I’ve been meaning to share about this soulful creatrix and today inspiration led me to do so, first in an article by Beth Maiden, honoring her works and spirit, followed by my own collected shares below.
This is a wonderful article and tribute to the artist, Pamela Colman Smith (also known as “Pixie” or “PCS”) of the most widely known Tarot deck in the world, the Rider Waite Tarot – now referred to by many as the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot, as people have come to honor Pamela’s name, where for a long time it had been omitted.
The article is a celebration not only of Pamela, but also of the creative arts (which she lived her life constantly immersed in and channeling), of the contributions of women, and the value and honor both are deserving of in helping to shape the world and the foundations it is built upon.
Pamela not only led a richly creative life following her passions, despite not receiving equal financial compensation for her skill, gifts, contributions, and devotion during her life (in fact she died penniless and in debt, unable to have her last wish carried out – that of leaving her estate to her dear friend), but also strongly supported women’s suffrage, and brought a depth of mysticism and whimsy to everything she contributed that was intoxicating and precedent-setting.
In the article, Tarot Reader and Writer Beth Maiden shares her appreciation for this eclectic and complex soul stating:
“Pamela Colman Smith will never know how beloved she now is in the tarot community, how many decks of her cards have been sold, how her artwork is the most often-seen in the tarot. The boss of US Games, who continue to publish her deck, says she could have been a millionaire today. As it is, her tarot deck and many of her other works are an example of women’s work and art and contributions being continually brushed under the carpet, continually undervalued, unpaid, taken for granted.
But Pamela Colman Smith was awesome. She never sold out and perhaps she had the chance to. She was a woman of colour who forged her own path in life at a time when few women were. She was an amazingly original person, a creatrix, a boundary-pusher and a mystic, and from where I’m standing, it looks like she lived an amazing life of adventure and passion.”
You can read Beth’s full article here:
I have a personal interest in this creative and kindred faery-loving soul, enjoying researching and reading about her life and her life’s work.
Some of the wonderful books I’ve delighted in include:
The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith by Stuart R. Kaplan
And two of her own original published and self-illustrated stories:
Susan and the Mermaid
Annancy Stories – inspired by her love of Caribbean colors from her time in Jamaica growing up and the folk lore there deep in spirits and sprites
Pamela Colman Smith (February 16, 1878 – September 18, 1951) is one of the most remarkable yet most underrated artists of the 20th Century. Her mother was Jamaican and her father was an eccentric and sensitive traveling salesman from Brooklyn, New York. When her mother passed, her father placed her in the care of a troupe of traveling actors in England that looked after her until she was 15 and able to join her father in New York.
Her father enrolled her in the Pratt Institute of Art, which is now long gone, but in its day had been a pace-setter for avant-garde philosophy of teaching art that stressed intuitive talents (something I myself prefer and cultivate) over mechanical memorization and repetition of traditional art techniques. This raised eyebrows at the time with its promotion of “Symbolist” style of art, which permeates Pamela’s work.
Her life continued to be filled with colorful artists, actors and actresses, authors, poets, composers, and occultists whom she would entertain at her eclectic studio (one person described its decor as “a mad room out of a fairy tale”) with story telling – everyone gathered around her in a circle, as she sat on the floor in animated excitement, sharing her favorite tales and songs with twinkling eyes.
“Miss Pamela Smith tells her little stories so naturally and simply that one cannot think she would have told them differently at the other side of the world, or a thousand years ago…” – W.B. Yeats
Pamela was a complicated and introspective soul. Sometimes her art suggested a fragile and often lonely person, the eerie side of the supernatural, but also the lighter, enchanting side filled with water sprites and elfin figures. Indeed her works were mystical and fantastical, especially her “musical paintings” – also known as synesthetic art or synesthesia (something we both share). She could “see” music and her gift was in translating the music she “saw” into images.
When asked to explain her “peculiar psychic gift” she replied,
“You ask me how these pictures are evolved. They are not pictures of the music theme – pictures of the flying notes – not conscious illustrations of the name given to a piece of music, but just what I see when I hear music – thoughts loosened and set free by the spell of the sound.”
As Stuart R. Kaplan writes in his book, The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith:
“Waite’s choice of Smith for the execution of his tarot indicates that he thought highly of her work, yet he may have underestimated her intellectual and spiritual depth. It is unlikely that Pamela treated Waite’s ceremonies with utter seriousness (she was to say of being a Catholic, years later, that it was “such fun”), and her playful attitude may have led others to feel that her appreciation of the ritual and symbolism was shallow. However, Pamela’s conscious awareness of the elements of religious symbolism and ritual is indicated by her paintings and her writings. Her letters provide evidence of her familiarity with music and theater, her long involvement in the Order of the Golden Dawn and, later, her dedicated activity in the Roman Catholic Church. What Waite and others may not have realized was that Pamela’s apparently simple approach to he metaphysical was not due to lack of depth or of intellect. Her writings indicate that, for her, ritual and symbolism derived the power to illuminate from the senses, emotion and the imagination, not from the mind.”
When she returned to England she delved into the theater with all of the connections she had to some of the most well known artists/actors of the time, working as a set and costume designer, making quite a name for herself on the London stage. She became close friends with literary giants like William Butler Yeats and Bram Stoker, both of which she did illustration work for.
Stoker introduced her to occultists and they would meet at the then popular Watkins Books, a newly opened book shop and first of its kind specializing in occult literature, which was the meeting grounds for the London esoteric community.
Pamela was very spiritual, mystical, a true believer, and fully into faery lore, which is no wonder she was nick-named “Pixie”. Her mysticism and spiritual depth no doubt is what drew Waite to her and her art and why he commissioned her to illustrate a Tarot deck of his own.
It’s unknown how much of the final deck is Waite’s or Smith’s own inspiration, but it’s thought that the Major Arcana cards may have been drawn to Waite’s more stringent specifications that reflect the official Golden Dawn principles, whereas the Minor Arcana cards were derived from Smith’s inspiration.
No one had ever illustrated the Minor Arcana cards before, so it’s thought Pamela proposed this and was given leeway in illustrating them. A lot of people find these Minor Arcana cards to be the most memorable, brilliant, and often nearly plagiarized by artists that use variations of her exact scenes.
“Although she may have been disillusioned with the art and publishing establishment, Pamela never ceased to believe in her abilities or in the worthiness of her art. Her personal effects contain many scraps of paper covered with drawings and doodles, and even her church missal is sketched on its margins and flyleaves. Smith was always busy with pencil and sketchbook.”
‘The unbridgeable gap between the intense visionary inspiration expressed in her art and the security of commercial success seems to have been puzzling and painful to her.”
– From The Artwork & Times of Pamela Colman Smith by Stuart R. Kaplan
I think this is something many artists struggle with and I hope one day will be resolved in the form of value for creative contributions and creative energy in general.
Pamela “Pixie” Colman Smith’s work has continued to inspire millions of people across the globe. As more of her paintings, writings, illustrations, and esoteric contributions have surfaced over time, people are recognizing and revering her for her full body of work, calling to mind what a brilliant artist she was.
She will always be remembered for creating a work of “enduring Sacred Art” and I hope her spirit will live on in the hearts of all who create from the well of imagination.
I leave you with some excerpts from an article written by Pamela Colman Smith for the July 1908 issue of The Craftsman Illustrated Monthly Magazine titled Should the Art Student Think? :
“…Learn from everything, see everything, and above all feel everything! And make other people when the look at your drawing feel it too!”
“…Keep an open mind to all things. Hear all the music you can, good music, for sound and form are more closely connected than we know. Think good thoughts of beautiful things, colors, sounds, places, not mean thoughts. When you see a lot of dirty people in a crowd, do not remember only the dirt, but the great spirit that is in them all, and the power that they represent. For through ugliness is beauty sometimes found. Lately I have seen a play, ugly, passionate, realistic, brutal. All through that play I felt that ugly things may be true to nature, but surely it is through evil, that we realize good. The far-off scent of morning air, the blue mountains, the sunshine, the flowers, of a country I once lived in, seemed to rise before me – and there on the stage was a woman sitting on a chair, her body stiff, her eyes rolling, a wonderfully realistic picture of a fit…”
“…I wish here to say how grateful I am to the writer of an article in an American magazine (Putmans’ Monthly for July, 1907). ‘An Appreciation and a Protest.’ An appreciation of Albert Sterner, and a protest against the ‘ultra-sweetness and oppressive propriety admired alike by the publisher and the public,’ and ‘individuality discreetly suppressed.’
O! the prudishness and pompous falseness of a great mass of intelligent people! I do not hold that ‘the incessant roar of high-power presses’ is alone to blame for the stifling of life, but for a lack of inspiration. For it is a land of power, a land of unkempt uproar – full of life, force, energy.
Lift up your ideals, you weaklings, and force a way out of that thunderous clamor of the steam press, the hurrying herd of blind humanity, noise, dust, strife, seething toil – there is power! The imprisoned Titans underneath the soil, grinding, writhing – take our strength from them, throw aside your petty drawing room point of view.
I do not want to see riotous, clumsy ugliness suddenly spring up, but a fine noble power shining through your work. The illustrations that I see in the magazines by the younger people are all dignified and well, carefully and conscientiously drawn, but their appalling clumsiness is quite beyond me, – their lack of charm and grace.
I do not mean by charm, pettiness, but an appreciation of beauty. Ugliness is beauty, but with a difference, a nobleness that speaks through all the hard crust of convention.
I have heard it said that half the world has nothing to say. Perhaps the other half has, but it is afraid to speak. Banish fear, brace your courage, place your ideal high up with the sun, away from the dirt and squalor and ugliness around you and let that power that makes ‘the roar of the high-power presses’ enter into your work – energy – courage – life – love. Use your wits, use your eyes. Perhaps you use your physical eyes too much and only see the mask. Find eyes within, look for the door into the unknown country.
‘High over cap’ on a fairy horse – ride on your Quest – for what we are all seeking – Beauty. Beauty of thought first, beauty of feeling, beauty of form, beauty of color, beauty of sound, appreciation, joy, and the power of showing it to others.”