In this podcast, I speak with Gabi Angus-West about how she created the edgy, tattoo-inspired Bonefire Tarot.
It all started with a one-off wedding present, and soon turned into a wall full of archetypal paintings and eventually, a complete deck of Tarot cards.
We talk about the ins and outs of her journey, from painting the very first card, to eventually signing on with the well-known Schiffer publishing.
Listen to her journey and the lessons she learned along the way, and you too can discover how you can create your very own Tarot deck.
Brigit: You’re listening to the Biddy Tarot Podcast, and this is Episode 33: Creating the Bonefire Tarot Deck with Gabi West.
Welcome to the Biddy Tarot podcast, where you will learn how to connect more deeply with your intuition and live an empowered and enlightened life with the Tarot cards as your guide.
Listen as Brigit and her guests share their very best tips and strategies to help you read Tarot with confidence. And now, here is your host Brigit Esselmont.
Brigit: Hello and welcome back to the Biddy Tarot Podcast!
Have you ever wanted to create your own Tarot deck?
Or maybe you’ve dreamed about how you would visually represent the Tarot cards if you were an artist?
Or maybe you already have an artistic gift, and you're wondering how to get started with creating the 78 Tarot cards.
Well, on today's podcast, I speak with a talented painter who started that journey four years ago. It all started off with a one-off wedding present, and soon turned into a wall full of archetypal paintings and, eventually, a complete deck of Tarot cards.
She is Gabi Angus-West, and she is the creator of the Bonefire Tarot – an edgy, tattoo-inspired Tarot deck.
Today she shares the ins and outs of her journey, from painting the very first card, to eventually signing on with the well-known Schiffer publishing. By listening to her journey, and the lessons that she learnt along the way, you too can discover how you can create your very own Tarot deck.
So let's get into it.
Brigit: Welcome Gabi.
I am so thrilled to have you here with us.
Gabi West: Hi Brigit.
Brigit: Whereabouts are you calling in from?
Gabi West: I’m calling from a little place called Green Point in New South Wales, just north of Sydney.
I live near a lake – one of the great lakes, Wallace Lake. A very beautiful place.
And that’s where I create my art from.
So, we were having a little bit of a chat before we jumped on this call. And we were talking about your art and Tarot, but I’m kind of curious: How did you get into Tarot, specifically?
Gabi West: I got into Tarot almost by accident.
I’ve been making paintings for most of my life, and I decided to make a painting for a wedding present for a couple of people I knew that were getting married. And I thought I’d make them a small painting. And I was looking for something that would say something about love.
And I often do symbolist paintings, and I started to look into archetypes, and I’d been working with those. And then I kind of found the Tarot through that, and I thought I’d make them the Lovers card as a little painting for a wedding present.
So I made this for them, and I just kind of loved it. It suited the way I was working at that time, which was in a tattoo style. And I kind of went from there really.
First of all, I thought I would make a few more paintings – just for a collection. Before I knew it I had the Major Arcana, and then I was thinking: Well, what’s next?
So that whole process probably took about six months, and by the end of that six months I was pretty much into Tarot.
Brigit: And I’m curious, as you start to dabble in Tarot but through art, are you more like looking at the picture and sort of interpreting that artistically; or do you go out and find out more about what that Tarot card means and then convert it into an art piece?
How does that work for you?
Gabi West: I think at the very beginning it started really just with the art.
And your own resources, Biddy Tarot, was one of the first places I went to, to find out about the card meanings because I didn’t really want to be using symbols I had no understanding of.
So it started really with the art, but I very, very quickly realised there was an awful lot more required for Tarot. And to be a Tarot artist more would be required of me than to just paint pictures.
Brigit: So these days, are you using Tarot – are you reading with Tarot?
Or is it again still Tarot’s integrated more around your focus around art?
How does that work for you?
Gabi West: I read minimally with Tarot.
I thought when I finished Bonefire that I was going to go off and become a Tarot reader, so I set about learning to read the Tarot with gusto. But a few attempts at that – doing that in a market and things – I discovered I don’t think it’s really my calling.
And really by then I was feeling like art was where it was for me. Always has been.
So, yes, I moved back to making more decks.
Brigit: I really want to get into: How do you go about creating a Tarot deck, particularly from the Artist side?
I guess the reason why I get so interested in this is, a lot of people say to me, “Oh Brigit, you should create a Tarot deck,” and I’m always freaking out: My goodness, I’m not artistic whatsoever. Please don’t let me draw Tarot cards because it will look awful.
So it’s so interesting to speak to somebody who’s probably coming at it – definitely coming at it from more of an Artist’s point of view – of then: How do you sort of translate Tarot into art, and vice-versa?
So tell me a bit about – particularly about the Bonefire Tarot – what was your inspiration around that, and what was your process around it?
Gabi West: The inspiration to make it was I’d painted before in this kind of old-school, sort of tattoo style.
I always really enjoyed doing that, and it was fairly immediate and it always looked quite strong and vibrant. So I hadn’t really seen at that time – I hadn’t seen any Tarot decks that looked like that.
It wasn’t that I saw a gap in the market. It just felt like it was something – I felt like I wanted to interpret the images in that way.
So it was really to make something that I hadn’t seen.
There’s been a few more since I made Bonefire. There have been a few more tattoo type Tarot decks that have come onto the market. And perhaps if I’d seen those, I may never have made Bonefire. But at the time I felt inspired to make something that would sort of suit what I would like to see in a Tarot deck, because I’m not sort of traditionally – not so much about the Angel cards or any of that sort of softer imagery. I wanted to see something more strong and more vibrant. And a little bit more perhaps that would appeal to all genders.
Because some Tarot decks – not the Rider-Waite – some of them are more inclined towards a more feminine kind of aesthetic.
Brigit: It’s interesting because I showed my husband the Bonefire Tarot deck when it came in the post, and he’s like, “Oh, these are cool!”
He seemed to resonate a lot more with them and said they’ve got quite a strong masculine energy. So I can definitely see that.
Is there a particular attraction to tattoo art?
Gabi West: Not more than the fact that I particularly like that look.
I like that kind of rockabilly look.
At the time that was something that I was really, really loving. So that was it really on that one.
Brigit: So then tell me a bit about: How does a Tarot deck get born?
In this case you were starting with the Lovers card, is that your inspiration for the Bonefire?
Gabi West: Yes.
Brigit: And then you start building up on the Major Arcana – how does that work?
Gabi West: Well that’s the way I worked with Bonefire.
I just went – not in order – that didn’t work for me. But just sort of picked a card as it felt – it feels very intuitive.
On a given day if you’re going to make a piece of art, which one that you might pick to do. Sometimes it might be a – I don’t know a Nine of Cups day and it just is – but…..sorry, I’ve lost myself there.
Brigit: So if you decide it’s a Nine of Cups day, how do you get into that place of where you can then paint or create that imagery for that card?
Do you do a bit of research on the card?
Do you kind of embody the energy?
Do you just paint?
Gabi West: Well, for me, I sort of have a process where – it’s quite a practical process in that I will go and I will take the dog for a walk; and I will make sure I have breakfast; and things like that.
And while I’m walking, that’s generally where I’ll have an idea – a good idea. Hopefully I will find an image while I’m walking. And I’ll deliberately try to do that. Often then I have this thing where I’ll come home, and I will shower. Often during the shower, I find the image as I want it. I will get out of the shower, and I’ll quickly draw it.
So my process is just kind of getting that drawing and that basic composition down.
And then the painting, really, is kind of the fun and the relaxed bit. That’s kind of my process.
But I would say – I’m doing another Tarot deck now, and I wouldn’t work through the Major Arcana first, or do it in any particular order at all. I’ve sort of decided that’s not the best idea.
Brigit: So what’s kind of the revision to your process now?
What are you doing differently?
Gabi West: The revision to my process now – because I’ve just started another Tarot – is I’ve got down a rough sketch for pretty much all of the cards.
So I’m able to see the shape and the balance of the deck – where there’s going to be gaps and things like that. And I’m then going to work through the cards, in no order whatsoever, because when your painting for an amount of time – and Bonefire took about a year-and-a-half to actually complete 80 paintings – your own painting skills, naturally, kind of get better and better.
Just through practice, like any craft or skill, you get more and more expert at it. So I now have no order, and I’m going nowhere near the Major Arcana until I’m painting at what I feel is the height of my abilities.
I will then return to look at what I’ve done for those initial sketches for the Major Arcana, and see if they still seem to be appropriate, and fit in with the rest of the deck; because the Major Arcana are quite – the archetypes, they’re a little bit nebulous for an Artist. It’s not easy, necessarily, to get across exactly what you mean in the same way as the Minor Arcana which are a little bit more down-to-earth, perhaps even scenic – so you can find the image more easily.
Am I making any sense at all?
Brigit: Yes, absolutely.
As you’re creating these images, do you find that kind of the energy of that card sort of infiltrates your life at all at that point in time?
Gabi West: Yes – absolutely – to an extent.
And also, on a practical level, whether I feel like it’s going well, as well.
I mean I have a non-start sometimes. I’ll go to do a card, and I’ll think that I have it, and then it will be blocked and I can’t do it, and I have to return to that card another day. So perhaps the energy of that card wasn’t right for that given day.
Brigit: I see.
I’m curious around symbolism in the cards, because I know my work with Rider-Waite – there’s clearly a lot of thought that goes into what symbols are presented, and what those symbols mean, and so on.
So I wonder: Are you consciously aware of what symbols you’re using, or does it just kind of flow?
Again, how does that work for you?
Gabi West: With Bonefire I was very conscious to make sure I knew what symbols I was using.
So that involved a lot of research, because Bonefire’s absolutely packed with them. And I’m a bit of a magpie, so I kind of steal them from here or there – bits of Kabbalah, and little bits of sort of Pagan stuff, or Celtic.
So I was a bit sort of – I took it from where I saw it and if it seemed to fit the energy of the card, in it went. But I was always very careful not to pop anything in that I had no idea what it meant, because I think it would be quite easy to take an Alchemical symbol and have no clue.
Brigit: Yeah – and then realise it meant death, when it was meant to mean life!
Gabi West: Yeah, or even it seems a little bit – I don’t know – it just makes you sound like you seem like a bit of a charlatan if you’re going to be just saying, “I know what this means. I’m so wise. I know what I’m saying,” when in actual fact you’re probably just painting something.
Brigit: Yeah, so in that case you are talking about Kabbalah and Pagan symbols.
Do you already have knowledge of those symbols, or did you find yourself doing extra research first?
Gabi West: Heaps of research. Absolutely heaps of research. And it’s absolutely ongoing.
Brigit: Wow – and I suppose – I mean the thing with symbolism and the philosophies that go behind Tarot, it’s just endless.
So how do you decide, yes, I’ve got what I need, I can paint this card or draw it, and it will be done?
Where do you draw the line and say, yes, it’s done now?
Gabi West: When I made Bonefire, because the images are so full it would probably be when the canvas was full.
There was no more space for anything.
The way I’m working now though on my new deck, it’s a very different way of working and I’m very much trying to synthesize it down to just an image on a card, without all the complications around it.
So it’s a very different way of working.
It sort of makes it both simpler, and also, hopefully, a progression. I’ll call it hopefully a progression in my own processes.
Brigit: It sounds like it’s probably more methodical in the way that you’re going about it the second time around. Would that be fair?
Gabi West: Absolutely – yes.
Because Bonefire – because it was my first deck – and I think anybody that starts making a deck and they don’t necessarily know where they’re going with it, it’s really a journey.
And Bonefire is absolutely my journey from sort of nothing to something.
Brigit: Yeah, and obviously the first time you do anything you’re bound to make some mistakes along the way, or sort of hit a few roadblocks and so on.
What would you say were the top three challenges when you were creating the Bonefire Tarot?
Gabi West: One challenge with creating the Bonefire Tarot was finding the time and the motivation.
So I think they’re kind of connected to keep going and keep going, and having sort of a stack of completed images, and still having a mile-high stack of things that you’ve barely even given a thought to.
So that was definitely a really big challenge.
Brigit: Just on that then – I mean I’m curious because I remember writing The Ultimate Guide to Tarot Card Meanings, and it was really fun but, yeah, thinking, ‘Oh my goodness, there’s 78 cards here to do,’ was kind of overwhelming.
And then I suppose, given how the Bonefire Tarot started, you were just creating one picture, at what point did you know that you sort of had this end goal versus, oh, I’ll just create a picture, and maybe I’ll create another one?
Gabi West: I got through the Major Arcana because I really just wanted to put them on a whole wall, because the canvases were eight by ten inches, so that’s quite smallish. I just wanted to cover the whole wall in the Major Arcana.
And I made them, and I put them up. And I had these gaps at the bottom because it didn’t make this nice grid, because of there being 22 cards. So I kind of thought, well, I’ll just have a look at the rest of those Minor Arcana – which I barely even investigated – and see what other cards I can just pop in, because I wanted two more to make a really nice grid of 24 paintings.
I thought, ‘Well I’ll do the Ace of Wands because that seems to make sense – that was the beginning point for the Minor Arcana.’
And there it was, that was the beginning point.
Brigit: I can imagine.
Gabi West: And that kind of tipped me over the edge then.
And then I think around that stage, I think I’d already been lurking at Aeclectic Tarot Forum, looking for information and sort of fishing, and you know, just kind of not really showing anything. And I think I started to show a few of the pictures at that stage, and that was really, really a great place.
If it wasn’t for that place I don’t think Bonefire would have reached completion.
Brigit: So, what were some of the other challenges that you came up against as you were doing the Tarot?
Gabi West: Challenges – well, making the practical decisions about what to do with the deck once it was under way.
So, I was taking this time. I was being sort of supported by my family, in that I worked part-time but they were cutting me a lot of slack.
My daughters were about 7 and 10 when I started – they cut me a lot of slack and gave me a lot of time to actually do the artwork. And be sort of, not neglectful, but a bit distracted from the mundane things. Not mundane, but the family life was a little bit distracted. I used to work very late into the night so as not to take too much time away from them.
So, yeah, that was one of…..I’ve lost my track now – sorry, Brigit.
Brigit: So one of the challenges would have been around balancing it with family commitments.
And I think…..
Gabi West: Absolutely yes – that’s right.
The practical things were always – it was finding the time; and then making the decisions about what to do.
Yeah, that’s right – what to do with the deck once it was done, how I was going to sort of try and put it out into the world and that kind of thing really.
Brigit: I think that’s a really important piece.
Once you’ve created the deck, like it could just sit on your desk at home; or it could get out into the world into so many different people’s hands.
So what did you do in order to get your deck out there?
You were speaking a little bit about The Aeclectic Forum. How else did you get Bonefire out?
Gabi West: Well, I’m a really poor example for this because I was very averse to social media in any way.
I don’t know – I had a sort of natural reticence about it.
So to be honest I didn’t do enough. I really, really relied on, I self-published 500 decks, and about a hundred or so went to Aeclectic Tarot people. So they went straight away. They were almost pre-ordered, ready for when I got my run back from the printers.
And so I – I’ve lost it again…I’m so sorry.
Brigit: That’s okay.
So you sold about a hundred with The Aeclectic Forum….
Gabi West: Yeah that’s right.
So I then had to rely on word-of-mouth really for the rest of them to go. Which sounds really, really lame, but that’s kind of how it went.
And I think, in the end, they took just under a year for them all to go – the 500. So they didn’t really fly off the shelves in any way.
But after that I was coming to the end of the deck sales, and I felt like I really just wanted to be getting on with doing some more art. I’d already started my Oracle deck, and I felt, at that stage, that to carry on packaging and sending out these decks was kind of distracting me a lot from continuing with my artwork, which I really wanted to put most of my spare time into.
So that was when I decided to try and look for a Publisher for the deck.
Brigit: So do you have a Publisher now?
Gabi West: Yeah, Bonefire has been picked up, luckily, by Schiffer Publishing and it’s coming out in November this year.
Brigit: Wonderful – that is so exciting!
Gabi West: I know, it’s really exciting.
The process has taken so long, Brigit.
Honestly, I’ve just been dying to see it because Bonefire will have been dormant for almost two years. So I just want to let it free again.
Brigit: So then does Schiffer distribute via Amazon or via actual bookstores?
How does it work from there?
Gabi West: Yeah they do?
They’re a good old publisher of Tarot decks and Oracle decks. So I think it goes onto Amazon and Book Depository. I think it’s already there for pre-order. There’s not going to be anything available until November.
And it goes into their catalogue there for their Autumn releases.
I think they get into bookshops. I’m over here, and they’re in America, so I’m a long way from the action, that’s for sure.
Brigit: Who knows, you might you might walk into a New Age Bookstore one day, in Sydney maybe, and bam you’ll see them.
Gabi West: That’s right.
I don’t quite know what their distribution is over here. So I’m probably going to find that out, but I am so happy that it’s going to be available for people to buy from Amazon and things, because it’s just – it’s free shipping and all kinds of things that I could never do when I was sending them out.
And they’re going to get the companion book which Schiffer made me write.
Brigit: Yes, I was meaning to ask you about that.
So, as someone, I guess, who doesn’t necessarily identify as a Tarot reader, how does it go with creating that companion work book?
Did you write it yourself? Or did you have someone help you in writing it?
How does that work?
Gabi West: No, you write it yourself, Brigit.
When Schiffer gave me the wonderful news that they were going to publish the deck, they also said, “How long would you like to write the companion book? Would you like six months or a year?”
I said, “I’ll have six months.”
But I had really – I’d been meaning to write the book. And I had it in all kinds of rough forms in notebooks. I’d always made lengthy, lengthy notes about each card, because it was part of the research for Bonefire.
So it was really putting it all together, and then typing, because I’ve never done an awful lot of typing either. So that took a really long time. And then the formatting it for Word, and things like that, and putting all the images in. It was really like pulling teeth the whole thing.
It was really, really hard. I don’t mind writing because I’ve always done a lot of journaling and things. It’s always been part of my process.
So I’m not against the actual writing, but I find it kind of wears me out. I think if somethings not really your gift – or your calling – I think art is my calling, writing is not my calling, so in order to do it I was quite drained by the whole process.
Brigit: Yeah, I think that’s interesting because I’ve heard of other decks being created, often times it’s a partnership.
So you have the Artist, and then you have the Writer, I suppose. So then you’re absolutely playing more to your strengths, and it’s an easier process.
But what I do like is, I think it’s great having the Artist write the book, or at least contributing to the book. Because, I don’t know – some decks I’ve gotten and they’re abstract, and they’re not like the Rider-Waite, so I don’t understand them; but then I read the book and I think, ‘Oh, I really want the Artist to tell me why they put this certain thing here? And what does that symbol mean to them and so on?’
But it’s lacking – so I’m really kind of hoping you might have put in some more descriptions around like symbolism.
Have you been able to do that with your workbook?
Gabi West: I have been able to do it to a certain extent.
My Editor was – from my first draft I sent in – was telling me that I had to be mindful of the fact that I’m not writing this book for me, I’m writing to be helpful to someone who has the deck.
So there was quite a bit of that stuff in there.
Really the format it ended up taking was kind of sort of an essay or a discourse on each of the cards. So some it’s stories about why each card was written, and some of it is more about the card itself and the symbolism. It’s a little bit variable.
There was also a limit on the length of the book as well. I think the amount of words they asked me for wasn’t even nearly enough. And I ended up getting special permission to write a longer book, but Tarot books are not required to be in-depth. You definitely are cutting things out rather than including them.
Brigit: I actually think it’s a good idea to have it a little bit longer because, again, I get so frustrated when I just get some fold-out piece of card that has three words per card.
I want to know what’s behind that card, so it’s good to hear that you’ve had some space, I suppose, to be able to add in a bit more about how you saw that card, and how it came to life.
So, if you were chatting to somebody who was just starting out with creating their own deck, what kind of advice would you give them?
“DON’T DO IT!”
Gabi West: No, absolutely I wouldn’t!
I think I’d be like: This is brilliant. I don’t know if it would be advice; it would probably be more like encouragement.
I would just be like: This is going to be the best thing that you ever do.
Because there’s just so much you can do there. I mean whether you are the Artist or the Author, you’re going to be so inspired. There’s something about Tarot that really just grabs you by the shoulders and just shakes you and shakes you – and just doesn’t stop. It just keeps on coming. And, as an Artist, you’ve got this amazing opportunity to just paint 78 pictures. And you’re not going to run out of subject matter. You’re never going to sit there, scratching your head: What am I doing?
You’ve got this eye on the prize, which is creating this whole deck. And you know how amazing Tarot is. It’s just such a great accomplishment.
So my advice would be: Just go for it. Just find the time – make the time. And really try not to start it and not finish it. Just really try and make this thing – even if you know you’ve never finished anything in your life – make this one thing be the thing that you get done.
Brigit: Wondeful! I love the energy behind that. It absolutely rings true.
So tell me, what’s next for you?
You were sort of mentioning that you’re working on another Tarot deck. Have you got a name for that already?
Gabi West: I’ve got a working name for it.
It’s called the Blue House Tarot.
I might have all kinds of trouble with copyrights and things, but it’s actually a Tarot deck based on the life and work Frida Kahlo.
Brigit: Oh, nice!
Gabi West: I know.
I’m so excited about it, Brigit. I have to contain myself. I’ve only made two cards but, again, I’ve got masses of drawings and things like that, so I’m just like tipped myself over the edge to start painting. So I’m really excited.
Brigit: Do you have sort of an expected completion date, or do you prefer not to put pressure on yourself?
How do you work with that?
Gabi West: I need some pressure.
I guess I’m sort of thinking, loosely, it would take up to two years.
That’s amazing. I just don’t know if I could do that.
It’s a huge commitment but, as you say, I think when you feel truly called to something, you can’t ignore it. And it’s so compelling.
And, again, like you said, Tarot gets under your skin.
Gabi West: It really does.
And I think it comes in from all directions, and you don’t always see it coming, but there it is. And once it’s there, it’s almost like – it feels like there’s something magic about Tarot in that once it finds a host, it just doesn’t let go.
Brigit: Yes, I definitely agree.
So Gabi, where can people find out more about you?
Do you have a website?
Gabi West: I do have a website.
It’s actually the Bonefire Tarot website. That’s just: bonefiretarot.com
And then I’m on Instagram where I’m posting art from my three projects – and I’m @gabi_angus_art on there.
And on Facebook I’m Gabi Angus-West.
So definitely, if you want to see any my other decks, or Bonefire – there’s all kind of mixed up stuff on there.
Brigit: Wonderful, and what we’ll do is, on the show notes for this episode, they’ll be over at biddytarot.com/33 – and we’ll put the links to your site so everyone knows where to find you, plus we’ll put in some photos if you’re happy with that?
We’ll put in some photos of the Bonefire Tarot, so you can see what we’re talking about.
Gabi West: Awesome.
Gabi, thank you so much for sharing your journey with the Bonefire Tarot, and what it really looks like from the Artist’s side because that’s something that I haven’t really explored much at all. So it’s been fascinating hearing your story, and thank you so much for sharing it.
Gabi West: Thanks so much, Brigit. It’s been great.
Brigit: Wonderful – we’ll speak soon.
If you loved this podcast episode, then please head on over to iTunes and leave a review, and also you can subscribe to get the latest podcasts and that way you won’t miss a thing with the Biddy Tarot podcasts.
I want to thank you so much for listening today, and I look forward to connecting with you again soon.
Thank you and goodbye.