Art BenevolentDurga

Published on August 7th, 2012 | by Alicia Coombes


Interview with “The Incidental Tarot” Artist Holly DeFount

Local artist Holly DeFount didn’t intend to crank out an original hand-painted tarot deck in one year. She was feeling creatively blocked and had given herself a personal artistic challenge: create one piece of art every single day for a year. She chose the Artist Trading Card format, creating a mini-painting on a card measuring 2.5×3.5 inches. These small works of art are traditionally given and traded amongst artists, but when sold are called “Art Cards, Editions and Originals,” or “ACEOs” for short. Each day she posted her ACEOs, detailing her successes and failures to her Facebook and Etsy pages. She’d give a little background behind her idea and the process, providing inspiration to others while holding herself accountable to her goal.

In a matter of months, it became clear to her audience that many of her art cards resembled tarot. Her cards were full of archetypal imagery, esoteric subjects such as alchemy and numerology, and rich in symbolism. As an artist interested in collecting and reading tarot cards, she had often considered (and quickly rejected) creating her own. However, as the months passed she returned again and again to her accidental project and had finished a complete tarot deck by the end of the year.

Holly’s daily practice not only inspired others and rekindled her own artistic drive, but paved the way for her to finish a project that seemed too daunting to even start. Today, she has funded the first printing of the complete deck, titled The Incidental Tarot, with Indiegogo. She is currently writing the companion book to The Incidental Tarot, which details each card and gives common meanings and background behind the imagery and symbolism of each. She is also finishing her first novel, as well as working on a slightly different artistic practice: creating a new work of art each week in any medium or style.

Art Animal: Which ACEO piece most represents you?
Holly DeFount: I did do a couple of self-portraits within the ACEO challenge, but the one that really resonates for me is the one I did on my birthday, exactly one year after I started the project. It’s called Benevolent Durga, the Hindu goddess who is often shown riding a tiger. I’ve had a really strong vision for a few years now inspired by two events that happened around my birthday – December 27 – in 2007. The first was on Christmas day, when Tatiana, the Siberian tiger at the SF Zoo, attacked some rowdy teenagers and ended up killing one of them. She was shot dead by police, and that tragic event lodged in my consciousness. Two days later on my birthday, [the former Prime Minister of Pakistan] Benazhir Bhutto was assassinated. I feel a deep metaphorical connection with these two events, and the Benevolent Durga was the first art piece to come out of that connection for me. I see them both as powerful, majestic females shot down in their prime, and have taken them on – in their positive aspects – as my personal totems to some degree.

AA: Do you have one that you would never want see again?
HD: I do have a handful of ACEOs that really gave me grief at various times over the project; but oddly enough, they are frequently the pieces that my audience loved. So even though looking at them now kind of makes my skin crawl, I can understand that there is an appeal in them beyond my aesthetic. So that’s a nice artistic validation.

AA: Do you have one that gives you warm fuzzies?
HD: I have a couple of favorites – warm fuzzies, if you will. One of them is one of the tarot cards – The Empress. She is just exactly what I intended to express: warmth, nurturing, beauty. She has a welcoming quality that I just love. The other is called Familiar, a kind of fantasy piece: a white, blue-eyed cat with wings. Very whimsical and happy-making.


AA: You say you didn’t mean to start out making a tarot deck, but that your audience noticed it happening before you did. How long did you resist before giving in to your fate?
HD: You know, the calls for a tarot deck were coming in within the first couple of weeks of the project. I scoffed for about two months, thinking there was no way I could pull together a cohesive theme for a tarot deck with such spontaneous and “incidental” drawings. But the more I listened, and the more the drawings came out, the more I realized that my style and my intuitive creativity were the theme. And so The Incidental Tarot was born. I think I made the conscious commitment to do the deck sometime in April, about four months into the challenge.

AA: Were there ever points in the year when you nearly quit one or both projects altogether?
HD: I never thought I would quit the project. Either one, actually. Which is odd because I am a classic “almost-all-the-wayer.” But having the audience see my work every day and come to clamor for it became an automatic motivator. Even on my worst days when I was ready to pull my hair out, the feedback I got from them was so rewarding and encouraging – I wouldn’t dream of letting them down. It was a great accidental way of becoming accountable to my commitment.

AA: You say you’re an “almost-all-the-way-er.” Are there any other projects that you’ve worked on for years that you’ve gone back to after this challenge and wrapped up or finally finished with new focus?
HD: [Laughs] Well, yes, my as yet unfinished novel comes to mind. The eternally present and beckoning pull of the narrative in my head. The beauty of the ACEO project was that I could complete it in baby steps every day, and I was largely accountable for what needed to be produced along the way. The bigger projects, the projects I have put the most intention and planning into are the ones that get lost in the dark annals of my mind. But I still have hope!

AA: Which card was the first one you made specifically for your new project-within-a-project?
HD: Coincidentally, the first card I consciously drew for the deck was The Red King – also happens to be the first numbered card of the Major Arcana. Not sure why I picked him to start with; each day I kind of dipped my hand into the virtual hat and picked out what I was going to draw on a whim. I rarely planned to do certain cards or ideas on specific days. But I guess it is apropo, since The Red King is about manifestation and the power of the creative will.

AA: What made you deviate from traditional tarot decks – changing the suits, adding the talismans, changing certain major arcana?
HD: What can I say? I’m a rebel! No, actually, most of my deck is based on very traditional meanings of the cards (even though the illustration concepts are largely original). Tarot is an archetypal symbolic language that sort of evolves around a couple of different schools of thought; mine are largely drawn from the Rider-Waite [tarot deck] perspective. I did add my own angle to many of them, either based on my understanding of the esoteric elements – earth, air, fire, water – or on numerology. I also drew from some current events for many of the cards; for instance, my version of the Tower, called Phoenix, was directly inspired by the earthquake and nuclear meltdown in Japan last March. Even before I had committed to doing the deck, I knew that image – that event – resonated perfectly with the destructive and cleansing nature of the Tower. And I do like to add my own twist to things. Everything needs a little shake-up every once in awhile.

AA: One thing about your deck that I rarely see in other tarot decks is your expressive numbered pips, displaying the suit of the card. You do such a great job of conveying the symbolism of the card through the minimal structure of number and suit. What made you choose to do this instead of designing more intricate artwork or more stark layouts of numbers like many other tarot decks?
HD: You know, it just happened to be the most efficient way of portraying the energy of the cards in the amount of space available. Since each drawing is only 2.5 inches by 3.5 inches, I really couldn’t illustrate an active scene for each of them, as many traditional decks do. I tried very hard to get as much potency into each card as possible, while keeping compositions simple and bold. Also, for me, I think many of the more complex scenes in other tarot decks actually distract from their overall effect, making you overthink their interpretations and try to apply them to very specific circumstances. The magic of “reading” tarot cards comes from letting them speak through your subconscious in a very fluid way. Overly complicated or detailed scenes can get in the way of that flow.

AA: How many decks have you sold? Would you ever endeavor to create another deck from scratch?
HD: I’m terrible with numbers – I haven’t counted – but it looks like I’ve sold about 300 or so decks retail, including the pre-orders from the Indiegogo campaign. We are going to be distributing them wholesale to stores and catalogs as well, though we’re just getting around to that aspect of the marketing. The first few months have been spent “introducing” the deck to the tarot community, building the website and polishing up the manuscript for the companion book. As for ever doing another deck – I certainly wouldn’t rule it out, but I can guarantee you it won’t happen in less than a year ever again!

AA: Have any of your other ACEOs inspired other projects? Have you made artistic cards of future/past characters you’ve written about, or drawings that manifested into other artwork?
HD: As yet, I haven’t really adapted any of the other ACEOs into other projects. I just recently finished the manuscript for the companion book to The Incidental Tarot, and that has taken up a huge chunk of my creative brain since I finished the deck itself. So I’m just now getting back into a space where I can create new things again.

AA: What’s next on your artistic horizon?
HD: As I mentioned before, I have this nagging novel that is begging to be finished and illustrated. It is a “mytho-real” story about an incarnated Celtic goddess and her adventures over a thousand or so years. It’s about 2/3 written and still needs a lot of revising and editing. But I plan to do NaNoWriMo [National Novel Writing Month] again this November, and I really, really hope I can at least finish writing the story this year!

To learn more about Holly’s The Incidental Tarot and her other artistic projects, visit To purchase a deck or print of her artwork, check out her Etsy shop: You can follow all of Holly’s artwork and musings at

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About the Author

Alicia Coombes is a dramaturg, director and writer. Growing up in rural Oklahoma as an outsider with a flair for the dramatic, she wasn’t exposed to very much art or theatre outside of rodeos and Halloween Hell Houses. Luckily as a teenager her family returned to the Bay Area and she quickly immersed herself in more arts and culture than she had imagined was possible. She still has a particular soft spot for the dramatic (and clowns, perhaps from the rodeo days). She graduated from San Francisco State University with a BA in Theatre with an emphasis in Dramaturgy. She was Aurora Theatre Company’s Literary Manager and Artistic Assistant for four seasons and served as resident dramaturg for the 2011-2012 Season. She has worked in many aspects of the theatre with several other Bay Area companies including Crowded Fire Theater, Marin Theatre Company, Z Space/Word for Word, Golden Thread, Woman’s Will, and CalShakes and is currently the Company Manager for San Francisco’s foolsFURY Theater.

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