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Ted Hsu: From Science Geek to Tarot Artist 

click to enlarge Images from Ted Hsu's Tarot of the Guiding Muse.


Images from Ted Hsu's Tarot of the Guiding Muse.

Ted Hsu is not your typical occult artist. While he has dabbled in art his entire life, when it came to choosing a career, he took on a "real" profession: neuroscience. As happens in life, though, we don't always stay on the path we set out on. The study of tarot can teach us a little bit about such life choices and the weaving of our many destinies.

Fittingly, tarot is exactly what Hsu has been spending much of his professional time on lately. He's illustrated his own deck of tarot cards, Tarot of the Guiding Muse, using his background as a painter and illustrator. His tarot card images are a whimsical, fresh take on traditional tarot representations, utilizing both vibrant splashes of color and the dark, shadowy light that tarot images often contain. Never one to focus on drawing people, Tsu has incorporated sharp yet cartoon-like designs of a woman (his wife) into almost every card, keeping her face a stark black-and-white image with little detail. His work is fun yet a bit spooky, and very reminiscent of Japanese anime.

Hsu and his family immigrated to the United States from Taiwan in the early 1990s. Raised by a single mother he calls "eccentric," they shuffled between different religions throughout his childhood as his mom sought spiritual guidance. "My mom is interesting in the sense that she sort of did a lot of soul-searching," said Hsu. "She is very much into the melding of eastern and western philosophies. It kind of motivated me to be a neuroscientist. As we kind of got into and out of different rules to live by, I thought to myself, 'What better way to understand the intricacies of life than to study the brain?'"

Art was a big part of Hsu's life until graduate school. He took art classes in high school and painted as a hobby in college. But when he went to the University of Southern California for a graduate degree in neuroscience in 2012, his creative endeavors took a backseat to scientific study. Hsu met his wife Emily Nakamoto while at USC and the two moved to Chicago where he did his post-doctoral fellowship, while she attended graduate school. While he still had opportunities to do art, for some years that meant scientific figures, the occasional scientific journal cover and the like. And then, COVID hit.

"Like many, I sort of had an existential crisis during that time. I started doing more art after work and it planted the seed in my head that maybe there was an opportunity to be more serious about art," said Hsu. "But it was just a seed, really. I had always planned on being a scientist for the rest of my life."

When Hsu's wife got a job in Humboldt County as a criminalist with the California State Department of Justice, he had a decision to make. Would he have a long-distance marriage? Would he move into an academic career? How could he make this leap to Humboldt County? The couple spent some time long-distance but they knew it was not sustainable. As Hsu grappled with what to do, he thought a lot about his mentor in Chicago and what he'd taught him about balancing life and family, and not taking the joyous family parts for granted. So he made the leap.

Once in Humboldt, it was clear that neuroscience jobs were few and far between. Hsu found himself with a lot of time on his hands and delved further into art. Soon, he was deeply immersed in the local art community.

"I don't think I would have pursued art if we had moved to a different place," said Hsu. "The people here have been really welcoming and inspiring, and in general just really friendly. I was part of Raelina Krikston's Solstice art collective for about a year or so, and I really credit her support in helping to launch a lot of the things I have been involved with. HAPI [Humboldt Asians & Pacific Islanders in Solidarity] also welcomed us into the community and have supported my art since we have moved here."

Hsu's wife was interested in tarot cards at the time and Hsu saw illustrating all 78 of the cards in the deck as a rewarding project. "They already have some underlying meaning to them," he said. "I found it an artistic challenge to recreate them with my imagery while keeping them meaning-based."

Focusing on online resources and a book called Modern Tarot by Michelle Tea, Hsu studied the tarot cards and their meanings. Grounding his work in the original Rider Waite interpretations of the cards, he started drawing pictures inspired by both the cards and daily life with his wife and cat. Eventually, he incorporated his baby son, too.

"Part of the inspiration for that was this idea of not taking these daily life things for granted," Hsu said. "During my career as a scientist, I sort of took for granted a lot of the things that really, truly make us happy — our families, the time we spend with them, sort of the little day-by-day things. What better way to appreciate these things than to do art inspired by my wife and cats and my now 8-month-old son?"

After about a year and a half of concentrated work, the Tarot of the Guiding Muse deck is now complete. The images of Hsu's family life as depicted on the cards are inspired by Japanese cinematic influences like My Neighbor Totoro, as well as the colors and intricacies of Japanese woodblock printing, and the bold linework of American traditional tattoo art. Describing his work as an amalgamation of these three things, Hsu is proud his deck features an Asian American woman and represents the things he loves so dearly, along with the traditional meanings of tarot.

Thanks to a successful Kickstarter campaign, the Tarot of the Guiding Muse is currently in production. It should be available via Hsu's website and in various brick-and-mortar stores throughout Humboldt by early July.

Tamar Burris (she/her) is a freelance education writer and relationship coach. Her book for children of divorce A New Special Friend is available through her website

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