The City Gets Carded 

Using familiar local places, faces and a pair of famous hands, the Richmond Tarot Project turns the future into art.

click to enlarge As part of the seventh annual Carnival of 5 Fires, you can see a photographic reinterpretation of the tarot with local imagery such as Meg Weckenstein at Belle Isle. This is a re-creation of the Star card, which represents renewed hope and discovery.
  • As part of the seventh annual Carnival of 5 Fires, you can see a photographic reinterpretation of the tarot with local imagery such as Meg Weckenstein at Belle Isle. This is a re-creation of the Star card, which represents renewed hope and discovery.

Does using a world-famous feminist as a hand model in your indiegogo crowd-funding video make a difference if you never identify her? Probably not. What about if you use her personal tarot cards for your art project?

Carly Romeo, a Roanoke native and University of Virginia graduate, should find out when she unveils "Richmond Tarot Project: the Greater Secrets," a photographic interpretation of the traditional tarot major arcana set at 22 familiar Richmond locations. The staged photos use local models such as Plan 9 employee Rob Shelley ("The Emperor"), Bio Ritmo ("Judgment") and pop musician Prabir Mehta ("The Fool").

"We matched people based on what cards they most related to," Romeo says.

Oh, and the cool trivia part: Romeo, an amateur photographer, and friend Emaleigh Franzak, credited with art direction, modeled their series on a deck given to them by another of Romeo's friends and clients, the prominent feminist writer and political figure Gloria Steinem.

Romeo, 27, got to know Steinem while living in New York and working for Soapbox speakers bureau, which books mostly feminist speakers. They shot the homemade fundraising video in Steinem's spacious Upper East Side apartment.

"Those are her hands doing the tarot cards in the video," Romeo says. Steinem had never read tarot cards before so Romeo talked her through it, she says: "She was a little worried about her hands being too long and narrow."

Steinem did possess several tarot decks that had been given to her as gifts in the '70s, including unusual round cards, which she gave to Romeo. The specific deck used was the Rider-Waite-Smith deck, originally published in 1909. Pamela Colman Smith illustrated the cards and often isn't credited, Romeo says.

The "Richmond Tarot Project" is part of Gallery5's seventh annual Carnival of 5 Fires — a wonderfully quirky, cultural oddity throughout October that this year features only female artists. The First Fridays kick-off, with burlesque dancer Deanna Danger as host, will include a circuslike array of fire performers, DJs, local artists, live music and appearances by Richmond Burlesque Review, Voix de Ville Follies, and the new Manchester art collective known as Lovebomb.

Romeo first got into tarot cards through her mother, who she describes as "very religious, very Catholic," but who was still into the mysticism of the tarot. Most agree tarot began as card games in 14th-century Europe, though some trace the origins to the sixth century in the Middle East. Eventually, mystics and occultists used the cards for divination purposes. "Some people look at them as providing a mirror for your life," Romeo says. "My Italian grandmother believes in them."

Part of Romeo's continuing fascination has to do with the broad appeal of the cards through the centuries. "The royals, the gypsies, the Protestants and Catholics used them," she says. "Even academics like Immanuel Kant wrote about them."

Last February, Romeo decided to move back to Richmond and telecommute with her job because she missed her friends and the city. She started the project partly as a way to explore new and old areas of Richmond.

"We shot at Deep Run Park in the West End," she says. "I had never been there before. We found a makeshift kids' tepee there that was perfect. There are so many hidden gems in Richmond." Other locations included Texas Beach, Belle Isle and Pony Pasture, as well as the Byrd Theatre ("The Sun"), Hollywood Cemetery ("The Devil") and the State Capitol ("The Lovers").

"We were amazed at how helpful everyone was," says Franzak, a full-time elementary school teacher. "People bent over backward to accommodate us."

Usually when reading the tarot you pick the cards randomly, but Romeo hopes that by viewing the photos on the wall at Gallery5, attendees will be drawn to specific cards. She describes the show as "like an immersive 18th-century Italian bazaar," with local catering by Everyday Gourmet, jewelry by Obscuro, and yes, her mother will be coming from Roanoke to read people's cards.

"She did tarot readings at parties for a while but she had to stop," Romeo says. Apparently they were too accurate, she says, "and people were crying." S

"Richmond Tarot Project: the Greater Secrets," presented by Carly Romeo and Emaleigh Franzak, has an opening Friday, Oct. 4, at Gallery5. The exhibit runs through Oct. 29.



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