Examining The Dark Exact Tarot: Talking art, psychology, & ritual with Dark Exact creatrix Coleman Stevenson

From the moment I saw the cards that make up The Dark Exact Tarot, I was drawn in. Their minimalist, no BS, symbolic images, communicated its messages almost through a glistening liquid that makes up the shiny black background of the deck. The Instagram darling, created by Coleman Stevenson is now in its 2nd Edition, and has been igniting the interest of tarot readers online since it’s release.


Something about the cards – and the mystique that often drives our love of tarot – called me to learn more. I was elated when the woman behind the potent & sleek Dark Exact Tarot agreed to chat with me!


> Can you tell us a little bit about the inception & manifestation of The Dark Exact Tarot?

< Designing an entire deck was daunting at first. I had dreamed of doing it for some time, but it never seemed realistic because it is such a large project, and until a couple years ago I never had a clear vision of how my contribution to the Tarot would be formed. I’ve been writing about this in detail for the preface to my forthcoming guidebook for the Tarot, but to summarize, it turned out to be a gradual building process, starting with the Major Arcana and Aces, then finishing the suits. I approached very intuitively, sometimes not even understanding my own symbolism for a card until it was finished and I could study its design. I had a general instinct to simplify the deck. I knew I wanted to make something visually different, but I also realized that an additional dilemma existed for me. Though I appreciate, even love, the imagery in so many decks, I often feel no affinity for the people depicted in them. I couldn’t imagine myself as them or interacting with them during my Journey. Instead, I thought about how each step along my lifepath so far has been marked by an object of some kind. This is such a common practice – humans are collectors. Our lives are expressed in an assortment of “souvenirs.” We keep them to remind us of who we have been and how we have – or haven’t – changed. We demonstrate and secure identity, individual or collective, in the things we amass around us. Instead of using human figures to represent the archetypal stages of development in the Journey, I chose to use important objects, plants, and creatures from the collection of my life. It was very freeing to be more indirect in depicting each character. I could capture their spirits instead. Before I knew it, a first draft of the deck was complete.


> What was it like when you started seeing it gaining momentum online?

< Exhilarating and terrifying! I could not believe that something I made was actually proving useful to others in the very way I’d hoped! I was particularly excited to be sending copies all over the world. That helped me know that my aim for increasing its universality was true. But then the fear…what if it wasn’t good enough, thorough enough, accessible enough…the list of worries of the artist goes on… This led fairly quickly to a redesign of about a dozen cards, mostly Major Arcana, issued first as an “Upgrade Pack” for the First Edition (which I still make available) and later as the Second Edition of the deck (now the only available edition). There were ideas for the cards I couldn’t access initially when consumed by the magnitude of the initial project. Once I had the distance, I saw more clearly what needed to be improved.


> What drew you into the esoteric lifestyle and how do you feel it influences your current work?

< I’ve always been an artist in some sense (primarily drawing and writing), which means I think in terms of symbols. I’ve also never really fit in with any established and accepted philosophies or groups. I was fortunate to become friends in my adolescence with several different people who each introduced me to some new possibility for thinking, new resources for approaching life on my own terms. I was also really lucky that Birmingham, AL, where I grew up, had several esoteric shops to encourage my interest and search for what suited me. There was, briefly, a small boutique named Gaia’s that I constantly dragged my mother to so I could browse the crystal jewelry, hand-dyed skirts, and essential oils. I was rarely allowed to get anything, but it didn’t matter. Most influential was the Golden Temple, still open in the Five Points district of Birmingham (since 1973). This vegetarian café, grocery, and esoteric store was my liberation. I spent much of my high school years down in that neighborhood (where the “weirdos” hung out, as my mother said). It was there I bought my first book of spells, my first incense, my first polished pocket crystals…and so forth. Because of that place, I never doubted that I was correct in my interests. I never felt alone even though I had very few friends who shared them.

At this point, however, Tarot was not a part of my studies. No one in my family read or talked about such matters. I would look at the decks with immense curiosity, but always felt I wasn’t allowed to interact with them. That was something for some very specific type of special person, a person with a “gift” or a calling. I didn’t think that could be me since I wasn’t part of any lineage through family teachings.


> What drew you to tarot as a tool? And a medium for art?

< Initially it was the mystery. I was drawn to the entire idea of it and felt a strange connection even when I didn’t believe it might be accessible to me. The imagery in certain decks also drew me to it. Once I allowed myself to explore it, I realized that Tarot is just so smart. What a perfect system – it has everything, big and small, logically organized and beautifully (and variously) described. There exists a deck for nearly every person at this point, some aesthetic or concept that just about anyone could feel an affinity with, especially since contemporary designers are focusing so much more in inclusiveness in their imagery and philosophies.


> Can you tell us a little of how you got into reading cards for others and what that experience is like for you?

< Despite the longstanding curiosity, it wasn’t until early adulthood that my real study in Tarot began. In my early twenties, I was living in this awesome old Portland apartment building where we all kept a sort of open-door policy, with neighbors always in and out for coffee/tea and conversation. It was one of those neighbors who really got me started reading. She worked with the Motherpeace deck, the round deck, and I am forever grateful for those rainy afternoons stashed away in her apartment with the cards spread all over the floor. It was during that time I purchased my first deck, the Aquarian Tarot I still do readings with today. I then began a more intensive study using various guides/lots of practice and taught myself to read for other people. I read off and on for friends and clients for over a decade before I finally began to see Tarot as a true calling for myself. I was one of those people I’d thought were so removed from my life. It’s that way with any artform, really. You have the interest, but maybe an intimidation. Despite that, you feel you must participate, so you try and try, and practice and practice, and then everything just clicks into place. Something opens up and you suddenly just have it. It has come to be an extension of myself, exactly the way I’d always dreamed it might be.

> What are some of your go-to favorite tarot decks?

< It is so hard to narrow that down! It depends what I am doing. For design purposes and for my own study, I research historical and modern decks constantly. My favorite deck for oddity and beauty is Frederic Lionel’s Le Tarot Magique, a Majors only deck from the early 1980s. I have vintage reproductions of the Grand Ettellia and the Vandenborre Bacchus Tarot that I love to look at and feel. I don’t often read with these for reasons of preservation, as they are all out of print.

For reading, I use the Aquarian Tarot, and now I use my own. Sometimes I’ll get a feeling about a client, that they might feel a connection to the imagery of a particular deck, so I will pull that one out. I am also a fan of mixing decks within readings. I love to pull follow-up cards for clients using an oracle deck (big fan of the Minimalist Oracle by fellow Portlander Rachel Lieberman and the Hedgewitch Botanical Oracle by Siolo Thompson. They are both very logical and intuitive).


> What are your thoughts on the resurgence of mysticism and the occult in the mainstream we’re currently seeing online & around us?

< The thing I like most about it is that materials that have been hard to get are now becoming more readily available as interest returns. For example, Strange Attractor Press in London just put out that FANTASTIC book Lost Envoy which shows the entire Tarot drawn by Austin Osman Spare. Created in 1906, the deck was never put into production, and was hidden away in the Magic Circle Museum in London until 2013. His deck is sort of a bridge between eras and styles, and now we get to actually see it. This is a huge deal! I am hopeful that other publishers might take a chance on other such projects, like reprints of out of print decks and books.


> What do you think (or has been your experience) of how social media like Youtube & Instagram has informed tarot culture?

< I don’t use YouTube for Tarot much, though I will occasionally watch people’s unboxing videos if I am researching a deck. You can often find more thorough coverage of card imagery there (including the back designs of particular editions) than you can find on most static websites. I am very grateful that a couple Tarot bloggers have done unboxings of the Dark Exact Tarot on there (though one of those was for the First Edition, and there are many changes since to imagery and card quality). As for Instagram, I use it constantly and love how it has connected me with readers and designers all over the world. It feels like a real community. I have made Tarot friends locally through it, as well. It helps artists get the word out about new decks, readers discover new trends in Tarot reading, and helps collectors be more aware of what’s available. It is also helping to make Tarot feel more accessible and less scary. There are so many great readers posting on there every day, sharing the wisdom of the Tarot interpreted deftly for the contemporary world.


> What do you hope to see in the next few years as tarot finds new hands, and new people discover it? Any hopes for the tarot evolution we’re currently witnessing?

< Part of my mission as a tarot designer and reader is to make Tarot more accessible. I want to dispel the belief some people have that Tarot is scary or evil, or that it is “fortune telling,” and help them see that it is a wonderful tool for self-study. My hope is that the current interest is not a fad but a move towards understanding and more general acceptance.


> Tarot readers can be big on deck backings. Often it can make or break a deck for readers. The Dark Exact Tarot backing is inspired, beautiful, and perfectly suited to the essence of the deck! Was it difficult to decide on the design for the back of the cards? Do backings hold any significance for you as a card reader?

< I LOVE the backs of cards! For my deck’s First Edition, I used a simple repeating graphic of the Dark Exact logo that, in my mind, was a nod to classic geometric designs of antique decks. While I think it worked well, it gave the cards a busyness I ultimately wanted to change. For the Second Edition I extended the stark contrast to that side of the cards with a graphic of the suit symbols arranged so that the card direction still cannot be determined.

As a reader, the back design is important to me. When cards are laid out on a table, waiting to be turned over, that visual display matters. It needs to be enticing and it needs to have a tone related to the general deck design. As a collector of decks, often times it is the back design that pulls me towards one edition over another. It’s also one of the most useful tools in determining the era of a vintage deck. It is SO frustrating when sellers on sites like Ebay don’t offer pictures of the backs of decks for sale/auction. It is often the only way to know what it is you are actually bidding on.


> One fascinating & obvious aspect of The Dark Exact that makes it structurally unique to say, Rider Waite, is that it actually contains two Fool cards in the major arcana. One in the usual ‘0’ position, and the other as ‘22’ (omega), which is explained as The Fool at the end of the journey. Can to tell us a little about this and why it was important to show this conclusion version of The Fool?

< Certainly! I specialize in the Fool’s Journey, so I have spent much time thinking about ways to communicate that cycle’s symbolism more clearly. As a reader, it is sometimes difficult to determine the status of the Fool whenever the card turns up in a spread. Context certainly helps, but I thought it might be more helpful to have two cards – the Fool at the start of the Journey (shown as a sunflower seedling) and the Fool at the end of one cycle (shown as a fully bloomed sunflower).

This was an addition to the Second Edition of the deck that occurred to me during the development of my Fool’s Journey Ritual Kit, a kit of Major Arcana exercises for learning the cards and studying the self.



> The Dark Exact also creates some potent, symbolic ritual products (like ritual kits and oils). What role does ritual play in your life, and do you have any daily rituals you could share with us that excite or empower you (or just make life a little more magickal)?

< Growing up in the southern United States makes me predisposed to magical thinking. It is a region so steeped in ritual many people do not even realize how much everyday life is made of up tons of tiny bits of magic. Many of these practices are dismissed as superstitions, and if you ask people why they do what they do, they may not be able to tell you. For example, if I spill salt, I always toss it over my shoulder. I didn’t know any roots of that protective gesture until adulthood; I was just following what I’d seen around me. The accumulation of such gestures makes for a very intense prescriptive culture. Examples such as this may not seem particularly special, but they do create a sense of mystery to existence. They taught me the power of an intentional gesture, phrase, or action. These tiny things have huge impacts on individual and collective psychology, and the items I make are meant to trigger the same sort of impact. A great example of one such learned gesture taking on additional meaning in my life is knocking on wood. No, I do not exactly literally believe I am calling to spirits of the wood, but I do see it as a call for help. Perhaps it is to some great, shared energy. Perhaps it is to my own deeper self, asking for a shift in awareness or asking my worrying brain to release an idea rather than dwell on it. Magic is psychological, first and foremost. When you declare something with your inner power, the rest of you has no choice but to follow. The idea has been acknowledged; it exists. This is sort of an Animist view of the world, I suppose.

I am not a religious person and never have been. I shy away from terms like God, divine, and even spirituality. It is hard to know exactly what someone means when using any of those terms. But I am very aware of the need, in myself and others, to feel less alone in the world. Friendships and family provide this, of course, but often those relationships are extremely grounded, rooted in the mundane. We crave something beyond, to feel connected to the unknown. Without an organized religion to create that specialness, that shift into touching the unknown, I had to find other ways to access it. For me, intellectual inquiry and creating art provide it. I was just watching a great interview with mystic Alan Moore in which he discusses how the actions of art are magical actions. I completely agree. Every time I create, I am crafting spells: idea/intention, externalization/translation to something tangible (in image/language), release/performance. Any moment of intentional operation (the strange) within in daily life (the mundane) provides it. My personal rituals are a combination of devised and spontaneous action. They are crafted uniquely each time depending upon the situation. I try to locate the need/desire/block within and address it through objects, abstracted language (sigilization, specifically), and gestures/actions. The tools for ritual that I make for others all come out of my personal practice. They are all things that have helped me adjust my focus towards specific aims, and cross a threshold into the unknown. They also help carry the ideas of the ritual moment subtly with me back into the mundane world, allowing for completion of the shift in consciousness.


> We LOVE that you have a ritual kit specifically for Mercury Retrograde! You also refer to Mercury Retrogrades in a reading online. Can you tell us a bit about your retrograde experiences & how you cope or combat the chaos?

< Well, I am a Gemini, so if you believe in that, then you understand the extra intensity during this time, as Mercury is my ruling planet. I actually know relatively little about astrology – my focus has always been on Tarot and while there are parallels, I’ve tended to leave that work up to the experts. But Mercury Retrograde seemed to always have such an impact. I actually looked back over a year plus, charting out rough patches, especially in relationships/communication, and was able to see a clear pattern of correspondence to the retrograde periods. I started to think…what if I could work with the specific energy those times bring instead of panicking and trying to fight against? I was at a point in my life/career where I was very ready to embrace change, a real sweeping out of all the corners. I designed an involved personal ritual around an upcoming MR, bringing together stones, colors, and other symbolic items, all connected to completion of specific projects and opening into the next phase. I had a friend at the time who was an excellent astrologer, and I took my list of ideas to her to discuss. She confirmed the tools I had in place and offered suggestions for other areas of my life I might connect to the effort. I worked at that altar throughout the retrograde, and at the end of it I had been offered a layoff from my job I no longer wanted and a clear vision for the development of my career as an artist.

The MR Ritual Kit is a micro version of that ritual. Though pocket-size, the same ideas of complete-release-move on are contained in its tools and instructions, and it can be worked on whatever scale the user’s energy can manifest. You do not have to believe in “hocus-pocus” (as some might call it) to benefit from this. I believe that in my case performing the ritual shifted my mindset and opened me to opportunities I might have previously dismissed. Ritual can be seen as a powerful psychological tool.


> I mentioned a reading online, and that is because you are also writer & poet. Can you tell us a little of how you got into writing poetry?

< That really is something I’ve been doing my whole life. I was very lucky to have had parents who let me take art classes and go to summer writing conferences throughout childhood instead of forcing me to play team sports or play piano (when I tried and did not like either of those things). I have always enjoyed language and its power, which spills over into my interest in ritual and Tarot, of course. Beyond all else, I am someone who enjoys being alone. I was an only child who didn’t care much for playing with other children. Still, I have an active mind and want to communicate. I just prefer to do it through poems and images than through conversation and socializing. I am a truer me when I don’t have to face the vanity and manners of social interaction creating a barrier to connection with strangers. I’m including my own vanity in that statement. This must have to do with growing up in the South; we are all very concerned with appearances and social graces. While this fascinates me, I see myself resorting to learned behaviors in the stress of social situations. With poetry, I am free to show a purer version of myself, one unhindered by polite and inaccurate, assumptive conversation.


> What would you say to any inspired, mystic-artists out there hoping to manifest their art in things like the tarot?

< I would say study a lot first. I am very glad I didn’t try to make a deck when I first dreamed of doing so. I knew so little compared to what I know now. Read cards for yourself for years, then read for other people at least some. You do not need to be a professional reader to design a deck, but you either need to have some experience or work with someone who does because, as with all design, the user must be kept in mind at all times. I may approach Tarot in an open and accepting way, but I don’t take it lightly. It is not to be trifled with. There is so much to consider in how symbolism has evolved over time, how cards are connected to each other within the deck, how the cards will function. Some of this might be overlooked if the art is considered more important than the ideas by the maker.


> Where can people find you online to keep up with you and The Dark Exact?

< I reveal and discuss everything I am up to creatively at Instagram.com/darkexact. I have an online shop at etsy.com/shop/thedarkexact.


>>Sincere thanks to Coleman Stevenson for sharing her insights and creative energy with us (and her brilliant deck with the tarot world)! She was radical to talk to & my tarot knowledge grew exponentially through chatting with her! Be sure to follow her shop & social media, and come see her selection at Calling Corners New Age Boutique. 

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