By Way of Introduction • an Interview With the Artist

A short while back, Joan Marie -- founder and webmaster of the wonderful CULT OF TAROT FORUM (you should go there now!) interviewed me by email for the artist's section of the forum, just as it was getting started. That interview is as good an introduction to the whys and wherefores of what you will find here in the hallowed halls of DUCK SOUP PRODUCTIONS as you are likely to get.  Hope you enjoy. And thanks, Joan!

Giving a Tinker's Damn: My Conversation with Duck Soup

There is hardly a Tarot collector out there who in not well acquainted with the cards created by Freder (a.k.a. Doug Thornsjo) and distributed through his wildly entertaining website, Duck Soup Productions. 

Freder’s website not only features a collection of all the gorgeous decks he’s created, (Tarot, Lenormand, Oracle, Playing Card and some others that defy category) but he has written children's books, graphic novels, fiction, and writes and publishes an amazing E-Zine called Sanctum. 

The entire website is a work of art, richly woven with his writings about his decks, his processes, tarot and other topics and then just when you are almost exhausted but all this amazing creativity, you stumble across something like this video about The Tragically Comic or Comically Tragic Tarot of Mister Punch. 

Then there are all the accessories! 

It’s a lot to take in. And the more you dig around the more hidden treasures you find. I’ve never seen anything like it. It's simply full of surprises.

Even the process of ordering his decks is an experience where you often are presented with all kinds of unexpected choices of colors and sizes. 

Duck Soup Productions does nothing half-way. Absolutely nothing. 

I was so excited when Freder agreed to do this interview but I must admit, I hardly knew where to start. I want to thank Nemia for suggesting some excellent questions. I had no idea what to expect and it was no surprise that the interview itself was full of surprises. 
Let’s jump into the Zirkus!

JM: Freder, I’ve spent the last couple of days perusing your website to prepare for this interview and I think you might be a madman. Are you?

DT: Almost certainly yes. But what specifically prompted you to make the allegation?

JM: Probably my own awe at how insanely prolific you are across so many artistic forms. I meant “madman” in the best way. 

What were you for Halloween this year?[/b]

DT: Myself. That’s scary enough. In the past I have been scarecrows, werewolves, ghosts. spectral figures, bat-winged things, clowns and plague doctors. Among other things that go bump in the night. I myself am a thing that goes bump in the night.

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JM: When (and how) did you start with Tarot and with creating Tarot Decks?

DT: I bought my first decks back in my mid-to late teens; but the decks that I started with, although I liked them, were not good decks to learn with. The one I really wanted, and could have learned with, the Waite-Smith, was just not available in my town and this was a long time before the internet. I never really lost interest but I did experience some frustration in the learning. Other interests came along and I ended up not abandoning or losing interest in Tarot, but setting it aside… for something like 35 years.

My mother’s death in 2010 was a real Tower of Destruction moment; an event beyond which everything would change, nothing would ever be the same, and where was I to go from there?

Four hospitalizations for alcoholism followed and as I dried out, old interests started to come back to me. Tarot was among these. I would actually say that it was a very large part of my self-therapy, although unexpected. I worked with Tarot intensely for about a year, and this time I had the right decks. And because I’ve always been a so-called “creative” worker, really it was only a matter of time before I started dabbling with card designs. The exact circumstances under which I started making the Zirkus Mägi designs has been pretty well-documented elsewhere, so I’ll let it go at that.

 The book that inspired the Zirkus Mägi Decks

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From the Tarot of the Zirkus Mägi

JM: What kind of arts training or education do you have?

DT: Above the high-school level, I’m self-educated.

JM: That's amazing. Are there any interconnections between your decks, any “cousin” decks or common threads between them?

DT: Many of them are connected either by style or backstory; in the same way that most of William Faulkner’s novels (and all of the best ones) are connected to each other either by location or family.

JM: Your source materials for the imagery in your cards are a wonder. Many of the images have a haunting quality, but I also sense a kind of wry or dark humor. Can you tell us a bit about where these images and themes come from and how you choose them?

DT: I see cultural history as a great black swamp that’s thick with possibility, and I consider it all fair game. When you go fishing in that swamp, sometimes you get a boot or a spare tire or a tin can, and other times you get a treasure. I go where I want to go and deal with themes that I love. I choose faces that have stories behind them, and to some extent I think of myself as a casting director for a panoramic play. Now as to the humor — I think it was Robertson Davies who pointed out that there are two kinds of people: those who see life as a tragedy and those who see it as a comedy where the joke is on all of us. I definitely fall into the latter category. The people that I don’t get along with in life are the ones who tale themselves and everything they’re concerned with seriously, and who are incapable of seeing the joke that’s behind everything. 
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Some faces with stories behind them.

JM: What is your book collection like?

DT: I have books in every room of my house — and on the stairs. Fiction, nonfiction and everything in-between. But nothing on the subject of “sports.” My house is a “sports”-free zone. 

JM: You’ve created a lot of decks. Is there a tarot card you find especially challenging or difficult to create?

DT:. The Swords can be a difficult suit, particularly the five and the seven, because they are meant to be cards that specifically challenge the reader. The good news is that, because they are so challenging, they encourage a kind of creativity, they ask for creative solutions. They challenge the designer in a good way. The ten of Cups is difficult in a different and less forgiving way, because it’s so banal. I used to feel the same way about the ten of Pentacles, until I figured out at last what it was trying to tell me, and that it isn’t nearly as insipid or banal as I used to believe. But really ALL the cards are a challenge, especially when you’re designing a deck in a specific genre or theme. How do you express the card meaning within the context of the theme you’ve chosen? And I’m always trying to find a way to split with Pamela Colman-Smith while retaining the meanings that she depicted. My nightmare is to be accused of having created a clone deck. I’m always trying to find new ways of expressing the meanings, but I am not always successful, not by a long shot. 

JM: Have you, or would you consider creating extra cards for a deck?

DT: I have done. I put out a whole deck full of extra cards — that’s exactly what the Zirkus Mägi “Midway Arcana” is all about. It started out as a small pack of extras that people specifically requested, and grew into a full 78-card supplement. It can be used on its own as an oracle, or it can be folded in to the regular tarot to create a massive and massively nuanced uber-deck. I’m not sure that every one of those 78 extra cards is successful, but I’m very happy with quite a lot of them.

The Mantegna can be thought of as a whole pack of extra cards, and when I made my version of the Mantegna in the style of my Tinker’s Damn Tarot, I added 27 more cards to _that_ deck. Extra cards are really fun to do, because the restrictions are off. For the Mantegna, I added a full set of Zodiac cards, a set of Moon Phases, some Totem Animals and … a bunch of other stuff that people either asked for, or that I thought seemed useful.

JM: Is there a card that currently does not exist that you think tarot needs to have?

DT: If “need” is the operative word, then no. I think Tarot as we know it has a very complete basic language. There’s always more that CAN be added, just as we’re always adding new words to American English. But need — no. 

JM: Tell us about Sanctum.

DT:. People keep asking me to write about my Tarot decks. Now, as much as I enjoy working with Tarot and as much as I enjoy making Tarot decks (which is a LOT) — that’s how much I HATE writing about Tarot. And I hate writing about Tarot with a purple passion. It seems to me that all the really good books on the subject have already been written, and the world really deeply madly truly does not need any more. And when it comes to my own decks, I feel like they should speak for themselves. The whole point of Tarot lies in the image speaking for itself, interacting with the reader, stirring the reader’s mind and allowing her to form her own connection and relationship with the cards. That goes out the window if I have to sit here telling readers what to think. I’m not in the business of telling people what to think or feel. So there’s that, but there’s also the strong belief I have that once you explain a symbol, it ceases to function as a symbol. All the power just drains away. And I don’t like to do that to my own work.

SO ANYWAY. I came up with the notion of this Mystical Publication which would have Tarot as just one of its subjects. This was my way of forcing myself to write the kind of material people were asking me for, albeit slowly and on the installment plan, while still allowing me to write or publish the writing of others on a much wider range of topics. It’s my version of the great little privately published Mystical periodicals of the late 1800’s - early 1900’s. It’s probably a really stupid, arrogant thing for me to even attempt, but it was … the most creative solution I could think of to the problem. 

1st, 2nd and 3rd Editions of Sanctum

JM: Have you ever written a novel?

DT: Two novels, a book of short stories, and four volumes of comics. All of them are still available at Amazon, with details and excerpts and things like that at my main website.

JM: Your website is gorgeous. It’s also bursting with information and your product line is amazing. Personally I would like one of everything. Would you mind sharing a bit with us about it, how/when was your website and store put together, etc? It's a work of art on it's own.

DT: It’s something that’s grown over time and taken on many forms in the last three decades. To coin a cliche, it’s opposite of peeling an onion: because I’ve been adding layers for years. 

JM: You must have been approached by mainstream publishers, (I am assuming) yet you remain steadfastly Indy in every way. Is there something behind that choice you can share with us?

DT: I have not been approached by mainstream publishers. I have approached them, a lot, and always been rebuffed. At a certain point you get bloody well sick of it, not to say angry, not to say bitter, and that’s when you start to think to yourself, “Well, fuck you, anyway. Fuck you all.” You realize that with the technologies that exist now, you don’t need mainstream publishers. And in fact — you’re better off without them. Pamela Colman-Smith died in poverty, but Stewart Kaplan made himself a very rich man on the back her work. She lived in a world where artists didn’t have the options that they have today. Publishers aren’t in the business to pay creators a living wage. They’re in the business to make themselves and their shareholders rich.

JM: Do you have any decks or other projects currently underway?

DT: Oh my, yes. It’s the only way I can stay alive. I have at least four or five active projects right now. The two active Tarot projects are TAROT DADA and CROOKED WAY TAROT, the latter being my attempt at a full-on Gothic deck. I haven’t been able to do much work on them lately because I’ve been swamped by the tasks associated with the release of TRICK OR TAROT. 

JM: What are you interested in aside from Tarot?

DT: Art, books, movies, music, comics, culture and pop culture. More things than I can keep up with.

JM: What kind of a kid were you?

DT: Silent. I was an Asperger’s kid growing up in a time when the diagnosis did not yet exist. Even today, it’s misunderstood as most doctors can’t differentiate between full-blown Autism (which I was not) and the milder Asperger’s. I’m on the spectrum, but not in the center. My parents dragged me to all kinds of people trying to figure out what was wrong. I was baffled by the world, terrible at verbal communication (still am), and spent most of my childhood isolated in my own little world. Which pretty much still describes me, actually. 

JM: How do you feel about clowns?

DT:They are a much-maligned species of performer, unjustly characterized as creatures of horror by writers and movie-makers who lack both imagination and talent. As an example, Suited Corporate Bastards of all stripes are considerably more frightening than clowns.
 Some of Freder's Clowns

JM: Anything you'd like to add?

DT:. Just that I have never seen such darkness, depression and discomfort in the American Soul as what I am seeing today. Never in my lifetime has the spiritual State of The Union been so depressed. And so far, there’s no light at the end of the tunnel.

So there you have it. Our conversation ends on a bit of a dark note. To me, these final words underline the importance of art. Making and seeing, and talking about art is a positive way for the human soul to deal with world circumstances that feel overwhelming at times. 

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