Today we have renowned Illustrator, Doll Maker and Tarot Artist, Odessa Sawyer in The Tarot Hot Seat. Odessa is a multi-talented creative artist who has an extremely impressive resume to her credit. Her artwork has adorned the book covers of several top publishing houses. HBO, Laika, Duck Studios and Coty have all commissioned Odessa’s fantastic artwork. Her work has been published in Lurzer’s Archive where she was listed as one of the best illustrators worldwide for 2011 and 2014. No mean achievement I am sure. Odessa’s bio highlights where she derives her inspiration from. Fantasy, fairy tales, fashion and classic horror are her main influences which are given superb creative expression in her quirky and imaginative illustrations. A visit to Odessa’s website will reveal how extensive her portfolio is. Read through her resume for yourself, even Katy Perry’s name crops up. Odessa’s illustrations are sublime and totally original. Hers is a talent not often seen. It is not surprising how much she is in demand. What comes as a fascinating surprise is the discovery of a complete set of Major Arcana Tarot Cards which Odessa has given great attention to in their detail and design. Images of the full 22 cards are available to view on her website. I think you will agree they are magnificent. Odessa is also a Doll Maker, her creations crafted mostly from recycled fabrics and every bit as quirky and whimsical as her illustrations. With such an extensive range of superb work to choose from, it would be hard to settle on any one piece to purchase – I want them all, and especially the set of Major Arcana! Ooh and lots of dolls too!
Odessa works mainly in digital mixed media, utilizing digital and traditional painting and photography. Her website has an online shop full of stunning artwork treasures. From here you can purchase dolls, digital work, books, cards and prints. Odessa also accepts private illustration or doll commissions.
Odessa Sawyer lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico with her husband and son.
Major Arcana Collection (Sample)
Copyright © Odessa Sawyer
Me – Odessa, can you tell me where your gift or talent for art comes from? Were you always drawing, painting and making things as a child? Where did you, if at all, study art? Did you always want to be an artist?
Odesssa – “Both my parents are artistic so there was a big emphasis on creativity in the house growing up. My mother is a fine artist who can work any medium and my father was a really unique architect who traveled around the country creating homes for actors and rock stars.
When I graduated high school I enrolled in the Vancouver Film school to study make-up for film and television, thinking I wasn’t going to be able to make a living doing artwork, but when I graduated I was unsatisfied and decided I had to come back to it and see if I could combine my love of art with having to make a living. I took a few courses in schools in Vancouver, Canada and Seattle, Washington but I was anxious to get my career off the ground so I didn’t pursue school any further.”
Me – Would you consider yourself a typical artist, quirky or bohemian?
Odessa – “I might fall into the bohemian stereotype a little bit. I dress pretty simply and comfortably because I’m always working at home. My daily uniform is pretty much just jeans and a t-shirt.”
Me – How critical are you of your own work?
Odessa – “I’m fairly critical of my own work. I really don’t like looking back at older work because everything can always be more perfect.”
Me – When I first discovered your work after doing a google search for High Priestess images, and then followed the link to your website I expected to find a site dedicated to tarot. What I didn’t expect to find was a cornucopia of illustrative delights and funky doll craft. There in the middle of it all was a stunning collection of Major Arcana Cards. I read through your bio in search of some reference to tarot, but there was none which leads me to enquire as to what drew you to creating this powerful deck? Why tarot?
Odessa – “I have always loved Tarot and the mysticism surrounding it. I wanted to explore it myself with my own Tarot deck because it is so interesting to me, but I also wanted to come at it with a fresh eye, as someone who doesn’t know a lot about it to begin with because I think it makes for an interesting deck.”
Me – I notice many artists with non-specific interest in tarot have tackled these cards at some stage or other. Some may be drawn to painting their interpretation of a certain card, while others go for several, especially the Major. It seems only tarot die-hard artists go for the full deck. Did you have a knowledge of tarot at the time you began work on them, or did you learn it along the way?
Odessa – “I didn’t have a very comprehensive knowledge of Tarot when I started the series, I learned it along the way but I purposefully kept myself a little ignorant in the process so I could approach the project with a fresh eye.”
Me – Was it necessary to carry out research on each card before starting work on them?
Odessa – “It’s definitely necessary to do at least a little research when working on each card, there is so much information about each card I think it would be nearly impossible to start the deck without a very basic knowledge.”
Me – Many artists use the interpretation of a Tarot card for inspiration in design. Tarot’s symbolism helps develop their artistic expression. What initially started off as an exercise or experiment has sometimes turned into a growing passion for Tarot. This has caught many by surprise. What are your feelings on this and how did the creation of your Major Arcana affect you?
Odessa – “Creating this deck definitely gave me a lot of insight and kept me interested in continuing to pursue Tarot as an art form. It left me wanting to do more decks in the future. One of my upcoming projects is going to be the Minor Arcana deck, so I’m definitely still interested in learning and exploring it further.”
Me – Designing and creating a deck of Tarot can be an exhausting process, sometimes taking years to research and complete. How long did it take you to complete this series? Did you start with The Fool and work from there, or did you approach it randomly? How did you keep motivated?
Odessa – “My Tarot deck took about a year to complete the first round, then I went back and did a lot of edits on each card so I’d say in total it probably took around 2 years. I started the process in order but started to approach it more randomly as I went along because I’d sometimes be more inspired to do a certain card that was out-of-order and I’d have to run with it. There are certain cards in the deck that I found more complex and harder to tackle and saved a lot of those for the end when I could really give them some thought.”
Me – You haven’t named your collection of Major Arcana. Do you intend to?
Odessa – “I probably should name it. In truth, I really hate giving titles to my art and I get very lazy about it. :D”
Me – Your inspiration comes from fantasy, fairy tales and a type of classic horror. The Tarot certainly lends itself to such an influence, with many tarot cards of old depicting highly imaginative and often grim imagery. In such an environment, you could let your imagination run riot. Did you feel this project landed you right in your element and the realm you are most happy working in? Was it a no-brainer for you, something that had your name and style written all over it?
Odessa – “I think in terms of style, it was a bit of a no-brainer. The symbolism behind the Tarot definitely seem to suit my personal art style so I found it pretty easy to delve into.”
Me – With your fascination for horror, did this naturally lead you to immerse yourself in the design of the more disturbing cards such as Death, the Devil and the Tower? Did you find the grim cards enjoyable to paint? Did they play to your love of horror?
Odessa – “Yes, my fascination with horror definitely helped with the darker cards of the series. I probably had the most fun with Death and the Devil because I could go a bit hog wild with it. With the lighter cards, I have to be more careful and thoughtful about the way in which I interpret them. Horror and/or disturbing imagery is simple and straightforward.”
Me – Which cards did you find the most difficult or challenging to design? What did you learn from this?
Odessa – “I found Justice quite hard to illustrate at first because it was pretty straightforward and I had a challenge trying to figure out a cool way to depict.”
Me – Now that you have completed the Major, which card/s are your favourite/s.
Odessa – “This ties into the above question a bit. The Lovers card is a personal favorite because I had a really hard time figuring out what I wanted it to be and kept putting it off until it was the very last card I had to do. I finally had a burst of inspiration for it, and then right after I finished it, I re-connected with the man who I would later marry. So it’s a bit of a romantic one for me.”
Me – Now I think all the cards are outstanding individual works of art, but I want to mention a few here. I feel you have portrayed The Magician perfectly. He is vapoury and quite possibly just an illusion, showing us only what he wants us to see. He is a Magician after all. The Fool as the blindfolded circus acrobat indiscriminately tossing daggers in the air. She sits precariously on a swing, not bothering to hold on. She has no fear of plummeting to her death. Then there is the High Priestess, cocooned in layers of suspense, keeping her true self under wraps. What lies under her veils no one yet knows. Only the privileged and worthy will eventually get to see. She is depicted in virginal white, yet the red rose of her crown and red pendant reveal a burning passion that grows within, and will at some stage need to be expressed. At present her rank and position do not permit her such freedom and she must patiently wait. The red rose that crowns her head is seen once more on The Empress where it stylishly adorns her hair which flows freely around her. As the artist, can you explain to our viewers the symbolic aspect of this?
Odessa – “I love your interpretations of the art. The way I often work is I get into a zone and just sort of go with it and I’m not always sure why I do something or why something goes where it goes, but it ends up that way and I don’t have a great explanation for it. There were some things within this series that were done intentionally with the card in mind but this particular one is a case where I sometimes like to throw a red focal point into a piece and I didn’t really think too much about its symbolism.”
Me – The Empress is depicted nurturing three eggs, the Emperor, several more. Is the Empress concealing these extra eggs in the nest or does it highlight the different levels of responsibility between them? The Empress must guard her eggs, but The Emperor must also guard the eggs of all his kingdom. The Empress has direct responsibility for the safety of her own eggs, but the Emperor’s is broader and extends to the eggs of others too. However, the extra eggs in his nest could imply he has been busy spreading his seed!! Could you share with us the significance, if any, regarding the differing number of eggs involved?
Odessa – “When I researched The Empress I read; “Waite defines her as a fruitful mother of thousands. She is the repository of all things nurturing and sustaining, and of feeding others.” I depicted her as a bird-like figure, tasked with protecting her nest and children. There is no meaning to the number of eggs in the Empress’s nest, I just wanted to keep it minimal. I also wanted her body language to feel protective and aware of her children. You’re quite right about the Emperor’s amount of eggs though. He’s described as “absolute ego” and I think my interpretation of this was if he had more offspring, he saw it as creating more of himself and it was a way to address this. In contrast to the Empress’ body language, I wanted his to feel almost dismissive of the eggs themselves. He’s proud of what he’s created, but he doesn’t really care about what’s inside of them.”
Me – Now I think Strength must be one of my favourite cards in your collection. It is both beautiful and bloody at the same time, victorious and tragic in turn, a true grim fairy-tale which I can’t help but love. The poor lion has been defeated and tethered and a crown placed upon his head. Is this an attempt to domesticate him, to make him a fashion accessory rather than allow him run wild and free? There appears to have been a major struggle to subdue the lion and one would not have put their money on the young princess emerging victoriously. She looks too refined, too delicate for the job, but looks are deceiving, and I am sure the lion thought it would be a walk-over. After all, he is so much bigger and stronger than she. The young Lion looks humiliated, and the princess in a state of shock at the outcome. Blood was spilled in the struggle, but it just goes to prove, physical strength alone is no match when compared to inner strength. The young princess for all her delicate appearance obviously has inner strength in bucket loads. Odessa, I would love to hear what you intended to convey in the imagery of this card?
Odessa – “That is very much how I intended to portray the card. This is probably the most feminist illustration I’ve ever done. When I thought about the word “strength”, it just came into my head to show female strength. I wanted her bound up in a corset and a big frilly dress so we see her as an outdated idea of how a woman should be presented, but her inner strength allows her to do something physically impossible. The lion serves as a patriarchal symbol of male ego and control. I set it up to feel almost as if she’s having a portrait taken of the two after the battle, to further humiliate him and cement her win. No one is fatally injured, but the lion won’t soon forget how strong she is.”
Me – Similar to other tarot artists I have interviewed, I notice your likeness in several of the cards. I see you most definitely in the Empress, Temperance and other cards too. Was this intentional or a habit most artists have?
Odessa – “I can’t speak for anyone else but I feel like a lot of artists like to feature themselves in their work because it’s familiar and maybe a bit more personal. I certainly don’t see myself as a mother nature type or an angel, but I think it’s fun to play with your own likeness in ways that you normally wouldn’t relate to. Also it’s just nice to have a model very easily at your disposal!”
Me – Do you have a guide-book to go with your cards? If not, do you have plans to create one?
Odessa – “I thought about something like that but never got around to making one. I would love to do that in the future, maybe when I finish another deck and I’d need someone to work with me on it who has a vast knowledge of Tarot.”
Me – Which Major and Court Card do you most identify with? Have you deliberately painted yourself into any of the scenes? Note – you may have already answered this in a previous question.
Odessa – “I didn’t deliberately paint myself into any of the cards but I used my own likeness quite a bit when I felt like my look fit that particular card. I identify with the Magician card because it focuses so heavily on goal accomplishment and creating success which has been my main focus for pretty much my whole adult life.”
Me – Of the cards you have painted, which would represent your life right now?
Odessa – “Again I’d probably say The Magician card.”
Me – Have you learned a lot about your own personality and the personality of others through tarot artwork?
Odessa – “I learned about myself a bit when I was doing each card. It was really fascinating to read about all of them and see which ones I related to at the time I was doing them.”
Me – How much has your understanding and knowledge of Tarot grown since you worked on your first card?
Odessa – “It’s grown a little but I would like to delve further into it at some point to learn more.”
Me – What message, if at all, do you hope to communicate through your tarot artwork?
Odessa – “I don’t really have a particular message but I always want people who see my work to feel transported.”
Me – If you were to start a new Tarot deck or collection today, would you approach it in a different manner? What have you learned along the way?
Odessa – “I don’t know if I would approach it any differently today. I might try and be a bit quicker because it did take a long time to complete last time, but other than that it would probably go much the same way.”
Me – For Wannabe Tarot Deck Creators, what would your advice be? What are the pitfalls to avoid?
Odessa – “I would tell anyone wanting to create their own Tarot deck to read about each card, don’t read too much, and try and have fun with it. I think doing too much research can stifle creativity.”
Me – How did you get your Major Arcana Series out there? Do you need an active online presence, blog, social media?
Odessa – “I mainly just submitted it places online. I think it’s pretty important these days as an artist to have an online presence, it’s really the only way most people will see what you do. I also put it on my website as well as as https://thegamecrafter.com, The Game Crafter where you can sell your own card decks.”
Me – You must be very proud of what you have achieved so far. I see from your blog post you have a fabulous new studio and shelves to eventually put all your published work on. It looks so interesting. Congratulations. Where did you work from before? I get the impression this is an Odessa Only Zone, your den, where all your wonderful ideas and creative impulses come to life. You must be very excited to have a lovely place to work from. Was it long overdue? Oh, and that Fox wall hanging is magical. Is it one of yours?
Odessa – “I used to work in the living room or in my bedroom so having a studio to myself is something I am really grateful to have and yes it is long overdue. The fox painting is one of mine, I occasionally paint traditionally when I have some free time.”
Me – You did some incredible illustrations for the New Mexico Magazine. What sort of project do you enjoy working on the most?
Odessa – “I enjoyed that project, it was especially gratifying being a local to New Mexico. I really love doing book covers and book projects though because it’s where I started professionally.”
Me – Was it exciting working on album covers? Where you given a definite spec or allowed come up with your own ideas?
Odessa – “Any time I’m working with a client I will ask them to give me some specs so that I know the basic direction they want me to go in. This helps avoid any major mistakes through the process. Then they generally leave me to explore my own ideas.”
Sample Selection Of Illustrations
Copyright © Odessa Sawyer
Me – You have an amazing collection of prints which can be purchased from your site. Your artwork has a very broad appeal. They are incredibly detailed and colourful. Where do you start when painting such fantasy scenes? Do you visualise it first, see the picture in your head and then communicate it to canvas? Does it always turn out as you first imagined, or does it evolve as you paint?
Odessa – “This sounds really boring, but I usually start with the size of the canvas. I work mainly digitally, so I’ll open a Photoshop document, figure out what size I need and a very basic layout. Then I’ll try to visualize at least some of it in my head and go with it. I don’t like to think too much beforehand about what I’m going to do, I just like to go fast and delve in. Mostly it turns out as I first imagined it but once in a while, if I feel like it’s just not flowing, I’ll go in a completely different direction as early as I can so I’m not laboring over something that isn’t going to work.”
Me – Your dolls are incredible and so original. I do have some favorites. I love Bobby (Good Heavens, what happened to poor Bobby, his poor arm is in a sling, not to mention his eye patch. He has been through the wars!) Bride and Pearl. Madge the Button Thief is adorable too. And what can I say about The Twins! On average, how much would one of your dolls cost to buy? And commissions?
Odessa – “Thank you! My dolls can cost anywhere between $40.00 to $800, it’s a pretty broad spectrum depending on how long it takes to make one and what kind of materials I’m using. It’s pretty much the same for commissions as well.”
Sample Selection Of Dolls
Copyright © Odessa Sawyer
Me – You are obviously a very busy woman and artist, but do you have any non-art interests or hobbies?
Odessa – “I’m a mom to an almost two-year old so as you can imagine I don’t have a lot of free time anymore 😀 but I do try to do yoga every day. I like to read and play computer games. I’m very much a hermit. No Tarot pun intended.”
Me – So, what’s next for Odessa Sawyer?
Odessa – “I’m definitely going to begin the Minor Arcana Deck soon. I’m working on a couple of other personal projects and I’m continuing to do as much commercial art as I can get!”
Thank you Odessa Sawyer for taking The Tarot Hot Seat and giving your time to answering all our probing questions. We were very excited to hear about all your fascinating work and to get a glimpse behind the scenes of such a talented illustrator and crafts-person. We wish you the very best of luck for 2018 and know it will be a wonderful year for you.
P.S. Thank you for allowing me to showcase such a wide selection of your artwork. x
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