Welcome back to part 2 of our chat with Ed Matuskey, creator of the Brass and Steam tarot deck.
Part one can be read here.
Airship Ambassador: Let’s talk about some specific cards in the Major Arcana, starting with The Hanged Man. What can you share about the symbolism and the process of creating this image?
Ed Matuskey: The card, for me, is all about transition—the moment between danger and safety, between action & inaction, between the surface and the depths, when anything can happen. I was also intrigued by the idea of making a card that would look right whether it was right-side up or not. Having the Hanged Man be suspended in water was a natural step once I’d arrived at that core concept, and the old-timey, super-evocative diving suit was another obvious element. I worked with Brooke to make sure one end wasn’t lighter than the other—I didn’t want the viewer to have any clear indication which way was up. Is the diver reaching for the tentacle, or is the tentacle reaching for the diver? Is it to pull the diver up to safety, or down into danger? The result is a very popular piece—the colors and composition are amazing!
Image by Brooke Gillette
AA: And the Queen of Cups (The Orient)?
EM: Man, you’re going way back in my memory for this one—it was one of the first cards I commissioned. I took inspiration from the Thoth deck—the companion book has provided a lot of inspiration as I look for the meanings behind the cards. In that book they refer to this card as the “watery card of water;” the Queens represent water, and Cups is the water suit, so the Queen of Cups is, essentially, a double-water card. Naturally she’s surrounded by waterfalls on all sides, with her chair and outfit also decked out in blue shades. She looks into pools and gains insight from what she sees. For me that translated into a woman who sits in the middle of a vast network of lenses, with images projected onto sheets of water like a camera obscura—a steampunk take on a video screen. On one hand, she’s watching over her people—there is an image of a warship projected to one side. On the other hand, we all live in a world where the question of state surveillance is on a lot of minds. Who watches the watchers? Who watches over she who watches her people?
AA: How about Mother of Invention (The Empress)?
EM: Where my High Priestess (Librarian) is the custodian of knowledge, and my Emperor goes out to acquire it, my Empress is about putting that knowledge to use, turning it into real-life applications. She is surrounded by books and the tools to turn what she knows into designs, and then to actual products (I am especially proud of the pin-dot table, by the way—I know exactly how it works and how it can turn her drawings into printed blueprints). In a way, this card embodies everything I’m trying to do with this deck—reaching into the ether and creating a product through application of knowledge and will.
Image by Alec Boca
AA: What can you tell us about the Minor Arcana cards? It sounds like you have something in mind from the blurb on your home page – “… where steam and clockwork technology flowed from the New World to the Orient, and from the Old Country to the Dark Continent”?
EM: Good eye! My (admittedly ambitious) goal with the minor arcana is to have each suit represent a different geographic area—Wands/Fire as the New World, Swords/Air as the Old Country, Cups/Water as the Orient, and Pentacles/Earth as the Dark Continent. With each of these suits I want to examine what a Steampunk industrial revolution would look like across the globe. Even if I’m not able to get all the minor arcana done, my bare minimum deck will have unique art for the Aces and all the Court cards, so we’ll at least get a glimpse of what, for example, African steampunk might look like in this world!
AA: Have any cards started out with one design in mind but became something completely different, or have the images really reflected what you had in mind originally?
EM: The core concepts have remained more-or-less what I envisioned, but the details have sometimes caught me off guard. When I go to the artists with a card concept, I have a pretty good idea of what the card should look like, in broad strokes—but several times, the artists have blown me away with how they interpreted my designs.
Going back to the Knight of Wands, for example, my broad strokes description was of a lawman on a mechanical horse, with indications that this was the “fire” suit, and so the colors should be evocative of that. What I got back was a man on a rearing mechanical steed that belched flames, the chain that was its bridle grasped in the man’s gloved fist. It was a much more powerful card than I’d originally envisioned, but I certainly didn’t complain!
Another example is the revised Magician card—Alex did an earlier one that had a slightly-smiling Tesla, and some warm colors. When I went back to him for a new version, the Tesla I got back was much more intense—almost angry. /This/ was a guy I could see going toe-to-toe with Edison—and winning!
Image by Alec Boca
AA: What kind of research went into creating each image? Were you looking to blend steampunk, art, and history together in any particular way?
EM: I have over a dozen tarot decks that I’ve gone through (though I’ve steered clear of the other Steampunk-style decks for the most part), and almost as many books on the subject as well. My usual research method is to go through them all looking at different interpretations of a particular card, trying to isolate a core concept I can use. Once I’ve identified some possible meanings, I then look for inspiration through historical and steampunk resources, looking for the right image to match to the concept. Then it’s a matter of writing it all down for an artist to interpret into a piece of beautiful art!
AA: You’ve been displaying prints at various conventions and events; what kind of memorable reactions are you hearing from people?
EM: People /love/ Tesla and Edison as the Magician and Devil—the concept really resonates with folks, especially in the Steampunk community. I also really like how people have latched onto the Librarian (High Priestess)—as someone who went to library school, I’m heartened to see the lady get a lot of attention! I also like hearing people discussing the cards and their meanings, sometimes finding symbolism that I hadn’t even considered in the designs. Those moments, when the cards inspire that kind of contemplation, are really special to me.
We’ll pause here in our chat with Ed.
Join us for the conclusion where Ed discusses some lessons learned in this journey.