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Novato artist’s hare tarot cards a balm during the pandemic

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    Novato artist Melissa Woodburn calls her tarot card "The Tower" “the card of total destruction."

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    Melissa Woodburn has spent the last few years working on hare pieces.

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    "The Sun" by Melissa Woodburn

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    "The Moon" by Melissa Woodburn

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    "The Empress" by Melissa Woodburn

  • Courtesy of Melissa Woodburn

    Melissa Woodburn considers "The High Priestess" her card.



While studying at the Berkeley Psychic Institute in the 1980s, Melissa Woodburn learned how to read tarot cards. She was immediately drawn to the form of divination, finding meaning and depth within the cards and their colorful imagery, while also being struck by the unique beauty of each deck.

But after years of raising a family and working on her art, the cards became a distant memory until she saw the call for “tarot-related art” for a show at Berkeley’s ACCI Gallery in late 2019. Inspired, she started working on “Scenes From The Leporid Tarot,” her 22-piece pandemic series of ceramic bas relief tarot cards where hares are the main characters. That inspired her artistic pivot.

“People go get a tarot card reading to get unstuck. That’s why it worked so well for me in the pandemic, as I was working on getting myself unstuck from all the emotional things that I and the world were going through,” she says.

Her tarot pieces will be shown outdoors at her Novato home as part of the Marin Open Studios from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 7 and 8. This will be her 18th year participating in the annual arts event at which people go on self-guided tours of Marin County artists’ studios and arts organizations. This year, it will run this weekend and May 7 and 8 throughout the county. A full list of artists, maps and more can be found at marinopenstudios.org.

Marking the times

Looking back on the series, Woodburn is struck by how healing creating the tarot cards have been for her these past few years, as well as how the cards were markers of things she and the world were going through at different stages of the pandemic.

One of her earlier works, “The Tower” — she describes it as “the card of total destruction” — was stuck for two months during the initial lockdown at the shuttered Terra Linda Community Center, where her pieces are fired in a kiln.

“When I got it back again, I thought, ‘This is so prophetic,'” she says. “Probably the lowest part of the pandemic was when my 14-year-old dog died on the first anniversary of my mom’s death — she died right before the pandemic started. That was the time I was rolling into ‘The Death’ card and I got to really kind of delve into the energy of death and how it’s an ending but also a beginning at the same time.”

But, there were cards that sparked joy and happiness, too, like “The Sun,” a bright and colorful piece that she worked on when vaccines were first coming out and “we were turning the corner into hopefulness”; “The High Priestess,” the card she considers to be hers, and “The Moon.”

“With ‘The Moon,’ I see that as a gentle place of solace, where you are kind of alone with your thoughts and I know for me, during this whole pandemic, I have always been so heartened that the moon kept its cycles, that spring would come, the flowers would unfurl, those things would keep going.”

For her pieces, she’d start out with looking through her three tarot card decks at home and then do online research on the cards, seeing how people interpreted them and their messages, before finding her own artistic meaning in them in a meditative-like process.

“I found them a good and healthy way for me to move through the isolation,” she says.

Love of nature

Woodburn, who has always been drawn to the natural world, accidentally fell into working with hares a few years.

“My husband and I put in a low-water pollinator garden. One morning I went out there and two large jackrabbits had eaten it all the way down. I thought, I need a scarecrow hare and I started making these big life-size jackrabbits with a glazy, metallic finish and I ended up making like 12 full-size jackrabbits, same metallic finish but all different poses,” says Woodburn who was also drawn to their more complex shape with their big ears.

So, when she started making her tarot cards, it seemed like a natural symbol to continue.

Woodburn’s love of nature began at a young age. After moving to the Iowa countryside as a child, her dad bought her an old retired quarter horse for around $100 and she spent a lot of time going for rides, reveling in her independence and reflecting on the world around her.

“I am really inspired by cycles of nature, and I was one of those kids who always drew,” she says. “I could really appreciate the cyclical nature of things as I was riding around. I remember at one point lying on the back of my horse bareback and it was eating and I was staring at the sky and looking at the depths of the blues, thinking this is really cool.”

After getting a bachelor of fine arts at Wittenberg University in 1975, she worked as a graphic designer for 15 years before returning to her own artistic practice, first working with pine needles in 1996 and then ceramics in 2001 as a way to heal after the violence of 9/11.

Just like with a tarot card reading, she knows everyone will view her cards differently.

“I think people will see different things in them, depending on where they are coming from or what they are interested in,” she says. “People look at them for quite a while, because there’s so much to see in these 14-inch tall pieces.”


What: Marin Open Studios

When: April 30 and May 1, 7 and 8

Where: Throughout Marin County

Admission: Free

Information: marinopenstudios.org

More: Melissa Woodburn’s pieces will be shown from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. May 7 and 8 at 1075 Calle Empinado in Novato

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