Pittsburgh illustrator spins regional lore into Haunted: An Appalachian Tarot Deck | Pittsburgh City Paper

Pittsburgh illustrator spins regional lore into Haunted: An Appalachian Tarot Deck

click to enlarge Rows of colorful tarot cards feature illustrations of different folklore from the Appalachian region.
Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Barbee-Turner
Haunted: An Appalachian Tarot Deck
The Pig Lady of Cannelton, the Green Man, the mythical Squonk — these Pennsylvanian legends make up some of the inventive illustrations in Genevieve Barbee-Turner’s new tarot card deck.

Haunted: An Appalachian Tarot Deck uses the practice to explore contemporary issues such as creativity, queerness, and social anxiety, often with a local focus.

“That’s what I love about tarot — I can talk about what has and hasn’t changed,” says Barbee-Turner, who works under the name Killerpancake Illustration. “I can take these images that seem very archaic and use them to talk about climate change, fear and panic, and social anxiety.”

Haunted is the fifth tarot deck by Barbee-Turner, a Carnegie Mellon University grad who specializes in tarot as a medium for her art. She launched a Kickstarter campaign for the project — it's live through Feb.10 — and the decks are expected to ship by December.

Haunted follows the popular 78-card Rider-Waite-Smith format, with the twist that each card depicts a folkloric legend drawn from Southwestern Pennsylvania, East Ohio, and West Virginia.

Many of the stories are local, as well as ones she knew as a child.

“I wanted to focus on the [ghost stories] I heard the most growing up,” says Barbee-Turner, who is originally from Virginia. “There’s so much history on top of history in Pittsburgh that there’s so many layers to explore.”

Growing up in the 1980 and 1990s, Barbee-Turner remembers the so-called Satanic Panic wave in America, when religious and political leaders pushed conspiracy theories about widespread child abduction, and railed against anything they viewed as being associated with the occult, from heavy metal music to the game Dungeons and Dragons.

Barbee-Turner, who describes herself as “morbidly fascinated,” says she was always drawn to the hush-hush “dark arts."

“I loved being scared,” Barbee-Turner says. “As a kid, I loved rollercoasters and scary movies. I was scared, but I was also drawn like a moth to the flame.”
click to enlarge Three illustrations depict a cowering, nude woman with a pig head, a distressed-looking buck, and a man with a deformed face surrounded by flowers.
Photo: Courtesy of Genevieve Barbee-Turner
(L to R) The 8 of Swords card (Pig Lady of Cannelton), The Ace of Coins card, and The Knight of Cups card (Raymond Robinson, aka The Green Man) in Haunted: An Appalachian Tarot Deck
The deck also comes from a fair amount of research. With the help of assistant Sarah McKenzie, described in a release as a "generational intuitive tarot reader" known as Sora the Intuitive, Barbee-Turner searched Carnegie Library’s collection and online archives, talked to locals, and interviewed author and archivist Thomas White, who wrote Witches of Pennsylvania: Occult History & Lore.

As a result, The Haunted deck covers more than just ghosts, with cards dedicated to people like Fannie Sellins, a labor organizer for the United Mining Workers of America who, in 1919, was killed by Pinkerton agents outside of a Brackenridge, Pa. mine.

“The past echoes through our land as time marches on, holding stories of the blood, sweat, and tears of every person that has ever stepped foot here," says McKenzie. "The stories we tell each other may be about legends but really they hold the key to ourselves. Haunted is our effort to tell just some of the stories of this land, and to allow you to discover your own.”

Barbee-Turner found tarot decks to be the perfect medium for her love of portraiture. For her first tarot deck, the 2016 Bridge Witches, she used Pittsburgh storytelling as a jumping-off point. Released in three volumes, the deck originated from conversations she had with Pittsburgh creatives on her podcast The AP Collection, which ran from 2012 to 2016.

Barbee-Turner says she was interested in the paradoxes of the idea of a “New Pittsburgh” and questioning the stereotypical notion of a Pittsburgher resident.

“I wanted to challenge the idea of what being a ‘yinzer’ means because I’ve met people who have been born and raised here who don’t have the accent or use the same verbiage. I wanted to make something that was reflective of people I know,” Barbee-Turner says.

The cards in Barbee-Turner’s tarot decks are hand drawn in a portraiture style, with the first draft often starting in her sketchbook. Sometimes her friends will stand in as live models for the illustration so that she can accurately draw a specific body shape.

The rest of the drawing process is completed on the digital painting app Procreate, where Barbee-Turner adds certain elements to give texture to each image.

“I want my work to have an oil-painting, illustrated feel to it that looks analog,” Barbee-Turner says. “I use different images of textures to give it some grit, like the texture of asphalt.”

The images of steel swords, raging fires, and gore rarely have clear-cut connections to the card titles, which invites the kind of creative association and story-making that Barbee-Turner says she hopes to evoke. The illustration for the “fortitude” card depicts a ghoulish-looking older woman hovering above a birthday cake decorated with blood-red icing, forcing us to consider what darkness lies inside the sugary treat.

Other works include Cult: A Deck of Tarot, through which Barbee-Turner used gothic horror aesthetics to explore ideas about the queer body, and Lost River: A Deck for Divination & Play, a tarot deck/Texas Hold’em set that replaces the royal family cards with portraits of anxiety and rage.

Her Inferno: A Tarot Sticker Deck explores political notions of climate change and social anxiety through the lens of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem.

The concepts may seem bigger than the art form, but Barbee-Turner says tarot has always been about larger social beliefs. “Tarot is really about big ideas that people are drawn to — about love, death, life, loss, survival, hope."

She adds, “Each of the cards explores singular ideas, and when they’re moved around, they create stories that can be self-reflective.”

Unlike other art forms, tarot cards are functional in nature and meant to be handled and used. Like a repeated tall tale, Barbee-Turner says that tarot provides the opportunity to speak to universal truths through its repeated association of meaning.

“These stories that we tell over and over again are a reflection of who we are and what is important to us as well as the things that scare us," she says. "It’s a way of explaining to people what’s important.”

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