As Kim Krans sees it, the “deep psyche” is always trying to tell us things, and tarot is just one way to tune in and listen. A Portland, Oregon-based artist, Krans is best known as the creator of the Wild Unknown tarot deck, which began as a self-published project for herself and her community and is now poised to reach a mass audience with a new, special edition published by Harper Elixir.
If you’re a fan or practitioner of tarot, chances are you’re most familiar with the Rider-Waite or Thoth deck, both of which were created more than 50 years ago (illustrated by Pamela Colman Smith and Lady Frieda Harris, respectively) and are iconic at this point. Many other illustrators have tried their hand at reinterpreting the 78 cards in the major and minor arcanas, but few of these alternate decks have resonated in the way that the Wild Unknown deck did almost immediately upon its publication in 2012. For Krans, who had been given the Rider-Waite deck years earlier but never strongly identified with the symbolism or imagery, it was less her mystic side than her artist side that compelled her to start drawing the tarot as she saw it.
“I think I’m coming from a biased position,” she says, “because I had studied art and drawing and had an intimate relationship with imagery. When you read a description [of a card] that’s intimate and profound, I think the artist’s natural inclination is to reinvent that image. I would look at that description and think, man, this image doesn’t resonate in the way that this concept resonates… Even the language of the “king” and “queen” is not exactly the language that I felt was reflecting my world.”
Krans’ resonant world is one of creatures, nature, color (or lack of it), and vibration. There are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters instead of royalty, and although she sticks with the standard suits of wands, cups, pentacles and swords, there are no people in this realm. Wands are snakes; the cups, swans. The lovers are two geese flying in unison; the high priestess is a tiger; judgement is a white dove ascending.
Raised on a farm in Michigan and also the author of an Animal Spirit deck published in May, Krans admits she’s not fond of drawing people. “I feel like especially in this case, animals are so much more open in terms of getting to the heart of the symbolism. It doesn’t matter what your age, race or gender is. You can delve right into the psychic realm of a creature, whereas with a person you have an immediate identification – they are me, or they’re not me. Creatures let us into the story, whether it’s a fairy tale or tarot cards.”
An avid yogi and meditator, Krans relates to art making as a practice that is equally spiritual and intentional. She traces this back to her time at a boarding arts high school, where a “really intense but spiritual” drawing teacher taught her that the line itself can contain and transmit energies. “I think of her when I look at the line work. I feel like the deck moved through me through line work, and I think people can pick up on those kinds of energies.”
In fact, some of the deck’s most beautiful images are Krans’ visualizations of pure energy: the connecting rainbow threads of the celebratory ten of cups, or the golden radiance coming from the third eye of a lamb in the four of swords. Krans drew the deck during a time of deep introspection, living in a renovated church in Philadelphia after leaving New York City, where she went to college. “That made for a cool climate to draw,” she notes. “Kind of ego crisis, self-reflection time…in a church.”
If the process of making something as powerful as a tool of divination sounds daunting, Krans didn’t do it alone. “I had a focus group orientation from the beginning,” she says. “Rather than go with what the books say or other decks have done I wanted to prioritize people’s ability to get into the imagery on their own. I would lay out all the cards and have ten people over and then I would redraw the cards if they came up as dull or confusing to people.”
Instead of offering definitive answers, she believes the cards create “a doorway that you can move through…I think they kind of bypass the intellect and the rational, practical side of us and remind us of something that needs to be seen or remembered.” Krans adds that whenever she gets caught up in the cards as a business or doubts their metaphysical qualities, she’ll receive some kind of message, or “I’ll look back at a year-ahead spread I did, and it will blow my mind.”
But even the cards didn’t alert her to the journey that lay ahead in “the wild unknown country” – the Bob Dylan lyric she named the project for. “I definitely never imagined it would grow and expand in the way that it has. That was never the plan,” she says. “And in a way it’s taken over my creative life, for better or worse.” She compares the experience to being a musician with a new album, when fans are more interested in hearing the songs they already know. So when the opportunity came along for Harper Elixir to take the tarot deck to the next level, Krans says, “I had to in some ways allow the deck to grow into what it wants to be.”
Its creator, meanwhile, has just begun a graduate program at Pacifica near Santa Barbara, studying psychology and the creative life. “I’m trying to understand where creativity comes from, and how it’s related to the unconscious side of ourself. That is an endless source of questioning and inner search – how to be an artist in the world, navigate the world and also be in touch with my deep self.” She considers the enormity of this question and laughs. “I’m in there wondering what it’s all about like the next person.”