Mapping the Moment With Tarot

How the Art of Images Comes to Life

Graphic Carleen Loney @shloneys

Dawn Upfold sat poised and collected inside an empty white room as gusts of snow fell meditatively outside the Montreal Open Centre, a space used for holistic and conventional therapy services.

Upfold is a medium who practices spirituality and specializes in the art of tarot and reiki healing.

She plucked a card containing the image of a man suspended upside-down on a brown wooden post—the hanged man. The figure in the card was tied by his ankle, wearing stark red tights and a baby blue blouse with his head tinted yellow by a halo.

Its characteristics are designed like a stencil in a colouring book, primed to be analyzed by someone trying to untangle their deepest fears, pains, and desires.

“Most people have problems that they are dealing with on a day-to-day basis, and sometimes the problem is really that they are in a state,” said Upfold, pulling a card from the Rider-Waite deck, gracefully revealing the vivid image with her forefinger.

The tarot deck is said to originate from northern Italy around the fourteenth century, and the suit system began with the swords, batons, cups, and coins. By the late-eighteenth century, decks had spread across Europe and become a craft unto themselves.

“Everyone is telling them that they should make a decision, but maybe it’s not the timing for them, and they’re okay with it,” Upfold continued, extracting more from the burning image of the hanging man.

Upfold had laid, in front of her, a variety of tarot packs—referred to by T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Waste Land,” as a wicked pack—waiting for someone to walk in, sit on the other side, and have a card reading.

Upfold hovered her palm over the hanged man, saying his surroundings will indicate whether a person is stressed or not. “You could see [the message] coming in the cards,” she said, inhaling strongly through her nose.

Tarot has been celebrated for its archetypal and fortune-telling wisdom. Western occultists believed they were instruments for accessing wisdom as far back as ancient Egypt. The completed archetype pack consists of 78 cards and will map an individual’s life in a linear fashion: past, present, and future.

“Within each deck are so many representations of human experience,” said Upfold. As a tarot reader, she will get clients who are grappling with their daily problems, whether it’s parents worried about their children or business people worried about managing deals and relationships.

When shuffled through the gifted hands of a cartomancer, the messages drawn from the images and symbols can evoke an experience or the problem being discussed. “I find [the information] empowers people to make better decisions of what they want to do next,” she said.

Though the messages channeled through the Montreal medium may hit close to home, uncovering envisioned possibilities, she states that a person should be able to practice their judgement. Upfold said the messages can seem like evidence but that it’s important to remind people of their free will.

She considers herself an empath as well as a medium, able to access people’s energies and emotions by getting intuitive messages, as well as messages from what she knows are disembodied spirits.

“I was definitely absorbing a lot of other people’s emotions,” she said of her earliest recognition of empathic abilities.

What she provides to her clients is a new perception of their situation. She warns them that she is not a lawyer offering legal advice nor a psychologist certified to assess a person’s mental health.

“I will refer out if I have a client who needs that kind of care, but some people prefer to see a tarot reader because it’s not really on record,” said Upfold. “Coming to a tarot card reader is, in a way, getting an outside opinion, and to be able to do it with confidentiality.”

Babita Sharma, a Montreal-based artist, was interested in getting a one-card reading. According to the artist, tarot allows people to gain access to their intuition.

“Sometimes when you get a message or an urge to do something, where is that coming from?” she asked. “Tarot is really telling you about what it is that your intuition is asking, and telling you to trust yourself.”

Sharma owns a personal tarot deck that she deciphers herself, helping her to acquire a better understanding of the practice.

Upfold said her abilities as a medium could have a dark side. She had to learn to set the proper boundaries between herself, her career in mediumship, and in her ability to perceive others.

“It’s not appropriate for me to go down the street, have my hands get hot as I’m walking by someone, and say, ‘Hey! Do you have a problem?’” she said. “I really care about privacy.”

After Upfold read for Sharma, Philippa Klein entered the suite for her routine card reading. A professional social worker, guidance counsellor, and massage therapist, Klein also owns and manages the Open Centre.

Klein thinks that tarot is fun, and prefers the Rider-Waite deck over more recent illustrations with fewer medieval binary concepts like nobility and peasantry. “I like the old school deck because I know it well,” she said. “I’m a therapist, so I kind of think of them in a Jungian sort of way.”

She compared tarot to a child forced to decide between two chocolate bars. “The kid doesn’t know which chocolate they want, so you put them both behind your back. I could say, ‘Okay, pick a hand,’” she explained. “‘Oh! There’s the Kit Kat.’”

The same thing may occur when someone has great difficulty making a decision, noted Klein. Tarot can make the choice less stressful, she said, because the image can bring a given reaction or outcome into play, whether it’s anticipated or not.

“Sometimes your cognition gets in the way of your emotional reaction to things,” Klein said.

While an image can be deceitful, the allure of the tarot images is in reinterpretation.

“If you’re looking at your own cards, you look very distinctly at the pictures, and you relate to them, and that’s your subconscious coming in,” Klein said. “You pull out of the card what you see in it or the interpreter gives it to you.”

Klein invoked the Rorschach or inkblot test administered by some psychologists. “It’s looking at an image and letting your subconscious fill it,” she said. “I think tarot cards are really similar.”

A previous version of this article misspelled the last name of medium Dawn Upfold as Uphold. The Link regrets this error.