In 1970 Bea Nettles had a dream while she was an artist in residence at the Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. The ambiguous dream, which was partially inspired by her reading of Arthur Edward Waite’s Pictorial Key to the Tarot, led Nettles to create the first photographic deck. Five long years later her 78-card Mountain Dream Tarot was completed.
Taking its name from the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the Penland School and the prophetic dream that prompted its creation, the Mountain Dream Tarot is an enchanting deck with a folk art sensibility due to its North Carolina roots. Nettles used herself as a model for The Queen of Pentacles along with fellow students at Penland, various locals, friends, and family members (her father portrays The Emperor & her brother is The Hanged Man) to bring the deck to life. This gives the cards an earthy lived-in quality that organically conjures up images of magical mountains, nature spirits and Appalachian witches. The 1970s-period clothing worn by the models as well as the long locks and plentiful facial hair on display add to its folk art ambience.
Nettles’ tarot was conceived long before the use of computers and digital manipulation became commonplace so the process of designing the deck was rather arduous and very time consuming. But with the use of labor-intensive photography techniques, hand coloring and imaginative staging she was able to create a unique 78-card deck that was the first of its kind. Today photographic tarot decks are commonplace, but the Mountain Dream Tarot was a groundbreaking artistic undertaking with a fascinating back story.
The mountain dream tarot came to me in a dream in the summer of 1970. The decision to assemble a photographic set of cards was made in my sleep. I began the next morning at Penland School in North Carolina. I chose models who suited the cards and after reading the card’s description we took a walk to find the right place to make the picture. I wish to thank all those models, many of my friends from Penland, and most importantly my family that helped me for four years…I based my imagery on the classic Pictorial Key to the Tarot by Arthur Waite. My cards are an intuitive, not a literal interpretation of the deck.Bea Nettles
According to Nettles, many strange coincidences occurred while she was constructing her deck. Some of the models she selected ended up having personal stories that reflected the cards they were representing, and her own life experiences occasionally coincided with the card’s evocative imagery. This sense of mystery surrounds the Mountain Dream Tarot.
After making her deck, Nettles went on to create a tarot-based fashion campaign for a Japanese designer in 1990 and her Three of Swords card design was featured on Bruce Springsteen’s Magic album in 2007.
You can currently purchase reproductions of the Mountain Dream Tarot as well as prints directly from Bea Nettles on her website at beanettles.com. Some of the original cards are also on display at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art and published in various books including Bea Nettles: Harvest of Memory and Taschen’s Tarot: The Library of Esoterica, which I discussed last month in The Wyrd World of Occult Encyclopedias.
A 2018 interview with Bea Nettles about her Mountain Dream Tarot courtesy of SFMOMA: