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This story originally aired in the Oct. 1, 2023 episode of Inside Appalachia.
Appalachia is full of haunting stories and folktales. Now, a Pittsburgh artist is channeling some of those stories into a tarot deck.
Genevieve Barbee-Turner grew up on the Virginia coast but made a deliberate decision to move to Pittsburgh after high school. She started making tarot decks about Pittsburgh lore and issues in the city, such as harm reduction, homelessness and gentrification. Now, she’s expanded her scope with a new tarot deck, “Haunted: A Cursed Appalachian Tarot Deck.”
Inside Appalachia Host Mason Adams spoke with Barbee-Turner about how she got started, and what led her to branch out into Appalachia.
Adams: Twenty years ago, you made a move from a coastal city to Pittsburgh. What attracted you to that area?
Barbee-Turner: My mother’s from Pittsburgh, and so I had visited many, many times as a kid. When I was looking at universities, I knew that I did not want to go to a major city. Pittsburgh was familiar to me. I just decided, “I’ll apply to Carnegie Mellon.” Once I moved here, I remember vividly taking the 54C [bus route] into the South Side, and seeing how the hills were just dotted with all of these beautiful lights. And it felt like, I don’t know, like the sky had just descended, in a way that I’d never seen before.
Pittsburgh is so beautiful. It is such a beautiful place to me, and I just fell in love with its crooked weird streets and its iconic neighborhoods. There is no other city that is like Pittsburgh. There was never really a reason to leave here. I graduated college in 2007 with a major in art and had a pretty good idea that I was going to fund my art habit by working in a variety of different jobs. This seems like the best place to do it.
Adams: How did you get started making tarot decks?
Barbee-Turner: I studied painting, drawing and printmaking at CMU and specifically printmaking. Why am I talking about that? Why is that related to cards? Well, I love this idea of the serial image. And it’s sort of what kind of attracted me to printmaking in the first place. And then I really kind of discovered what my art practice was, I started making art every single day. And one of those things was a project called That’s What You’re Good At. And I would ask people, “What is the thing that you’re good at?” And I would draw them doing that thing. And I just had this flash of, like, this would be so cool as a deck of cards.
Tarot is something that just automatically revealed itself to me. If you’re familiar with the tarot, the Major Arcana doesn’t start with one; it starts at zero, which is the fool card. And then the rest of the cards really is evidence of the journey of the fool through all of these major ideas of the Major Arcana. Like the fool meets the magician, and what does the fool learn from the magician? And the fool experiences death and what happens after that? I saw this opportunity to use tarot as a medium to kind of talk about the things that I wanted to talk about, which led me to create Bridge Witches.
Adams: Would you mind walking through the tarot decks you’ve designed so far?
Barbee-Turner: So when I created Bridge Witches, I knew that there was no way that I could put all of the stories that I wanted to put in there. So I actually designed it with the idea that I would constantly be updating it. So the first one, I really put myself through it with that one, because I’d constantly be thinking, is it tarot enough? Is it Pittsburgh enough? Is it this enough? Is it that enough?
I divided each of the suits into the four directions of the city, and I changed the suits a little bit. Instead of Swords, it was Fences. And in the Fences suit, which would be Swords in a traditional tarot deck, it was all the North Side and it was all winter. I would have all these deep cuts for people that grew up here just wandering around Pittsburgh, then the trees, which is East End, which is when I knew the most because I have lived in the East End since I’ve moved to Pittsburgh. And I just put everything in there, like the zombie card, which is not part of that suit, but is Major Arcana, and was about gentrification [and] alcoholism and millionaire’s row and all of these little tiny things. And I really wanted to include the different immigrant populations that came to Pittsburgh — not just the first colonists but also the different waves and including the more recent waves of folks from Southeast Asia.
Then each iteration, each volume, grows and changes. Like, I wanted to talk about the gig economy. Uber came and the world didn’t change for us here. This investment in technology that was supposed to be so great for the city doesn’t really seem to have gotten anywhere. It’s almost like when the robber barons came in. So I wanted to explore this idea of this history that’s constantly recycling and repeating and echoing in this area, but at the same time, you know, try to be a little celebratory and not just negative and critiquing every little thing either.
Adams: I wanted to talk about “Haunted: A Cursed Appalachian Tarot Deck,” because that’s what made me aware of your work. It’s about Appalachia more than just Pittsburgh. How did you start developing the ideas that are going into Haunted?
Barbee-Turner: Well, I basically kept running into a wall. All I wanted to do is make this deck about Pittsburgh, but there’s all these cool stories that are outside of Pittsburgh. This idea of Pittsburgh living inside of its own universe is just not accurate or real. I guess it was really just this extension of realizing that there’s just so many more stories that I want to make art about that I’m inspired by. And it’s been really hard, honestly, to pare things down.
When I started working on this deck, I talked to Thomas White, who is a folklorist, an archivist, a teacher. He’s written a bunch of books about Pennsylvania folklore. He was like, yeah, when I write these books, I can’t really talk about things in Ohio, can’t really talk about things in West Virginia, because publishers don’t like that. They want everything to be in this nice geographical thing, but that’s not how it works. That’s not how stories work. Especially in this region. There’s all these echoes of stories you hear in other places that have passed through here. They’re from all over the world, right? And then they come through here and spread out and you could actually watch that happen as colonists moved west, which I thought was fascinating. So I wanted to include specifically West Virginia and eastern Ohio. Once I kind of found my footing within that I was like, “Okay, this is perfect.”
Learn more about Barbee-Turner’s art on her website, Killer Pancake Illustration.