To know one’s future, they may turn to tarot cards to afford them a glimpse of the unknown. As the reader shuffles the cards, bearing in mind the question of the patron about their future, four pathways uncover their fate. The reader spreads out the cards on the divination cloth placed on the table and asks the patron to pick out the cards that call to their attention; the reader shuffles the cards, stops when their intuition kicks in, cuts the deck in half and flips the cards on top of the deck. The reader shuffles until the cards jump out of the deck or until the patron turns to Nicolas Bruno’s photography to foresee their future by decoding the meanings of the classic Rider-Waite tarot cards through his creative and visual interpretations.
In our previous interview with him, Nicolas Bruno narrated his struggles with sleep paralysis, the state of being conscious in a dream utopia but unable to move and where shadows and figures loom over the person as part of the hallucination, causing them to induce fear which may result in choking and chest pressure. He responds to the paralytic state through his dream journal, where he jots down and sketches the images he has had throughout the occurrence of his sleep paralysis.
Nicolas Bruno was the 2nd Prize winner of the Stocksy United Photography Award in the 2019 Beautiful Bizarre Art Prize.
As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. In her basement, she kept antique model trains and trinkets for me to play with. One day in the storage room, I stumbled upon my great grandmother’s deck of tarot cards. I began to go through them. My grandmother told me to not touch them due to superstition and hid them up on a high shelf.
Inside his dream journal, the monsters terrorizing his nightmares meet his flow of creativity that trickles out from his desire to put his suffering into the grave. The product of his tinkering results in the sultry and dark imagery of his photography; documenting his voyage and battle against the incubus. Photography has paved a way for him to demonstrate what one might see and feel in a paralyzed state.
This year, Nicolas Bruno continues the filament of the waking terror through his recent exhibit at Haven Gallery in New York titled The Somnia Tarot. In this anthology, he sheds light on the seventy-eight cards of the classic Rider-Waite deck used in tarot reading through his signature enigmatic style that manifests mysterious and enchanting photographs. In this exclusive interview with the artist, Nicolas Bruno recounts the project’s point of creation, the history that led him to oscillate to tarot cards, his experience with divination tools, the craftsmanship behind the interpretation of the cards, the designs and props hauled to portray the readings, and the nuances that depict the thread between him and tarot.
Haven Gallery Press// “The Somnia Tarot” a solo exhibition of new work by Northport based artist Nicolas Bruno. Following his two highly successful solo shows, “Between Realms”, 2016 and “In Limbo”, 2019, at Haven Gallery, “The Somnia Tarot” is the artists most ambitious project to date, as he chronicles the entire Tarot Card Deck with all of its suits, through the hauntingly beautiful dreamscape of his sleep paralysis. Bruno uses his quintessential characters, moods, symbolic pillars and backdrops in a breathtakingly poignant adaptation of the Major Arcana and Minor Arcana, totaling seventy-eight new photographs accompanied by three preliminary drawings. This eighty-one piece collection is the artist’s largest series yet and both uniquely and elegantly execute the timeless narratives of the Tarot Deck.
Nicolas Bruno’s artwork confronts his lifelong battle with sleep paralysis. His artistic process represents and records each step of his cathartic journey from drawing the dream the moment he awakens, to building sets and costumes and ultimately inserting himself into the majority of these roles. Each aspect allows for therapeutic healing as the artist seizes control over these common anxieties of fear, solitude, and pursuit that permeate both our sleeping and waking hours. Bruno’s command over these nightmares and anxieties through his artistic endeavors take his subconscious odyssey one step further embracing and expanding into empathy and collective connection.
Interview with Nicolas Bruno
Could you guide us through the creation and photography of The Somnia Tarot? How did the idea come about? Why did you turn to tarot to inspire this art?
As a child, I spent a lot of time at my grandmother’s house. In her basement, she kept antique model trains and trinkets for me to play with. One day in the storage room, I stumbled upon my great grandmother’s deck of tarot cards. I began to go through them. My grandmother told me to not touch them due to superstition and hid them up on a high shelf. Growing up in a Greek Orthodox family, I was indoctrinated to countless superstitions from my great grandmother. This memory stuck with me until adulthood. When I began my Sleep Paralysis photo series in my teenage years, peers gave me recommendations to turn to tarot for inspiration. I entertained the thought periodically, and often dreamed of recreating one or two of the images from the Rider-Waite deck.
When the pandemic began, I was uncertain of what the future would hold. The entire world came to a halt, and I rapidly had to pivot my focus to stay afloat. Creating my own versions of tarot cards had been on the backburner of my mind, but it was not until the pandemic that I felt compelled to execute the project in full. Occupying my headspace with a goal to create 78 images in one year gave me a sense of direction in these trying times. My spirits began to lift as I spent weeks pondering what the project could become. I had found a new way to transform a negative situation into a catalyst for positivity and growth.
How did you prepare for the shoot and production? Could you guide us through your set preparation? How long did it take you to produce the props and designs? How about the location of the shoot? Where and when did it occur?
I spent an entire month researching tarot; ranging from the traditional symbolism to the Jungian psychological analysis of the cards’ archetypes, which helped me identify the key motivations and symbols for each card. After my research, I dove into my dream journals and sleep paralysis artwork from my portfolio to identify the characters and symbols from my dreams that would help me tell the story of the tarot through photography.
I sketched the concept for every image on a large pad of paper, helping me identify the characters, props, and materials that I would need to accumulate to execute each photograph. I began creating the props and costumes, along with reviving existing props from my Sleep Paralysis series to weave into this body of work. I scheduled my photo shoots methodically to maximize the amount of images I could create in one day. I work alone for the majority of my shoots, which proves to be a challenge when carrying large props miles into the woods or marshlands of Long Island, New York.
I averaged creating around three images per photo session, but there were many days where I failed to create any images due to weather or concept issues. I began shooting the first images of the series in March 2020, and finished the last image of the series in late November 2020. This was the largest project I have ever created to date.
I dove into my dream journals and sleep paralysis artwork from my portfolio to identify the characters and symbols from my dreams that would help me tell the story of the Tarot through photography.
Which tarot cards did you enjoy interpreting the most? Which cards did you find challenging to interpret? Which props and designs were the most challenging to create?
Surprisingly, the most challenging concepts to execute ended up being my favorite images from the collection. My philosophy points towards everything appearing within my images has to happen in front of the camera. I model for all of the male characters within the works. This often leads me to perform stunts and strange scenarios to make the ideal piece.
For The Hanged Man, I built a wooden structure and practiced inverting myself before executing the final piece. I tied a rope to my ankle with a loop at the bottom, which allowed me to flip upside down and loop it over the metal hook on the structure. I had residual vertigo from a concussion that happened last year, so it was difficult to stay upside down without getting extremely dizzy. I had a few friends there to spot me in case I got stuck on the hook.
The Six of Swords was also a challenging concept to accomplish. The original card features characters travelling on a boat, but I had already created the Eight of Cups that features a solitary character setting sail into the ocean. The element for the Six of Swords was air, which led me to build a faux hot air balloon for this travel-based piece. I built the hot air balloon basket from scrap wood and an old rug that my grandmother was about to throw out. I lashed long pieces of rope to wooden molding, which made the rope appear taut, as if it was connected to a balloon out of frame. My camera shoots on an interval timer, so I can shoot multiple images and piece them all together at the end the for the final image. This shoot took the entire day, and thankfully it pieced together in a cohesive and believable manner. One day, I hope to be able to rent an actual hot air balloon for a photograph, but for now, I build props with found materials and a bit of imagination.
How about the deck you released to accompany The Somnia Tarot? Has it always been a part of the plan? Why? Who designed the deck?
While I was sketching the concepts of each piece, I daydreamed of creating a card deck consisting of the imagery from the series. I purposely tailored the composition and orientation of each piece to correspond with the ratio of actual tarot cards. When the weather was not favorable for photo sessions, I was extensively researching the process of creating Tarot decks. Over December 2020, I made the decision to self-publish the decks and began designing my vision for the cards. After I created the cards and box, I had my good friend and artist Isabel Epstein refine the graphic design for final proofing. I ran a pre-sale to help the creation of the deck project, and I am expecting to have the physical decks shipping out near late June 2021. I am looking forward to seeing these images enter the world in an entirely new and interactive way, where previously my work has been tethered to frames on a gallery wall.
It will be an interesting experience to see an individual with mastery of the cards explore the world that I have woven together.
Have you tried reading the tarot cards for yourself and other people? Do you want to dabble into tarot card reading? What’s your relationship with tarot and other divination tools?
While I love diving into the historical, academic, and inspirational aspects of tarot, I have not yet tried reading cards myself. I feel a deep connection with understanding the archetypes within the works, and the cards also serve as a source of creative inspiration for me. One aspect of this project that I am eager to experience is watching a seasoned tarot reader work with the images that I have created. It will be an interesting experience to see an individual with mastery of the cards explore the world that I have woven together.
Which three tarot cards from the classic Rider-Waite pique your interest? How did you interpret them in The Somnia Tarot?
My personal favorite cards from the Rider-Waite deck are The Hermit, Death, and The Fool. I am intrigued in the archetypes that they portray, as many of them relate to characters that I love within storybooks and my favorite video games.
I expressed my vision of The Hermit through a grey-cloaked figure, who stands facing the endless ocean during a wild storm. Even though the seas froth before him, he stands stoic and peaceful, grasping his walking stick and burning lantern at his side. This was one of the first images I shot for the series, which took place on a cold stormy day in March. I used blacksmithing to create the lantern within this piece.
I depicted Death through a shrouded horse and rider, who bears the classic Rose of York flag from The Rider-Waite deck. I based this character on the faceless figures that I see within my sleep paralysis experiences. Death is a messenger, and I express this equivalence to the figures within my dreams, who often bring me messages through auditory hallucinations. I used a large fiberglass horse for this image, and I modeled for the shrouded character. This horse makes its appearance again in The Sun, and The Knights of the series. I refused to use a real horse within the series out of respect to animals, while also allowing me to work freely with the silhouette of a horse without harm.
The Fool is known by many to be the main character of the Major Arcana. Because The Somnia Tarot tells the story of tarot through my dream journal experiences, I depicted The Fool levitating from his bed and exiting out of his window into the unknown. He severed the ties that bound him to his bed, clutching his dream journal in his hand to document his journey through the Major Arcana. I built a fake room at the edge of the marshland with constructed walls and fake wooden floor panels. I suspended the bed upright with wire, and I used my hand to balance on a cloned-out ladder to give the appearance that I was floating out the window. This was the first time I have ever constructed a room outside, and it gave me more ideas for the future.
Did you have a playlist during the conception and production of The Somnia Tarot?
My taste in music shifts dramatically, mostly depending what mood I am in. The Somnia Tarot allowed me to live through various characters, scenarios, and experiences, so I found myself listening to music that accompanied the imagery that I would be creating each week. Some of my favorite artists to listen to are Iron & Wine, Gregory Alan Isakov, Fleet Foxes, August Burns Red, Aesop Rock, Florence & The Machine, to name a few. I hope to create imagery for these musicians in the future. My friend and talented musician, Richard Orofino, created a theme song for my series and it is currently featured on my Youtube account.
I am excited to create new imagery, delve into new ideas, and explore what is to come as the world begins to return to normal.
What is next for Nicolas Bruno?
I am in the process of filming my next video documentary with Underhill Productions, where we will be covering my artistic process and experiences with sleep paralysis. This documentary will also double as an art film, where we have created surreal sets and appearances of characters that I see within my dreams. We are hoping to release the documentary in the summer of 2021.
My solo exhibition of The Somnia Tarot at Haven Gallery in New York has been extended until late April 2021, where the Major Arcana will remain on view. A virtual 360 tour of the full exhibition is available for view on Haven Gallery’s website.
The Somnia Tarot card decks are available for pre-sale, and I will be releasing a hardcover photo book of the series once the card decks arrive from the press. I am also developing a few handmade jewelry designs from the series and adding them to the Nicolas Bruno Jewelry line. I am excited to create new imagery, delve into new ideas, and explore what is to come as the world begins to return to normal.