Interview With Joanna Powell Colbert, Gaian Artist

Plant Healer Interview Excerpt With Gaian Artist

Joanna Powell Colbert

Interviewed by Jesse Wolf Hardin

We’ve long loved Joanna’s beautiful and meaning-full artwork, since we first shared pages in SageWoman magazine long ago… and she was the first artist we thought of when selecting a cover for the maiden issue of Plant Healer journal, and she has appeared in every issue since.  You will be able to meet her in person at the 2011 Traditions In Western Herbalism Conference, Sept. 15-18. You can subscribe to Plant Healer at

Plant Healer Magazine: There are wondrous but accurately portrayed green beings in many of your creations, what do they evoke for you?

Colbert: I love their personalities. I love the “voice” of each plant that is so distinct and unique.  Each one is like a new friend or a new lover, waiting to be discovered. They’re waiting for you and me to enter into “right relationship” with them.

As a student of folklore and mythology, I also love the symbolic resonances of so many plants. I put hawthorn in the hair of the woman on the Lovers card, for example. Hawthorn, of course, traditionally blooms at Beltane in the British Isles (although my experience here in the Northwest is that it blooms closer to the first of June).  So hawthorn links the card to the May Queen of Celtic folklore and the celebration of sacred sexuality. Hawthorn is the May-flower, which was the name of the ship the Pilgrims took to the New World in search of living a more authentic life. So, for me, hawthorn carries the message of Joseph’s Campbell’s famous admonition to “follow your bliss,” especially since it is used medicinally to strengthen the heart.  Even though the hawthorn blossoms are a small detail in the Lovers card, they are intrinsic to the meaning of the card.

Plant Healer Magazine: What were some of the most memorable experiences in your past, opening you up to the numinous natural world?

Colbert: For me, it has been more of a slow unfolding rather than a sudden revelation. I have an early childhood memory of being on a camping trip in the California redwoods, when I was suddenly aware of a shimmering in the woods, of an undulating energy half-seen but wholly felt. It was as if I had stepped into Faery — and perhaps I had. But as a good Sunday Schooler, the only language I had for the experience was that I felt closer to God in the woods than anywhere else. Today I would say I had experienced the Otherworld for the first time — the land beneath the land, the river beneath the river.

During the decade I lived on the island, I studied its natural history with a young woman who was an instructor with Wolf Camp. We would go out for long tramps around the island, and she would teach me about plants that were new to me, or how to recognize the tracks of island deer and coyotes, or what kinds of birds made what kind of nests.  One day we were rummaging around the base of an old Douglas fir tree near the beach and found a cache of crow bones. Delighted with our find, we were headed for home when we passed by an old decaying boat we had seen many times before. We were startled to see that someone had laid the body of a young, dead heron in the boat. There were skulls of other birds and animals in the boat as well.

We both sank to our knees, aware that we were in the presence of the Death Goddess. (Heron is sacred to me as an epiphany of the Goddess in this specific Place.) Then we began collecting cedar boughs and yarrow from the meadow, and made offerings by laying those in the boat. We sang to Her, and to the spirit of the Heron.

I looked up and realized we were on the west side of the island.  Overhead, a turkey vulture glided on the wind. I saw sunlight sparkling on the water (a symbol of the Goddess to me), and remembered all the stories of the Celtic Otherworld as being located in the Western Isles. When people died, they would sail into the West. Something shifted, and I realized I was being given the image for my Death card.

To this day, I consider that old boat to be sacred ground. We never did discover who placed the body of the heron there.

Plant Healer Magazine: You chose Gaian Tarot for the theme of your deck, before or after you started drawing the series of pictures that appear in it?  Gaia is an icon for a living earth, a concept whose resurgence couldn’t come at a better time… what is the story of your connection to the term, and the inspiration to create this deck?

Colbert: The theme came first. I had no plans to create a tarot deck — I had been away from tarot for many years. Then I had an encounter with a woman at a festival in Chicago that made me realize I had a calling and a mandate to create a deck that would bring together two great passions of mine — my love for the natural world with my love for the rich, archetypal imagery of the tarot.

I don’t actually remember how the name “Gaian Tarot” came to me.  It was just, suddenly, there; and I recognized it as the right name. It honors the Great Mother, which is very important to me.  And it gives a nod to James Lovelock’s Gaia Hypothesis, which says that all organisms combine together into a system that sustains life on our planet. The Gaia Hypothesis may be controversial among scientists, but it has given us a useful term for referring to a worldview that honors the Earth as sentient and as sacred.

Plant Healer Magazine: Art is often either adulated or dismissed, in either case a rarified thing existing above or irrelevant to our every day experiences and lives.  Can you recommend ways in which art and artistic sensibility/perspective can be made more a part of life, and our daily existence be made more artful?

Colbert: I think the most important thing to remember — or perhaps to reclaim — is that each and every one of us is creative, just by virtue of being born as human beings. It’s intrinsic to who we are as a species.  We are creating every day, whether or not we recognize it. Our art forms may be cooking, gardening, doing ritual, building community, writing, dancing, making music, being a political activist — can we even begin to count the ways?

Plant Healer Magazine: What advice, warnings or or encouragement can you offer to any of our readers feeling the call to not only appreciate the beauty of plants, but to also paint and draw them?

Colbert: Make time for it! Make time every day for art. Take at least 15 minutes a day (longer, if you can) to sit outside and draw the plants you see. Your sketch doesn’t have to look professional. You don’t even have to show your sketchbook to anyone. Just draw what you see. It will become a meditation, an exercise in mindfulness, and there’s no better way to get to intimately know a plant than to lovingly draw it. Get a good book on basic drawing skills and do the exercises. Take lessons if you can. And practice, practice, practice. It’s more about the process than about the final product. But you will find that, the more you practice, the better your results will be (like anything worth doing).

One of my favorite books on this topic is “Keeping a Nature Journal” by Clare Leslie Walker. If you worked your way through that book, doing all the exercises, you’d have a beautiful nature journal by the time you finished.  And you would know the plant world (and yourself!) so much more deeply.

Plant Healer Magazine: We know what it is about Joanna Powell Colbert’s art that inspires us to include it here.  And what is it about Plant Healer Magazine, that has resulted in such support from you?

Colbert: I have loved, grown and used herbs for thirty years but it’s never been my area of expertise. I know enough to appreciate the herbalists and wise women who have made it their life’s work and who have so much wisdom to share with the rest of us.  Plants, and the people who work and play with them, are really on the front lines of our relationship with Mother Earth as a global community. I appreciate the name of the magazine with its emphasis on the word “healer”, because I believe we all have a mandate to not only heal ourselves and each other, but to heal the earth as well.

Joanna Powell Colbert is an artist, writer and teacher of tarot and earth-centered spirituality. Amber Lotus Publishers calls her one of “the most accomplished and well-loved artists in the Goddess-spirit community.” The Gaian Tarot, nine years in the making, combines Joanna’s love of symbolic, archetypal art with the mysteries of Mama Gaia, the natural world. A Collector’s Edition is nearly sold out, but a mass market edition will be published by Llewellyn in September 2011. All the images from the deck can be seen online at The Gaian Tarot was created during the decade Joanna lived on a small island near Bellingham, Washington. Today she lives in the woods outside town, where daily encounters with the mysteries of the natural world continue to inspire and inform her work.

(Please post and share with all who might enjoy)

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