Friday, 6 March 2015

Interview with Mike Stop Continues

Mike is the driving force behind the Locus Tarot, for which he has started a Kickstarter campaign here.  When Mike got in touch I was delighted at the prospect of learning more about him as a deck creator, about his experience using Kickstarter, and about the Locus Tarot.  He has plenty to say regarding tarot, orthodoxy, and the elemental structure of the world.  I found it fascinating to read about his journey and interpretative framework and hope you do, too!

1) Can you tell us a bit about your background and how you got started with the tarot?

I guess you could say I'm what happens when the Magician meets the Eight of Rods. When it comes to making things, I'm very directed, though my interests are rather broad. I've done good work in writing, comics, music, programming, game design, photography, and I've dived deeply into areas like hypnosis, cognitive aesthetics, and most relevantly to this discussion, the tarot. Having so many different interests has driven me to do little other than focus, focus, focus on completing a project, then focus again, but being such a Jack of All Arts has also meant being slow to get very many works into the world.

I actually came to the tarot very young. I discovered my mother's first edition Aquarian Tarot in her sock drawer when I was little. She wasn't really much of a reader herself, but she told me to read the cards like a mirror, and so I did. It was one of my founding moments to think that the outside world reflected something other than the outside world—something deeper—and besides, the Aquarian Tarot is transcendental. My family believed in the importance of art, so I'd seen a lot of different styles by that point, but David Palladini's art nouveau was just mind-blowing.

Of course, I didn't learn the tarot in that first encounter, but over the years I returned often to my magical inheritance. One day it finally grabbed my focus in full, and I took the plunge. I devoured all the decks I could get lay my eyes on, I read all the books I could get my hands on, and I spoke with all the readers I could find.

2) What made you decide to create a tarot deck of your own?

One thing about coming to the tarot through means other than the Rider-Waite-Smith is that, and by diving so deeply into tarot culture with such immediacy, and perhaps with being such an oddball anyway, is that I never had the chance to develop the traditional aesthetic that I noticed in a lot of readers.

To me, tarot is not church. The beauty is in the diversity of the decks, just as it is in the diversity of the world. I'm always dismayed by traditional representations of the cards because our intuition needs to be excited to grow. I knew that there was something about the tarot just out of reach that I needed to discover, and no amount of books or decks or practice was giving my brain the jolt it needed.

My focus turned to the next and to the next, but a part of myself stood with the tarot, searching for that critical new understanding. And then it clicked: I didn’t need more variety in decks for the intuition I was after. I needed a deck that was less suggestive. Less misleading. Illustrative decks offer new perspectives on the forces of the tarot, but in presenting only one of the sliver-of-infinite ways you might interpret a card, they get in the way of so much other potential self-discovery. Instinctively, we know to maintain fluidity, but looking at such strong anchors reading after reading entrains your mind. It blinds you to the other possibilities.

That notion started me on the path: What about a deck that wasn't a painted sky, but a crystal sphere? What about a deck that offered new freedoms with each new reading, rather than cementing a single interpretation? I found that no current deck fit the bill, and so I made the Locus Tarot.

3) You mention on your Kickstarter page that the deck just requires a few simple theories to interpret.  Can you explain those theories and how they influence your understanding of tarot and life?

Life, for me, is a continuum of infinite possibilities, one experience of the infinite following the next through time towards distant futures, seemingly impossible from where we are now, yet inevitable in retrospect. At different points in our passage through time, different models help us to make sense of the universe. A flat earth was at one point a more useful model than a round earth. Manifest destiny was at one time a more useful philosophy than humanitarianism.

The work of the artist is to offer internally consistent and useful models to his audience, and his success is measured only in the persistence of those applications. In crafting the Locus Tarot, it was important for me to call into question each aspect of the traditional tarot, and keep only that which was useful, and codify all else. I was in this a scientist in pursuit of the universal theory of everything, and at the same time, an alchemist, seeking unity between that which is above, and that which is below.

My journey began with the Minor Arcana. I knew that they would be pip cards, and after having removed all else, I found that truly and most usefully, the Minors each represent a point of conflict along the numerological series in each element. These points of conflict are reflected in the Hero's Journey codified by Joseph Campbell's work with myth, the odd numbers typically external and the even typically internal.

The four elemental series of the Minor Arcana always happen in order. If you draw a Five of Cups in a reading, you can be sure that the Six of Cups will follow in the future, though concerning the very same situation, you might also be at the Nine of Swords or the Three of Stones, proceeding along those arcs as well. The Minors represent the great journeys of our lives, and like the waves of an ocean, peak and dip inevitably, though each wave might cycle at a different rate.

I then came to the Royalty Arcana. I was never convinced the cards always represented interaction with another person, let alone one with dark hair or fair skin. And I similarly shunned situational interpretations of the court cards. That's the work of the Minor Arcana. Experimentation lead me to discover that most usefully, the Royalty truly only represents a cluster of personality traits at the intersection of two elements, though whether these traits come in the form of another person or surface within one's self is truly dependent on the situation. The outside is always a mirror of the self, so the interpretation of another's personality as chaste or demanding is ultimately based on internal changes anyway.

Additionally, I found that it was misleading to assign gender or age to the court cards. I kept the naming convention much like I kept the naming convention of the suits, rather than using their underlying elements, but the words are just signposts. Instead, I've found it most useful to consider the house element to indicate the external methods of that archetype, and the court station to represent the internal motivation of the archetype, Pages internally air, Knights fire, Queens water, and Kings earth, the progression that of increasing stability. In this way, the Knight of Cups, with fiery motivation, but watery methods may still be interpreted as amorousness in some situations, but in others may be seen as passive-aggressiveness, as excitability, or as driven to perform.

The Majors predictably presented more of a challenge. I knew right off the bat that the numbers had to go. The Major Arcana is a set of cosmic forces capable of shifting the course of one's life independent of the people we encounter or our course on life's journeys. Any Major can follow any Major. It's possible for the Chariot to be followed by Death as easily as it is to be followed by Temperance. Heck, just one major can hold sway over a person's entire life. How in the face of all this, can any Major be said to be part of a series?

That said, though the Majors don't have series doesn't mean they don't have patterns. I found instead that liberating the Majors from the series revealed a number of fascinating truths that helped to expand the cards meaning whilst preserving the traditional meaning at the same time.

The solution, it seems, was under our fingers this whole time. I noticed in my endless permutations of the Majors that each have a distinctly elemental flavor. For instance, The Fool, The Magician, The Empress, The Emperor, and The High Priestess each deal primarily with earthly matters just as Judgment, The Tower, The Moon, The Sun, The Star, and The Universe deal with primarily airy matters.

Within these four sets, I discovered that there was always one card influenced by each of the four elements. The Empress, for instance, is earth drawn to water. Traditionally, we read this Major as the nurturing of the physical and as a wisdom of the rhythms of the earth. Seen more broadly, earth drawn to water can mean, in the case of struggling family, the seeking of basic sustenance, and in the case of a creative endeavor, a need for greater malleability of form.

I also found that each set featured one card that could be described as an element acting without impulse, acting within itself, in a moment of perfect stability. These forces embody the center from which the elements extend, and around which the world turns. The Fool (earth) offers innocence and curiosity from which one would embark on the physical world, Justice (water) offers balance and inevitability to broach the emotional world, Temperance (fire) offers experience and composure from which to act, and Judgment (air) offers experience and renewal to those engaging in the intellectual and spiritual exploration. I call these introversions.

4) You've added two cards to your deck - The Bridge and The Portal.  What do these mean to you, and what made you want to add them in?

Absolutely right! At this point in the story, I'd discovered a novel pattern to describe 20 of the 22 Major Arcana, but was terrified of the pattern suggested by the final two cards.

As readily as the Majors suggest the sets of influenced Arcana and the set of introversions, so too do they suggest a set of extroversions—Arcana that face outward, interacting with the other elements powerfully, and offering both access and passage to each of the four elemental domains. Except for one problem—only two of the four cards were in the deck.

It was clear to me as I suspect it will be to you that The Wheel embodied full access to the emotional world of wins and losses, and that The Universe embodied full access to the intellectual and spiritual worlds. Where then were the cards granting access to the physical world and the world of potency?

I first went hunting in compendiums of tarot decks for Majors others had added to fill the gaps. For all my talk of bucking tradition, I do not do so lightly, and only even consider it when tradition fails. It happens sometimes. At different points in our lives, different models resonate with what is highest within us.

Finding no solutions in the canon, it fell to me to name these forces. Early on, I stumbled upon the symbols of The Bridge and The Portal, but I resisted committing to these for a long time to ensure they were the right ones for the deck. Their most persistent competitors were Wanderlust and Creativity, but I found that given the character of The Wheel and The Universe, The Bridge and The Portal were too well suited. They just fit.

I see it like this: The Bridge crosses air and water, granting passage to the endless vistas of the world. The Wheel, the embodiment of ceaseless change, grants access to the peaks and depths of all interpersonal life has to offer. The Portal bridges this world and all others, offering unlimited creative freedom and expressive potential. The Universe, finally, is the gateway to spiritual enlightenment and the infinity of self. Each of these cards removes the barriers separating the subject from one of the four aspects of the world, and each is joined by the danger of irresponsibility or overextension in any of the four elemental directions.

5) The deck is a "minimalist" tarot, with very simple images, but I'm sure there's a lot behind them.  Could you talk us through some of that?

Sure. I put a lot of heart and soul into the designs of the deck, though I think in many ways, much of what this style has to offer differs from where readers have typically thought to look.

I liken the difference to that between hieroglyphics and modern letters. In some sense, modern letters lack the flavor of hieroglyphics, but what they lack in flavor, they gain in power. English has only 26 letters, but is capable of conveying all knowable things, whereas a hieroglyphic alphabet with its thousands of characters can convey only what's already been codified.

I mean to say that my strategy with the Locus was to point to the overarching patterns of the universe without representing them. That said, the cards yet bear a resemblance to the forces as we know them, even if they aren't strong enough to affect a reader's intuition.

The Royalty is an excellent example of this. Though the element of their station is unexposed, station is instead represented by subsequently larger white circles surrounded by one, two, three, and four dots, from Page to King. Interestingly, this pattern likens the Page to a helmet, the Knight to a shield, the Queen to a breastplate, and the King to a round table. Each offers greater stability than the last, and each is naturally larger than that which came before it in the series. Yet my conscious intention was much less symbolic. My aim was in fact for each station to contains all of the design elements of the previous stations, even as each develops the pattern. The fact that conscious and unconscious attention worked as one is a testament not to me, but rather to the magical relationship between the microcosm and the macrocosm, the individual and the universal unconscious.

6) How are you finding the Kickstarter process, as someone looking for crowd-funding?

I'm a pretty big geek when it comes down to it, and in preparation for the campaign, I did some data analysis on the 79 tarot kickstarters in the history of the world. I learned some interesting things.

For instance, of the 79 campaigns, there were 44 successes. That's a 56% success rate, regardless of how well thought out the deck or well executed the campaign. Campaigns with videos did even better. 40 out of 63 campaigns with videos succeeded. That's 63%. Campaigns with more than 10 reward levels were even more successful. Of the 34 campaigns in this group, 27 were successes. This is to say that if you have a video and more than 10 reward levels, you've got a 79% chance of funding your tarot deck, regardless of merit, though there was certainly merit to every successful campaign. (The fact that my 80-card deck will be the 80th tarot kickstarter makes me think my actual chances might be closer to 80%, but who I am to say?)

One last statistic: Of these 27 campaigns with videos and more than 10 reward levels, the average outcome was $22,600 with an average of 407 backers per project. Knowing the overhead and the hours that have gone into crafting a deck I feel confident bringing to the world, I don't think these artists are making as much money as it sounds, but it's truly inspiring what a group of people can accomplish that a single person cannot.

That said, my base goals are humble in comparison. I'm minimally trying to raise $1000 dollars, which would take only 30 campaign supporters. I'd be honored if the campaign did well, but I really just want to connect with likeminded people. I guess that's probably what every artist wants.

7) What does the future hold for you?

This is the year of the stone for me. I've been a hermit long enough, and it's time to bring all my work to the world.

There's still miles to go with the Locus Tarot. Marketing the kickstarter. Setting up an online store. Printing and delivering. Distribution or licensing. I hope to find enough success to justify doing a book or a podcast or something unfathomed. But I certainly don't count my chickens...

I'm currently looking for an artist for my graphic novel Underworld. It's a Greek tragedy set at a Pennsylvania rave. I'm in touch with a lot of good people, and I hope to get it out by the end of the year. (If you know anyone qualified and interested in a challenging and well-paying gig, send them my way.)

I'm also working on reducing the printing costs of my board game labyrinth life. Two years ago, I learned a great deal about what makes commerce work from a failed kickstarter for this otherwise successful game. When people ask me when they can finally buy a copy, I want to be able to tell them, "today."

8) Is there anything else you'd care to share with us?

Thanks for chatting with me, Chloë, and thanks for reading, everyone! Please check out the Locus Tarot! Support it, share it, and say hello!


  1. "And then it clicked: I didn't need more variety in decks for the intuition I was after". I agree with that but for me tarot has to be more than an abstract visualization of a theory which you have to know before you can read the cards. That's too much a left brain activity for me.
    Of course you can get "lazy"with you readings but in my experience the longer you read with one deck the more personal and extensive your interpretations will be.

    1. For me, there are two different ways of not getting lazy. One is to use different decks, so slightly different images ping different ideas in my head. The other, as you say, is to become deeply acquainted with a given deck. I try to do a bit of both - reading with a different deck every week here on the blog, but mostly picking one or two decks for personal readings over the course of a year. For instance, for at least the last six months most of my personal and professional readings have used the Tarot de St Croix, except when the querent asked for an angel reading :D

    2. I totally agree. I quoted Mike because I think the perfect deck isn't out there but I do love a broad variety of decks myself too. I've even bought the Tarot of the Vampyres by Ian Daniels to balance out the more friendlier decks I have and I actually like it a lot.

    3. The Tarot of the Vampyres by Daniels is my favourite Vampire deck (and I have quite a few!) :)

    4. I truly hope readers keep doing what their doing. I still use many different decks and I still work to deepen my understanding with them.

      Have you taken a look at the campaign page? I have the feeling when you see the cards all together, you'll find the patterns much more clearly.

      In any case, I'm here to answer questions, if you have any. ;)

  2. That's a fabulous video Mike. I love the card navigating the depths. It's hard to do a 46 second video that says it all, but you've done that.

    1. Thanks, woley! I tried to make it something special.

  3. Absolutely fascinating. I've made 4 pages of notes on this deck & Tarot in general after reading this! And - significantly gone from an initial feeling of 'definitely not for me' to - 'this has the potential to open new portals (bridges, doors, wheels, universes!). Love the development theory behind the court symbols and I'm heading back over to Kickstarter to check out that poster. I will definitely share this and find out more. Thank you Chloe. Very thought provoking!

    1. Mary, thank you! If you have any other questions, please let me know!