A Southern Gothic Tarot Experience
Interview with artist and creator of the Southern Gothic Oracle deck
by Nevada McPherson
I first came across the work of Tennessee-based artist Stacey Williams-Ng on Instagram and was immediately intrigued by her unique and magical new tarot deck, the Southern Gothic Oracle (SGO). Since I’m a fan of all things Southern Gothic and have long been fascinated by the images and messages of tarot, this new twist on an old esoteric practice and its connection to Southern folklore made me want to know more about its creation—and creator.
I caught up with Williams-Ng just as she had finished shipping out hundreds of SGO decks right from her home in Memphis, following her phenomenally successful Kickstarter campaign. Her new deck leaves room for card readers to gain insight into life experiences through beautiful imagery and a connection to the South’s rich storytelling and mythic traditions.
Nevada McPherson: What first sparked your interest in tarot?
Stacey Williams-Ng: First of all, let me say, I have never before claimed any professional expertise in tarot. I read for myself and family, that’s about it. So what first sparked my interest? I was first interested in the idea of archetypes, because I consider myself a storyteller first and foremost. For years, I had only a passing interest in the idea of cards, but once I made the connection that tarot cards were based on visual storytelling and ancient archetypes, I was smitten. I bought a deck and then another deck and then a book and then another book … and a new obsession was born. I like pictures, I like weird things, I like history, I like symbols. Tarot is a beautiful mix of all that.
NM: What made you design your own deck and how did you decide on the Southern Gothic as your theme?
SWN: Any card lover will tell you, once you’ve bought and used one tarot deck, it won’t be long before you’re hunting for another one. There are hundreds and hundreds of them out there, and it seems like you can find one in every possible theme: dragons, fairies, animals, anime, you name it. So, I thought I’d love a Southern Gothic tarot deck, and there wasn’t one. And this happened at a time in my life where I was seeking a new creative chapter and also a way to connect more deeply with my Southern ancestry, so this felt like a calling from deep in my spirit. I never even considered NOT doing it once the idea rooted itself in my brain. I would do it well or I’d do it badly, but dammit, I was gonna do it.
NM: What Southern writers and folklorists most inspired you in the creation of the Southern Gothic Oracle?
SWN: Great question. So, as you know, “Southern Gothic” refers to a literary genre. I am sure many people discover my card deck and expect to see references to William Faulkner or Toni Morrison in it; they will not find that. I address this in the book as well. I am a big lover of Southern Gothic lit, which is why I sort of latched on to that title, but the truth is that my oracle cards are based on the esoteric practices and spiritual folkways of the South: symbolism from hoodoo, conjure, rootwork, Appalachian and Celtic beliefs and Ozark folklore. As for authors, I leaned more on anthropologists and folklorists than fiction writers; nonfiction writers like Tony Kail, Katrina Rasbold, Via Hedera and Aaron Oberon. My editor, Michael Lucero, is a specialist in the folklore of the coastal South, and he’s been an invaluable resource to this project.
NM: Your tarot deck features images familiar to many folks and some that are uniquely Southern. How did you decide on these specific items to represent ideas and facets of life experience in the Southern Gothic Oracle deck?
SWN: I started with feelings and human situations first. I thought about how when a person reads from tarot cards, they are presented with a wide variety of possibilities that are universal to the human experience: love, a new journey, jealousy, fear, stagnation, progress. I wanted to choose a wide variety of experiences too so that I could provide a full experience to future readers. So, I started with that. I literally made a list of feelings and of life lessons. I tapped into my own life and what little wisdom I have accrued. What could represent love? What might represent courage? What would represent deceit? And the images just came to me. The fact that these objects and places were uniquely Southern was easy. I may have lived outside the South, but my family and ancestry goes way, way back in Tennessee, Mississippi, Arkansas and Louisiana. As in back to the 1700s. I can’t help it.
NM: Judging from the product reviews and comments at your Etsy shop, interest in the Southern Gothic Oracle extends well beyond the Southern region and even the United States. What do you think it is about the motifs and archetypes of the Southern U.S. in general and the Southern Gothic in particular that captivate people in other parts of America and the world?
SWN: Oh my gosh, it’s amazing! For the longest time, I was like, ‘Why is this Canadian buying my card deck?’ Then dozens more Canadians started ordering, and I realized it wasn’t an anomaly. I’ve sold as many decks to places like Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, as to Philadelphia, Mississippi. Not to mention Austria, Korea, Italy, New Zealand and Tasmania. It’s wild. All I can tell you is I’m not the first one to learn that Southern culture is eminently exportable. They listen to country music in Singapore. They eat grits in Portland. French people love blues, R&B and hip-hop. The world thinks we’re interesting, I guess.
NM: Traditional tarot uses specific layouts such as the Celtic Cross and Tree of Life for readings, where the position of the cards indicates past and future, both near and distant, and the present. Can the same or similar layouts be used for the Southern Gothic Oracle or do you recommend a different approach to readings?
SWN: I have suggested layouts in my book, but honestly I think the beauty of oracle cards is that they are totally open to interpretation. Plenty of non-card-reading people love to just draw one card, then look it up in the booklet— almost like reading a fortune cookie. For more advanced readers, I suggest two- or three-card layouts. Personally, I don’t find that oracle cards are well-suited to complex 10-card spreads like the Celtic Cross. However, I love to recommend my oracle cards to tarot readers who think they might like to give an ancestral insight to one of their querants, especially if that querant has Southern roots. This card deck has strong mamaw wisdom, let me tell you.
NM: Your artwork is now being featured in galleries, including a recent exhibition in Memphis. Who are some of your favorite artists and/or artistic influences?
SWN: In terms of illustration, I am a huge fan of Maira Kalman and the botanical illustrator Laura Garcia Serventi. I have a crazy collection of Edward Gorey books— I’m obsessed with his ability to tell a visual story. I have at least a dozen street artists and comic artists who I love, also … edgy, contemporary art forms obsess me more these days than old paintings in museums.
NM: As an artist, Southerner and someone who knows the culture, literature and folkways of the South, would you give us your definition of the “Southern Gothic aesthetic?”
SWN: Yes. Go find a picture of Flannery O’Connor in her yard with one of her pet peacocks. Go find a picture of an abandoned, decaying mansion. Find a closeup shot of an African-American woman, with a defiant and courageous face, a creepy snake-handling preacher in the hills. Southern Gothic—the literary genre, anyway — is about the thin façade of gentility that the South likes to put forth, even though there might be menace, sickness and decay beneath the surface. It is rooted in the era of Reconstruction, when anti-black racism was beyond horrific, and Southerners of all stripes were thrust into poverty. The sheer extremity of that place and time threatened to define us as a people, but we have grown from it and continue to evolve toward a brighter future. Sometimes, it feels cathartic to stare at that decay, and that’s where our obsession with Southern Gothic is rooted. P.S. It’s not black witchy dresses. That’s goth.
NM: If you were to offer a piece of advice to those new to the world of tarot, tarot decks and personal readings, what would it be?
SWN: Trust your own intuition. Pull the cards, have a look at them and study the pictures you see. Ask yourself questions about what you see and what each one might mean. If you’re truly a beginner, you might buy an oracle deck because the images are easier to decipher. Sometimes, it’s easier to consider a Raccoon Card than the Five of Pentacles. Is the message of the Raccoon Card about being a survivor? About being curious? It’s up to you to interpret it in any way that feels right to you. Often the card decks come with guidebooks as well.
NM: One final question: Have you ever had any paranormal experiences? If so, could you tell us about it?
SWN: Are there Southerners that haven’t? I mean, come on. Speaking of which, I recently created an expansion pack of Southern Haunts, which is a nine-card packet to shuffle into your Southern Gothic Oracle deck. It features iconic cryptids, monsters and ghosts from the South. Mothman is in there, as is a Conjured Spirit and the Bell Witch of Tennessee. It’s a fun and creepy way to add some darkness to the card deck … to use these legends to find within them the cautionary tales for our own lives.
You can find Stacey’s work on Instagram @southern_gothic_oracle, her website www.staceywilliamsng.com and at her Etsy shop, La Panthere Studio.
Nevada McPherson lives in the Southern Gothic town of Milledgeville, Georgia, home of Flannery O’Connor and once site of the world’s largest “lunatic” asylum. She recently completed Poser, a novel (first in a series) set in the noir corners of Silicon Valley. A graduate of LSU’s MFA Screenwriting Program, she’s written several award-winning screenplays, stage plays, graphic novels, nonfiction pieces and countless to-do lists. Examples of her visual art, photography and crafts can be found at her Etsy shop, Noisy Muse, and at her website. You can see her previous work for Deep South here.