Interview: Wild Cards—Artist David Wilson and the Great Lakes Tarot Deck

Artist David Wilson, Photo Credit Misty Wilson

Fortune favors the bold. Ohio artist David Wilson’s life journey has seen a typical array of ups, downs, and divergent paths, but it all led (more or less) to his latest work for Belt Publishing, the Great Lakes Tarot Deck. Born in Brimfield Township, Ohio, Wilson produced art as far back as high school. First studying film at Kent State University, he later switched to journalism and video production before deciding on an English major. While he enjoyed his creative writing classes, he did less well in his general studies. Nearly failing out of school, he entered the Visual Communication Design program where he found his forte and graduated with a degree in illustration and graphic design.

Not wanting to settle into just any 9 to 5 artist or designer job, Wilson worked a series of part-time gigs, including landscaping, screen printing, and Zamboni-driving. Pursuing freelance work and honing his craft, he eventually created work for The Atlantic, New York Magazine, Forbes, and other magazines, local businesses, and clients. 

Since 2014, Wilson has provided illustrations and art for Belt Publishing and Belt Magazine in Cleveland, Ohio, adorning book covers, articles, columns, and two tarot card decks: the Rust Belt Arcana and the Great Lakes Tarot. With the latter’s October release; publication of a graphic novel written by his wife Misty Wilson—Play Like a Girl (Harper Collins)—this month; and a professorial position at Kent State University, Wilson continues to keep busy and create art with impressive midwestern industriousness. I spoke with him about the new Great Lakes Tarot deck and more.

This isn't your first tarot deck for Belt Publishing, but are the Rust Belt and Great Lakes Arcana your only work in the form? What's the background story on these particular decks?

The Great Lakes deck isn't my first tarot deck for Belt Publishing, but after Rust Belt Arcana (my first tarot deck) I did swear off doing a tarot deck ever again. But here we are.

I'm definitely a novice in the tarot realm. One of the things I love most about being in the creative field as an illustrator and designer is that I get to step into different worlds and learn, explore, discover, and play around with new ideas and experiences. I've done work that's allowed me to step into the world of crusty punk basements, go on music tours in Japan, go fly fishing in New Zealand, and tour Data Centers in London. I feel like some sort of nomad or traveler passing by, stopping in, and learning about amazing things here and there and moving onto something new.

How I stepped into the world of tarot was through a creative partner of mine, Matt Stansberry (who wrote the Rust Belt Arcana book). We had been doing a monthly nature column at Belt Magazine. Every month we would look for some aspect of nature around us, in North-East Ohio, that we wanted to highlight or talk about, and Matt would write about it and I would illustrate the subject. We would go fishing, meet up with rattlesnake taggers, birders, bug people, you name it. The column was a ton of fun, but Matt also wanted to try and write a book. He came up with the idea of using tarot cards as a guide to exploring the world around him and brought me in to do illustrations. Prior to Rust Belt Arcana I had no background with tarot. I'm personally a huge fan of the book and Matt's writings. Originally, we had no plan on making a deck but when we finished the book we asked ourselves—why not? We worked together on the deck and Belt was up for publishing it so we printed copies and they sold more than we ever could have imagined.

After finishing Rust Belt Arcana, I felt like I knew a little more about tarot but it wasn't a super big part of my life like it is for other people. But as an artist, I enjoy the idea of themes and how they dictate our feelings and ideas. Anne, the publisher at Belt, approached me about doing another deck. Originally, after doing 78 watercolor paintings for Rust Belt Arcana, I was not too into it—tarot decks are a ton of work! But the more I thought about it, I really did enjoy the puzzle that is pairing visuals with meaning. It's another one of the reasons I like design and illustration so much—there is always a visual problem to solve. So I agreed and started to put the puzzle together.  

Where did you seek inspiration and how did illustrations for individual cards suggest themselves for the Great Lakes deck?

A lot of time was spent with this question. I've done some traveling around the Great Lakes but by no means am I an expert on everything “Great Lakes.” Luckily for me, we live in an age where information is widely available and a lot of the people I know are experts. It involved a lot of research and asking questions (and pulling a lot that I learned from working with Matt on Rust Belt Arcana). 

I started by distilling the themes and feelings I got from the cards to how I could understand them and tapped what I knew about the lakes first. Then, not wanting the deck to be my singular Great Lakes experience—that would be boring—I had discussions with people who knew much more about the areas than me. Fishermen, friends who clean up the lakes, people who traveled to places I hadn't been, people involved with restoration and industry on the lakes. I also researched people's stories, blogs about the best spots, different species, the history, the industry, et cetera. With this tarot deck, the inspiration came from the cards and a lot of research—it felt less like personal art and more like a research assignment—which I enjoy!

From an aesthetic point of view, I wanted the cards to read and feel completely different from Rust Belt Arcana. For the Rust Belt Arcana deck I watercolor-painted every card. The goal for that deck was to keep the process and final art as organic and earthy as possible. For the Great Lakes deck there were tighter deadlines, so I chose to work digitally. I also knew that working digitally using flat coloring would really help separate my two art styles. 

Do you have a favorite illustration, and can you talk us through the process for creating it?

My favorite card in the Great Lakes deck is The Magician. It's the only card that is really personal to me. Traditionally, the magician card is about success and talent and this idea of not holding back. It's the first card I sat down to illustrate and I took that as a sign that I should be creating this deck. Even though I had reservations, having been burnt out by the prior deck and, as an artist, always having doubt or imposter syndrome about the work I do, the card was nudging me, telling me not to hold back. This visual of regional, native plants blooming from an unfinished face and the idea of allowing ourselves to bloom kind of summed up how I was feeling (do feel) about my art and self—it always feels unfinished or could be improved on but I'm going to go for it anyway. 

Are you a skeptic or a believer? Any Michael Jackson Thriller video disclaimers?

(Laughs) No disclaimers. I am very much a skeptic but what I love about tarot is how universal, interpretational, and diverse the practice is. People use the cards for so many different reasons—to search for advice, collect for the art, discover things about themselves, even use cards as prompts for writing, you name it. And while I am a skeptic, I am intrigued by the unknown of our universe and our search (the how and the why) for trying to explain or live with the idea of the unknown. And I love that there is a set of 78 pieces of paper with imagery and meaning that allows people to ask questions about the world around us.

David Wilson’s website can be found at His Instagram handle is @downpourdw. The Great Lakes tarot deck may be pre-ordered here.

Picture of the author
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.