As the creator and illustrator of the wildly popular The Wild Unknown tarot deck, artist Kim Krans has created a magical universe that has enthralled tarot enthusiasts and art fans alike. The spirit animals and natural symbols of Krans’ major arcana reflect both her fine arts background (she studied at both the Interlochen Center for the Arts and Cooper Union) with the curious soul of a modern mystic. Today, Krans is releasing a Wild Unknown boxed set that includes the deck and guidebook together (she recommends using the box to store ritual goods). “It feels like an epic gift,” she says.”We just ran with the idea of it being a keepsake and all the things you need were inside of it.” To mark the occasion, we talked to Krans about her inspirations, favorite cards, and why there’s never a wrong answer in the Tarot.
SANCTUARY: Your background is in fine art. How did you first become interested in illustrating a tarot deck?
KRANS: I was showing in a lot of New York galleries about nine years ago, making these really, really big drawings. They were kind of collage pieces. At the time, the art market started to shift from where younger artists were basically selling anything they made right out of grad school, to becoming much slower, so I started to make smaller illustrational work. I made a series of drawings and turned them into a calendar for Christmas presents for, like, thirty friends one year. Then their friends wanted to buy some Christmas the following year, and I got a couple of hundred orders, so we put up a web page called the Wild Unknown.
SANCTUARY: Was tarot always something you had an interest in, personally or artistically?
KRANS: I’ve always had an interest in what I guess you could call “the deep self,” especially as it related to being an artist. That interest led me to tarot, but I would read books on tarot decks, and to me the art was always disappointing. I couldn’t relate to the imagery in the way I could relate to the really epic card descriptions and the meanings of the archetypal images. I basically made a deck because I was searching for one that I wanted to be able to use. I was like, “I hope this is all my solution.”
SANCTUARY: Were there any decks you did like, or found inspiration in?
KRANS: Well, I looked at a lot of classic decks just as research. I always loved the Aquarian deck, which has a kind of a classic and maternal feel. But I knew that I wanted to make a deck that did not look like another deck. I gave myself two rules. One was no people were going to be in the deck, it would all be creatures. In that way, it would allow more people to get into the archetypes within the deck. Say I was to draw an old white woman. You see that card, suddenly you’re either saying that’s me or that’s not me. It becomes then about like a type of person. Whereas if you draw an old hawk that has a kind of feminine quality, men and women, young and old will have this relationship to it. The second rule was that it would not look like another deck while I was drawing. I couldn’t just copy the composition or the concept. I put them away in a closed drawer and then started a drawing journal.
I couldn’t relate to the imagery in the way I could relate to the really epic card descriptions and the meanings of the archetypal images. I basically made a deck because I was searching for one that I wanted to be able to use.
SANCTUARY: Are there other thinkers or artists that influence your work?
KRANS: Gosh, right now I’m really deep into Carl Jung and looking at The Red Book and his drawings. As far as drawing, I’m always just a huge fan of Eva Hesse and Louise Bourgeois and William Blake. I kind of go classic when I think about visual art.
SANCTUARY: Do you have a favorite card out of the deck?
KRANS: The Hermit card is near and dear to me for sure. I have it on my desk right now. I usually keep it out when I’m working on solo projects where you have to delve deep and go into your own inner world. That can sometimes feel solitary and slow and deep, the way a turtle is.
SANCTUARY: What do you think about the idea that the aesthetic of mysticism is so in vogue right now? People can buy your deck at Urban Outfitters, for example, just because it looks cool and mysterious.
KRANS: Well, I love that sneaky inner work it inspires. Somebody can purchase something in a store just because of the way it looks, or because they get a certain feeling from it, but when they open it at home they can end up having a deeper experience than they planned on. I think that’s really what the Wild Unknown deck has done. It’s kind of like its secret weapon that you don’t realize you’re picking up.
SANCTUARY: One of the problems people seem to face with mystic spiritual work, especially if they are new to it, is that there is no clear answer to most things. Tarot is a good example of this…
Kim: We are outcome oriented and we love answers, but that’s not really what the inner journey is about. Once you start trying to make work about the inner journey, it gets really confusing because you are using a binary mindset to work with something that has only question marks inside of it. That Hermit card came up for me a reading about six months before the deck came out. My reader told me, “You have to put aside all of the books you’ve been reading and all of your reference material. Stop looking on the internet. Do not second guess yourself. That’s the only way that your work is going to be able to move out into the world the way that it needs to.”
That was really helpful for me, and I think the Hermit card just represents the idea that you can study and research until you build up this vocabulary and understanding, and then you hold all of that within you and at some point you just have to trust yourself and really go to your inner voice and speak from that place. I think the Hermit reminds us that asking tarot what is right and wrong is not a helpful question.
SANCTUARY: Your work has touched a lot of people, maybe more than any other modern tarot deck.
KRANS: My favorite thing is when someone gives the deck and book to somebody as a gift, and then they end up opening it and doing a reading with each other and having an experience that they wouldn’t normally have. The deck can be used between friends, by yourself, or a really experienced psychic can use it and have a whole other trip with them. It’s exciting that it can also be used in this surprising and self-reflective way. I’m really grateful for that.
Images courtesy of David Paulin, HarperOne.