’s Last Supper — but she’s also drawn to subjects relating to her native Columbia, like Goranchacha, the son the Muisca Civilization’s Sun God, and Juan Valdez, the fictional representative of the national coffee growers federation.

See more of  Flor Carvajal’s micro-miniatures on her Instagram.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

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