By Barbara Aggerholm,
Courtesy of the Kitchener-Waterloo Record

ELORA — Shelley Carter’s grandmother knew from the beginning that the boyfriend was no good for her granddaughter.

The playing cards her grandmother used for “divination,” told her there was something not quite right about the fellow Shelley was dating.

“It turned out he was an alcoholic,” Carter recalls.

Years later, when Carter wanted to become a mother, her grandmother took up her cards again after Carter received disappointing lab results.

“She said, ‘You will get your heart’s desire, but there will be many tears before,’ ” Carter says.

“And I have kids,” she says, smiling. “I got my heart’s desire, a girl and a boy. They’re now 21 and 17.”

Carter, who lives in Elora, is an occupational therapist and works as a psychotherapist with a Guelph family health team.

Quite separate from her work life, however, is her passion for tarot cards — inspired by her grandmother’s readings with a common deck of playing cards many years ago.

Two years ago, Carter invited artists from Elora, or artists with connections to Elora, to create a special tarot card deck. The 65 artists who took part created 78 tarot card images, each using their own style and medium.

“Ultimately, I think I just wanted more people to be able to talk about tarot with,” says Carter, laughing. “I love it and I want to share that with people.”

The Elora Tarot Deck was launched Sept. 13 at the Wellington County Museum and Archives where the artists’ originals will be featured in an exhibition until Sunday, Nov. 3.

The exhibit is a good fit for the museum because it’s a celebration of community, history and art, says curatorial assistant Amy Dunlop.

“This show will be very popular,” she says.

Over the last 12 years or so, Carter, a friendly, engaging woman, has done hundreds of tarot card readings for people. She personally owns 150 tarot card decks.

She has also studied tarot cards and learned their history. She has travelled to tarot “hot spots” in Italy, which is considered the birthplace of tarot. She has attended a tarot convention in France and she made a pilgrimage to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York to see the tarot cards from the early 1500s.

“The history of it just totally turns my crank,” she says.

It was in 2011, during a trip to Italy, that Carter began thinking about creating the made-in-Elora tarot deck.

“Lots of people have created their own tarot decks based on traditional cards, with different themes and styles,” she says. “The initial deck was hand-painted and stunningly beautiful.”

Back home in Elora, Carter got a $50,000 loan from ECOH Inc., a company operated by her partner, Mark Lai, that allowed her to produce 4,000 decks and advertise the project. She also received a $500 grant from the Centre Wellington Community Foundation. Then she got to work.

Most of the participating artists chose the card they wanted to illustrate, with some enjoying the “synchronicities” between the card’s meaning and events in their own lives, Carter says.

She offered the artists a reading and explained their card’s traditional interpretation.

The artists then had free reign to interpret, but were asked to keep their work to roughly 45 centimetres by 76 centimetres (18 by 30 inches) in size. The works were photographed and sent to a printer to be made into slightly-larger-than-normal cards to show off the artwork.

The Elora cards — with images created by artists using pottery, oils and acrylics, glass, mosaic, fabric, assemblage or other materials — are beautiful, whimsical, sad, happy, powerful, lighthearted.

Carter created two cards, “The High Priestess” and the “Two of Wands,” with photograph collages that show her daughter and son.

The “Two of Wands” card is “about finding and following your compass,” Carter writes in a booklet that is provided with each set and includes a description by each artist of their work.

“It seemed fitting to feature my teenage son, Severin, as he forges his life path,” Carter said.

Carter’s mother, Joan VanDaalen of Newmarket, Ont., a retired accountant, painted an interpretation of the “6 of Pentacles” card, which represents charity, for the Elora Tarot Deck.

Carter says the deck is as much a snapshot of Elora’s artistic community as it is a tarot deck.

It also contains poignant memories of two artists, Marilyn Koop and Riki Weiland, who died of cancer while the project was underway. Friends of Koop and Weiland created cards using the artists’ own artwork.

The deck also remembers arts patron Rhoda Lipton, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the project before she died, Carter says.

Over the years, Carter says, she has met a variety of people who appreciate tarot cards, including a nuclear physicist and a hydrogeologist.

“When you think of tarot card readers, you think of flaky people,” she says. “Really, they’re incredibly intelligent, creative people.”

The people who ask her for readings have the same qualities, she adds.

Carter says she doesn’t see herself as having “special skills or powers.”

“Most of what I do is self-exploration,” she says. “I explore an issue in their lives. It helps bring clarity to issues and helps you look at things for perspective you don’t normally think about.”

Some people think of themselves as psychic readers, Carter says.

“I think of the cards as another language I’m interpreting.”

The readings result in “enough uncanny synchronicities or coincidences that I can’t explain” to make it intriguing, she says.

Carter wishes her grandmother was still alive to see the Elora tarot card deck and the enthusiastic response to it.

“My grandma would have loved this. She’d be thrilled.”

The Elora Tarot Project exhibition is now on display at the Wellington County Museum and Archives is at 536 Wellington County Road 18 between Elora and Fergus. The exhibit runs to Sunday, Nov. 3.

The Elora Tarot deck can be purchased at the museum gift shop, at the Strata Gallery in Elora, at the Karger Gallery in Elora, at The Bookery in Fergus or online at Cost is $45 for a standard deck and $125 for a special edition deck.

A portion of the proceeds will go the Centre Wellington Community Foundation.