Yukon Artists @ Work Painter Neil Graham Unveils a Project Six Years in the Making

Tarot cards are tools for divination and reflection; giving the person receiving the reading insight into past, present and future.

The exact origin of the Tarot remains disputed and suitably mysterious.

“The Tarot cards in more or less their present form appeared in 15th century Italy, but many believe their origins trace back to ancient Egypt or even the fabled Atlantis,” explains Whitehorse Artist Neil Graham. “They have been snapshots of time as artists and illustrators stamped them with their own unique brands.”

Today, thousands of decks are read worldwide using a variety of imagery including cats, fairies, Runes, nature photography and the Kabbalah.

Yukoners appear in Graham’s soulful, colourful deck. For example, local potter Patrick Royle is The Hermit.

The landscape of the North also permeates the deck. In The Ten of Swords, an igloo is stabbed with swords and a figure spills out onto the snow.

“I expressed my ideas as evocative of the North, both remembered and actual,” he says.

Graham began his Tarot series in 2006. After more than six years, the deck is now complete; with all 78 cards painted in acrylic on 4″ x 5.4″ pine boards.

As a Tarot reader, and after speaking to Graham about the journey behind his uplifting Tarot, I see it fitting that he depicted himself as The Fool (the equivalent of the Joker).

Sallie Nichols writes in her book, Jung and the Tarot: An Archetypal Journey (1980):

The Fool is a wanderer, energetic, ubiquitous, and immortal…The Fool connects two worlds — the everyday, contemporary world where most of us live most of the time and the nonverbal land of imagination inhabited by Tarot characters, which we visit occasionally.

Portraying the artist as The Fool underlines the artist as a traveler of unseen worlds — speaking truths, spying on the King, collecting information and bringing it to light for others. Historically, Nichols notes, The Fool/Court Jester/Joker was sometimes a person with mental illness, setting them apart from the rest of court as one with special insight.

In 2003, Graham was diagnosed with a form of Schizophrenia, and between that time and 2011 he was hospitalized over ten times.

“This deck reflects a complex journey,” he says. “From the initial 22 Major Arcana I produced for The Studio Gallery Associations’, The Tarot, exhibition in 2006, to the complete 78 card deck, these paintings have been a labour of love, inspiration, fortitude and resilience. Done between the seemingly endless quests for stability, these paintings became an expression of my love of art, life, and the mysteries that inspire us.”

He feels, like a politician, the artist is a public figure and as such, can help publicly de-stigmatize and demystify mental health issues.

“It is possible to do a beautiful thing, and the Tarot cards are a wonderful expression of life, while suffering. I’m not saying that suffering is necessary for art, it isn’t, but a disability doesn’t mean that life has to have limits.”

Graham also mentors youth with Schizophrenia and Bi-Polar Disorder.

Graham printed 50 Tarot decks of his paintings packaged in signed and numbered boxes designed by Margriet Aasman. The decks are available for purchase for $125. Hand of the North opened at Yukon Artists @ Work on May 3r and continues until June 5. The show will also travel to Ontario and France.

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