Interview with Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

Stephanie Pui-Mun Law

Images courtesy of Llewellyn and used with permission.

By Melanie Marquis

Fantastic and brimming with earthy and mystical energy, the art of Stephanie Pui-Mun Law gives tarot a fresh new look. Stephanie is the creator of the newly released Shadowscapes Tarot (Llewellyn, 2010), a beautiful and original deck that’s garnering high praise from tarot enthusiasts. A professional artist for over a decade, she’s also the illustrator and author of Dreamscapes, a book on watercolor technique, and her work is well known in the publishing and gaming industries. We have a feeling we’ll be hearing Stephanie’s name in tarot for years to come, so we asked her to let us introduce her to our readers. Here, she opens up about her art, her passions, and oh yes, flamenco dancing…

Tarot Reflections: How did the Shadowscapes Tarot come about?

Stephanie Pui-Mun Law: I had wanted to do a tarot deck for many years before I actually even started this.  I began doing a deck twice before but never got beyond a few cards.  I finally decided in 2004 that I was at the right place to begin one, and so I started out with the Fool, not really sure if I would actually make it through the whole deck, but willing to give it a shot.  I figured I could make it through the Major Arcana at the very least.  And from there it just picked up momentum.

TR: How do you feel about the tarot as an artistic medium?

SPL: There is plenty of room within the boundaries of the tarot for reinterpretation and personal style to show through, while exploring a wide range of material that spans the human experience. Creating a tarot forced me to draw themes I would otherwise avoid, and to approach challenging subject matters with a problem-solving frame of mind: how to make each piece my own? The tarot is like a visual mythos. It has been approached by so many artists with so many varied experiences and ways of seeing the world, yet all approaching this same set of concepts. It's fascinating to work within that framework, and to place my art alongside that long tradition.  

TR: How did you get your start as a professional artist?

SPL: I have been drawing all my life, but by the time I got to college I had become convinced that it would be impossible to make a career of art, and so I went to Berkeley to study computer science.  Along the way though, I still took a whole lot of art classes for my personal enjoyment, and so I managed to come out of there with a double degree, but the computers were the main reason I went (I often have people asking me if Berkeley is a good art school, not realizing it was not my main purpose there). At any rate, by the time I graduated I realized that I couldn't really conceive of spending the rest of my life not doing art for a living, and that I had to try. So I took a job as a programmer and while I worked at a software company for three years I started concentrating on my portfolio, sending my work to art directors, as well as building up a web presence.  The programming actually came in quite handy for that.  Three years later through a quirk of fate, I ended up quitting the day job and taking on art full time.  I haven't looked back on that decision since!

TR: What other fantasy artists do you admire?

SPL: Dave McKean, Daniel Merriam, L.A. Williams, Kinuko Craft, Donato Giancola, Omar Rayyan, Charles Vess, Michael Kaluta....  I could keep going, and if you expand that question beyond "fantasy artists" this list would never end!

TR: Shadowscapes features fantasy landscapes and includes mystical creatures like faeries. What draws you to creating fantasy art as opposed to art featuring "real" things?

SPL: I love to paint the unseen realities, as I think of them.  The "shadowscapes." These are the possibilities and potentials, and hidden beauties in the world of "real things" if you just change your way of viewing and open your mind.  There is beauty even in ugliness, if you look at the lines and the light and the shapes, and this is what I try to convey with my art.   

TR: Do you feel that mythical creatures have a deeper symbolism, like are they perhaps a reflection of human myths or archetypes?

SPL: I do -- myths follow oral traditions, being passed down by storytellers one to another long before they were ever written down. The parts that resonate are what end up surviving. Mythical creatures get imbued with desires, hopes, and fears that humanity has experienced, and anthropomorphized to become larger than life symbols of those things.

TR: What are your passions besides making art?

SPL: I've played the piano ever since I was 5, and it's something I still enjoy very much. Though I spend a lot of time at it, it's not a skill that comes terribly easy to me, and the only reason I can play the pieces I do is because of the many years I've been at it!  I grew up playing classical music in lessons, and then for several years after I stopped taking lessons and went to college I didn't touch classical at all, preferring popular music instead.  But these days I've gone back to the classics: Bach, Chopin, Schubert, Brahms....  I also have been interested in flamenco for over a decade.  I dance flamenco, but when you participate in flamenco, it's not just a single aspect of the art -- it's the dance, singing, and guitar music all wrapped up in one, and it's an amazing experience when you finally understand how it all fits together and can fully immerse into the experience of creating that art with others. That's something that is fascinating to me about the arts beyond the visual sphere. When a painting or drawing is created, it's done and sent out into the world to be experienced by the viewers. But with music or dance, each time it is performed it is created anew, and its experienced by the performer, as well as the audience.  Even if the audience is simply a room to echo the sound to your own ears, or the mirror in the dance studio. 

TR: What have you been up to since finishing work on the Shadowscapes deck? 

SPL: As much as I enjoyed creating the tarot, and was relieved to finish, a large part of me was also very sad to no longer have that comforting "presence" to turn to.  After I finished I needed a while to reassess my creative energies and determine where to turn to next, and after a while I found myself enjoying again the freedom of not having a dedicated project to turn to every time I had a spare moment.  I could explore other subject matters and styles.  So I've spent the past year doing a lot of personal work.  Along the way I have had a few smaller (by comparison to the tarot) projects, including the 12 astrological signs, and a second watercolor book to follow up Dreamscapes, entitled Myth & Magic that will be out this July.

Another personal project I've been working at is to pull together a book for The Art of the Shadowscapes Tarot - Minor Arcana to match the Major Arcana book I did last year.  It differs from the deck in that it concentrates more on the images as artwork rather than cards, and I further expand on a lot of the symbolism and inspirations that went into the making of the deck.  It also gave me an excuse to do a whole lot of brand new ink artwork, which I love to do but publishers don't pay me often enough to work on!  So I have to make my own projects for inking. I really enjoy working in monochrome, but unfortunately it is not often appreciated by itself as much as color is. There is room for the mind to interpret the lines and shapes and to fill in colors and a mood that color art denies the viewer.

TR: Now, in addition to all these creations, I understand you just had a baby?

SPL: I recently had my first daughter six months ago, which has really forced me to look at the art I do and the jobs I take on, and whittle it down to the pieces that are important to me to make.  The lack of time has been good in that respect, because even though I thought before that I looked on my art this way, I found that this really makes me take on only projects that have meaning to me.  She's also inspired a few paintings already too!

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Tarot Reflections is published by the American Tarot Association - Copyright (C) 2010

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