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My journey through the Forest of Enchantment began early in 2015, when the Llewellyn Art Department suggested that, as I had been illustrating books for Llewellyn for some years, I might like to work on a full tarot deck of 78 paintings. Many years ago, I spent time with the Motherpeace Tarot and the Thoth Tarot (painted by Lady Frieda Harris), and I have always admired the artistry of the cards, but I wouldn't consider myself to be at all fluent in the language of tarot. So, the suggestion that I create a deck percolated for a while, as I considered what I could possibly offer such an awesome project? Then came the idea that I should collaborate with Lunaea Weatherstone, a writer and teacher who is immensely knowledgable about tarot—perfect! My lack of in-depth knowledge about tarot was actually useful, as I could come to each image without too many preconceptions, allowing the painting to unfold intuitively, guided by Lunaea along the way.
Our initial brief was that the deck would be the Forest of Enchantment Tarot. What a joy! Trees and forests have been a source of inspiration to me forever, and I have spent years painting and illustrating their lore, legend, and natural history. So, this really was an opportunity not to be missed, as it would involve painting images inspired by folktales and mythology, the flora and fauna of the forest, along with the rich symbolism and archetypes of the tarot. Just before I started work on this deck, I went to Staverton Thicks in Suffolk, which is a scrap of ancient forest left over from the days when dense forest covered our lands. It is a place of deep connection to our forest roots, timeless and magical. The old, gnarled oaks with rowan and holly growing from their hollow bodies, the whispering leaves telling long-forgotten stories—these stayed with me throughout the years of painting the cards. I recently returned there, at completion of the deck, and feel renewed by the forest's energy once again.
Lunaea and I started to get to know each other over a few months, exploring what we would like to achieve in terms of over-all style and atmosphere of the deck. As there are several other decks focusing on trees and forests, our own Forest was to be the landscape, the backdrop, a mysterious and inspirational place of journeying where a multitude of characters would be the storytellers rather than the trees themselves. There would be secrets and surprises among the tangled roots and pathways, which would ultimately lead to the self-knowledge gained from a quest.
Lunaea is in Oregon, and I am in East Anglia, England, so we communicated by email and telephone, and although it would have been absolutely wonderful to sit and talk to her in person over cups of tea, we soon built a strong working relationship. Due to the time difference, we often talked late into the night. We settled into a pattern, whereby Lunaea would tell me her idea for each card, with information and insights about the meaning and symbolism, then I would find reference material and ponder a while, as the image clarified in my mind. Most days I would walk among the hedgerows and woods where I live, and often these helped me to see the painting in more depth—perhaps a glimmer of a bird's wing, the light falling on a cluster of toadstools, or a scent of undergrowth that echoed somewhere in the back of my mind and helped me to see what I needed. After much mulling over and playing with ideas I did a sketch and sent it to Lunaea for further discussion. Usually we were in agreement; sometimes, however, it took a bit longer to reach an understanding of what we envisaged, but we had decided on absolute honesty. In fact, the very first card on which we worked to submit to Llewellyn was a disaster! This card was perhaps not the easiest one to start with—it was the Tower (!)—and I produced a fairytale-type, magical treehouse Tower, gently vanishing from the roots up. When Lunaea saw the finished artwork, she was beautifully diplomatic, saying gently, "I have a few thoughts...," whereas probably what she meant was, "Nooooooooo!" This incident actually helped us immensely, and consolidated our friendship, paving the way for the next few years of discussion. (At this point The Tower Card was put aside for a year or more, until the time was right. Instead I painted the Hermit, the badger in his underground home, which was much more my own comfort zone!)
I have always adored miniature worlds, and the tiniest details in nature, so I decided to follow my natural inclination as a miniature artist, and produced the artwork at just 15% larger than the final version. Occasionally I did wonder about this decision, as I tried to fit an abundance of imagery into a 5-3/8" x 3-1/8" frame. On occasion I got carried away with the details, which meant certain aspects of the image would be far too tiny by the time it was reduced and printed. Luckily, I could then pass the scanned image to my partner, Graham, who could digitally enlarge elements of the image. (One example of this is in the Wheel of Fortune card, where some of the magical talismans hanging on the Enchanter's Wheel were too minuscule to be seen properly. Graham worked his magic, and they now appear a bit bigger!)
As I had two years to produce 78 paintings, this essentially gave me just over a week for each image, not allowing for any time off or breaks. The project was immensely challenging in so many ways, as is often the case with such an immersive project. Art often mirrored life (or the other way round), and I would find myself facing my own fears or feelings through the imagery on which I was working. Sometimes the image was elusive, such as with the Seven of Visions, which represents confusion, or a riddle without an answer; Lunaea and I had so many different ideas for this one before it finally settled!
On a purely practical level, I also had to engage with painting people of all types (something I had largely avoided before), not to mention trolls, elves, giants, and dragons. I am blessed by having incredibly supportive family and friends, many of whom were often asked to be impromptu artist's models, which was extremely useful! A few of the cards are very much based on someone dear to me—the Wise Woman with her Oracle just had to be my friend Bette, who was the rune mistress in York's renowned Viking Festival. The Enchanter was inspired by my Dad, who creates marvelous magical worlds in his own studio.
In my meanderings through the Forest of Enchantment I have followed little-used, tangled pathways through dense tree roots and undergrowth; sauntered in broad, sun-lit, dappled glades, and met a myriad of characters and creatures who have helped and hindered me along the way. The Forest has been a place of personal growth and inspiration for me, and I very much hope it provides the same for all the folk who will travel there, too—enjoy the journey!
Meraylah Allwood (Suffolk, UK) is an illustrator and artist who has worked with many authors and publishers around the world, illustrating books on subjects including natural history, healing, ancient history, folklore, ...