Monday, August 9, 2010

Musings with Susan Shie and Dennis Fairchild

I recently fought my own introvert nature and sent an email off to Susan Shie after hearing of the release of her Kitchen Tarot deck. Susan is a well established fiber artist having been in Quilt National multiple times, in addition to being published in many other collective books and participated in more exhibitions than I can list here! She also hosts the Turtle Art Camp multiple times a year at her studio Turtle Moon Studios. She is a self described Outsider Artist - a particular favorite type of art for me!

I have been following Susan's work for some time now, and always find myself stunned by here trademark journal writing on her pieces. At first glance, the writing almost lends itself to quilt stitching, giving depth, contours and detail. When I saw that the Kitchen Tarot deck was out finally, I knew I had to overcome my shyness, send her an email request for an interview, and hope for the best! I'm glad I did!

Susan Shie

You've been working on this tarot deck since 1998, did you plan from the beginning to have these printed as actual cards?
Susan: I did, but in my head, it would be decades before that would happen, because I saw the full 78 card deck as the only way to have them printed back then, not just the 22 major cards. My plan was to sell the cards as I finished each piece, by printing them small and selling them as laminated cards, which I did. I didn’t get a very good reproduction image, since I was using too small of a resolution back then. But I made backs for them that I hand wrote and drew, so that each laminated card was a one-of-a-kind, numbered and signed card, with a little hand-drawn image on it.

I kept track of the numbers of each card, and mailed them out to people who ordered them. They took forever to make up, and after about card #9 or so, I gave up and quit doing the laminated cards. I still have a few of them that I kept for myself, but I’ll never, EVER do that again! The work on the laminated cards kept me from working quite as much as I coulda been, on making the actual artwork for the deck! Sometimes you have to cut your losses and stop doing something that sounded good at first!

#6 “The Cream and Sugar / Lovers” 2002
35”h X 25”w
What inspired you to do a tarot deck?

Susan: I hadn’t been interested in Tarot until I saw the Motherpeace deck by Vicki Noble. (The Allister Crowley deck had scared me, when I was young!) A friend in grad school at Kent State showed me the lovely, round Motherpeace deck one night in Kent, and later, when I was living in NYC, I ran into it again and bought it, to be my “vision quest” while I was living alone there, on an artist’s residency for six months. That was 1988, and it was ten more years til I got around to doing my own deck. By then, my friend Elizabeth Owen had shared a lot of interesting tarot decks with me, and I had this urge to do my own thing in Baby Boomer self expression!

The kitchen is where we do our most common, daily gift of creating for others, our simple act of healing by nurturing those we love. There’s a LOT of power in that room!
I had created St Quilta the Comforter in 1997, as an archetype of caring and compassion, based on my own mother, Marie Shie. She was always cooking up love for us, and she became the natural star of the Kitchen Tarot.

#6 “The Cream and Sugar / Lovers” 2002 (detail)
35”h X 25”w

How did you decide what order to do the cards in? Was there a plan, or order to it? Or did you choose the next card to work on by feeling or chance?

Susan: For the major cards, it was natural to start with the #0 card, the Fool (in my case, the Colander) and follow the natural progression, up through the numbers, ending with the World card (the Potluck), #21. I got stuck on two cards, The Hanged One and Justice, which I went back and remade after finishing The Potluck / World. They became The Timer and The Food Scales.

As I would finish a card’s piece, I’d start to think about what kitchen object I’d use to symbolize the next piece in the Major cards. I’d research several decks’ interpretations of that card, always being sure to use the Waite-Smith deck as my base reference, since it’s THE classic deck from the early 1900s. But my favorite deck for years has been the Sakki-Sakki Tarot. I don’t ever copy imagery from anyone’s deck – that would be theft and truly unacceptable. I just like to see different people’s slants on what a card means. Monicka Cleo Sskki just has the funkiest views of any tarot artist, and apparently her ideas feel right to me. Hers is the deck I usually actually use, if I want to do a tarot reading. But I would never want my Kitchen Tarot deck images to resemble her beautiful bebop images in any way!

After absorbing what the card means, via this research stage, I think about my own kitchen symbol and the story I want to show visually in my card painting. Early in my deck, I was making more simple compositions with little writing on them. They were more about the kitchen object. My style evolved, thanks to shifts in materials and processes I was using. And the compositions also shifted more to telling current events stories than simply showing an object or two. So both imagery and story became more complex.

I hope the evolution of my own style fits well with the evolution of the deck. The Major cards are such an evolution of themselves, I hope that my changes fit well.

Most of them are fairly large, did you keep track of how long it took you to do them? They are so full of text, that had to have taken a lot of time didn't it?

Susan: Yes, they were very time consuming, especially during the years when I was hand sewing them. They’re all different sizes, but even the small ones that were sewn with tiny hand stitches and then beaded, took much longer than the big ones do, now that I machine sew them and don’t add beads.
#6 “The Cream and Sugar / Lovers” 2002 (detail)
35”h X 25”w
Did you start with sketches before starting the piece?

Susan: I didn’t used to sketch much or at all, but as the compositions got more complex, I got to sketching more and more. Now I may do as many as 20 sketches before I’m ready to paint. But I don’t copy the sketches. I use sketching as a way of deciding what’s the scenario, what the objects and people are, where they go, and what they’re doing. Once I think it makes sense, I try to look very little at the sketch while I airbrush. I want to draw my image freehand, with free and sweeping strokes, on my now-large “canvases.” If I worry about trying to get the exact look of a sketch, I wreck the freedom I want to show in the image. You gotta let go. No erasers, no tracing paper, no nothin’ but you and that airbrush or whatever you’re drawing with. Just move! I like for it to feel like dancing!

Did you write the text before starting the piece, or did you write it as you went in a free writing style?

Susan: I just write, when I’m making my own remarks. It’s just like writing a letter or typing an email. What comes out, comes out. If I’m putting in something verbatim, like an Obama speech, or a story from NPR, then it slows me way down. I don’t like having to copy, but sometimes it’s important to do so. I prefer just writing the first thought as the final writing on the piece. I keep track of what I’ve written. Each time I finish writing about a topic, I note it on that day’s entry on my record of what’s in the piece.

#15 “The Power Out / Devil” 2006
66”h X 69.5”w

I am fascinated by your journalistic approach to your pieces, there is so much of yourself that you put into your pieces! Most people do not share their journal thoughts, does it ever bother you that people will be reading your "private thoughts"?

Susan: I never put anything into these pieces that would hurt the feelings of someone I love, or be inappropriate. I’m mainly telling stories of things that are happening in my own life and in the world around me. This is different from spilling your guts in a secret diary.

You are very honest and vocal about your political and humanitarian beliefs, do you ever worry about negative reactions from people who may disagree with your beliefs? Does it happen very often that you hear from those that don't agree?

Susan: I make my works to be SEEN first. Most people will never take the time to read all that writing, and the piece has to work visually. I figure that if people take the time to actually read what I’ve written, it’s their choice. They aren’t being hit over the head with my opinions. If they dig into the work to read it, they’re making a big effort. I hope that if they don’t agree with me, they understand that I’m entitled to my opinions, just like when people write letters to the editor in the paper. I’m not saying my opinion is better than anyone else’s. It’s a free country, and I’m doing the freedom of speech thing. I hope people don’t ever feel preached at by my work. If they don’t agree with the writing, they don’t have to read it. Just look at the picture!

#15 “The Power Out / Devil” 2006 (detail)
66”h X 69.5”w

Can you tell us about the air pen that you use for the writing on your pieces?

Susan: All my life I’d tried, without success, to make a very sharp, crispy thin line with paint. No success. I could make a fairly good line with an airbrush, but it’s the nature of airbrush line to be a bit fuzzy at the edges, since it’s sprayed on.

In Sept, 2002, I saw a product review of the airpen in Quilting Arts Magazine, and realized this was what I needed. I would be able to finally get such a rich and thin black line, I could stop the time-consuming hand embroidering I was doing over all my writing, and would therefore be able to write a lot more than I’d been doing.

Little did I know how hard it was going to be, to learn to make that little line!

My husband Jimmy bought me an airpen for Christmas, 2002, and I had such a hard time, I was going to send it back! Then I thought about how no one else would care, if I couldn’t get it to work! I would just go back to sewing forever on each piece, and I would be the only one who would know how I’d blown my chance to get free and work faster!

So I kept it and decided to work and work, til I could bust through and get what I wanted from the airpen. Then I would teach it to others, since nobody else in my field could tell me how to make it behave!

By 2004 I added it to what I teach in my work, and even now, six years later, none of my students is teaching it, I think. Maybe I’m the most obsessed-with-it person! ?? But I get permanent lines with pigment, by putting fabric paint through my airpen. And yes, as I’d hoped, I can and do write much, much more than when I hand-sewed over my marker lines. In fact, my writing has gotten smaller and smaller, as I gain more control of the airpen. What a great tool it is for what I do!

#15 “The Power Out / Devil” 200 (detail)
66”h X 69.5”w

How you feel when you are starting a piece, in the midst of a piece and at the completion of a piece?

Susan: At the start I’m scared a bit, as I move from sketch to huge white fabric surface. Getting that first mark on the cloth is scary and thrilling, both. The first few days, when the painting happens, is the best part! Stunning to get that gigantic image up so fast. It feels like falling in love!!!

Middle of the work is when I’m doing all the airpen writing, which involves research on news topics, besides just telling my own life stories. More and more I’m recording current world events on my pieces, so they really are time capsules of our history. That part feels so good, because I’m really digging into what’s going on. It’s a whole different kind of feeling from that dance-like painting at the start.

There’s another stage, where I’m making the backing fabric panel, sandwiching that with the batting and the painting, and then machine sewing the actual quilt. In that stage, I listen to a recorded book a lot more than I normally can. Usually in my life, I can only listen to a book when I’m walking or doing dishes, etc. Now, in this very physical stage of making my piece, I can think about the book’s story, instead of thinking about what I’m painting or writing. (Right now I’m listening to a biography of Queen Elizabeth II, while I’m sewing my Stars on the Water / 5 of Paring Knives piece, about the Gulf of Mexico oil spill.)

When the piece is finished, I’m busy documenting it: photo session, photo edits, writing its statement, putting it on my website, maybe making a blog entry about it or putting an album about it on my Facebook page. I become the geeky historian, like almost all artists have to do with their work. You’re excited that it’s done, you have to take time to document it, and you’re starting to think in your head, about the next piece!

#11 “The Food Scales / Justice” 2008 (remake of a piece that got “stuck” and never finished in 2002.)
87.5”h X 78.5”w

Now that you have completed this series, do you have any ideas rumbling for what is next for you?

Susan: Rumbling? Nope! I’m hard at work on the 56 Minor Arcana cards in the deck! After taking 11 years to make the first 22 card images, I figure I can hope to finish these by 2022!!! I’m working so much faster, since I now use airbrush, airpen, and sewing machine – without most of the handwork. But I’m working much larger, and doing more and more research on the works. Five or six pieces a year is about it, I think. I hope we can get the whole deck published eventually!

In the tarot there are four suits, just like there are in regular playing cards. The Cups are the same as Hearts. Coins are Diamonds. Wands are Clubs. And Swords are Spades. I’ve never, ever preplanned what I’d use of kitchen objects for a tarot card, til I got to making that piece. But years ago I settled on what the four suits would be. Pyrex Cups for Cups; Potholders for Coins; Wooden Spoons for Wands; and Paring Knives for Swords.

Unlike making the Major card images in their natural sequence of #s 0 to 21, in the Minor cards, I’m drawing an actual tarot card at random each time I need to decide what to work on next. I don’t want to know what it’ll be, til after I finish the piece I’m working on. I couldn’t do all aces, then all twos, etc, coz that would bore me. Same with doing all of one suit, then another suit, and so on. Now it’s really exciting to me, to see what card I’ll work on next, since drawing a card is also going to symbolize a card for that time period in my life, that couple of months or so.

In early 2008 I met Dennis Fairchild online and we decided that he would write a book to go with my Kitchen Tarot card images, of which I had almost all 22 major cards done at that time. He’s brilliant, and he’s got a full manuscript ready to go for a huge book. Hay House decided to only print up a tiny guidebook, which they had Denny write, for now. But we both hope our project will take off, and they’ll decide to publish the real book!

In late July, 2010, Denny and I did an interview on Tarot, for two hours. At the end they took two callers, and Denny read cards for them. It was the first time I’d ever heard him read, even though I knew he was really good. I was blown away by his skills and insights. I’m just thrilled that he’s my co-author in the Kitchen Tarot!
#11 “The Food Scales / Justice” 2008 (remake of a piece that got “stuck” and never finished in 2002.)(detail)
87.5”h X 78.5”w
#11 “The Food Scales / Justice” 2008 (remake of a piece that got “stuck” and never finished in 2002.)(detail)
87.5”h X 78.5”w
What is your worst habit in the studio?

Susan: I keep way too much stuff. I need to ruthlessly throw out stuff I don’t need and give myself more room! Isn’t that true of most of us????? I used to keep lots of embellishments, when I was beading, etc. I’ve given away part of that stuff and need to get tough now!

Any final thoughts you want to share?

If you go to our Kitchen Tarot Cafe facebook page, you can see the start of my new project: the first drawing I made for a 78-card series of all the cards. This is the first card, The Colander / Fool: Card #0, done in ink on paper. I drew it Saturday, August 7, and hope to make a new drawing each month, or maybe even each week. They're not reproductions of the actual art quilt card images, but rather are new interpretations in art, using the same kitchen objects as the deck does, to show the tarot symbols in my own voice.

I can't do them too fast, as I'm just now finishing the 6th Minor card quilt, of 56 Minors! I need to keep on track with that, but want to give people a full deck BEFORE 2022! That will be my drawings deck. I'm so excited I've made the commitment to doing this, and hope to soon offer them as giclee prints, etc, from an online printmaking site. So stay tuned.

A Creative Partnership

I also had the opportunity to ask a few questions of Susan's partner in Kitchen Tarot, Dennis Fairchild. Dennis is a best-selling author of more than a dozen books and prediction calenders. He has been reading tarot since he was a small boy. And interestingly, has even been on Broadway in the play Hair has a actor/astrologer.

Here's what he had to say:

Dennis Fairchild

How did the partnership between you Susan come about for this project?
In my 2007 Christmas pile of presents from my sister was a beautiful and unusual 'blank card'
that she bought at her local dollar store featuring an enchanting, very cool rendering of a black cat,
a colander, with a hint of tarot jargon that piqued my love of cooking and card-reading.

Being a tarot card collector and author, I was excited to discover the card artist's name on the back of the card and set out to find her. Google located Susan Shie, and I e-mailed her my order for the deck and book.

When she told me there was neither a book nor complete Kitchen Tarot deck, we
began brain-storming, getting to know each other, and the ball started rolling. My intuition
told me that her's would be a terrific, exciting project to work on—and certain to get
picked up by a savvy publisher.

At that time, I had written over a half-dozen divination titles for, among others, Running Press/Perseus
and suggested to Susan that I pitch her KT cards to them as a gift set with book. We brainstormed for many days, and I sent Running Press the photos and proposal.

While waiting for their reply, I sent some photos of Susan's art to my dear friend Louise Hay, president-founder of the highly-respected Hay House Publishing company. Like me, Louise loves cats, gardening, cooking and oracles. By the end of that week, Louise & company offered us a book deal. And I really started sweating! After all, Hay House is one of the world's best publishers of books-that-make-a-difference. I never considered myself smart or deep enough to ever be published by them. I'm happy that I fooled them! (Just kidding, Lulu.)

What was working on writing the guidebook like?

Dennis: I began bouncing ideas off of Lucky (Susan's nickname) and reading her diary quilt art the night we first spoke on the phone—after all, the Kitchen Tarot was HER baby and I wanted to handle it properly. Although I considered myself to be merely the gift wrap, I was determined that the manuscript supported her vision and be something she'd be happy with.

After weeks of e-mails and phoners with Susan, I started writing about each piece's symbolism and its relationship to classical tarot and such. Doing a read-through about a month or so into it, I thought it was too heady and decided to write more like I talk for a change: more light-hearted than heavy-duty. I, then, heard the book's "voice" and, following the publisher's limited page format, it quickly wrote itself.

How long did your part of the process take?
Dennis: During contract negotiations and before I was assigned an editor, I had already written about 140,000 words because Susan and I envisioned it to be a big coffee table-size, full-color volume. As it ended up, it's now around 14,000 words. (Hey, it is a guidebook, not the Yellow Pages.) I'm happy that its size carries so much real and good material in such a gentle, subtle, and humorous fashion. Plus, the printers did a beautiful job, as did all of our editors, thank you very much!

Generally, I wrote a few hours every day for about 9-10 months. It was early Michigan winter when I began my part on the project—Susan started the Kitchen Tarot 12 years prior—and I was happy to have reason to stay warm inside and watch the snow fall.
For me, the most challenging part of the project was not seeing some of the art until our deadline. But Susan constantly filled me in on her thoughts and progress, and the end product is brilliant! I'm proud to be a part of it.

What was your favorite part of this project?

Dennis: I've been in the writing and divination business for going on 45 years. I (and my astrological birth chart) am very private, picky and select about whom I hang with and what I write about. Meeting and becoming Susan's friend will always be my favorite part of this project. That the finished product came out as spectacular as it did is a bonus.

As a result of our working together, she re-awakened my artistic muse and I started painting and experimenting with other very fulfilling creating venues. She got me away from the computer and into the craft and art supply stores.

And, because we lived far away from one another (we've never met face-to-face!) my intuition was exercised in a manner that it never had been before. It helped me to ventriloquize her words for the book and remain true to her creation, which she says I have.

So, regardless of the paycheck or acclaim, my favorite part of the Kitchen Tarot is having a new friend named Susan Shie: artist extraordinaire!

I would like to extend my deepest thanks to Susan and Dennis for taking the time to answer the questions for this article. You were both so helpful, open and easy to work with! Thank you so much!


  1. Wow, Thank you, Stephanie! This is so wonderful of you to make this blog entry for us and the Kitchen Tarot!

    Please tell your readers to visit our new Kitchen Tarot Cafe facebook page at

    Many thanks, Susan

  2. Wow, what an interesting blog. Susan Shie's work is amazing and how interesting to read of her collaboration with Dennis Fairchild!

  3. I had the pleasure of seeing some of Susan Shie's work first hand at a show in Traverse City and they were F-A-N-T-A-S-T-I-C!!! We looked at the exhibit for hours looking for everything and anything she may have put in the forefront or hide in her paintings. Just loved it. Sure took my mind off of going into the hospital for heart studies!

    Thanks for sharing the interview and the pictures.

    Terri at the Drake's Nest in Ossineke, MI