Brian Williams by Tom Tadfor Little
I should begin by apologizing in advance to any readers who are expecting this to be an objective assessment of Brian Williams's contributions to the
field of tarot. It is, instead, a personal tribute to a man whose work and friendship have touched me deeply, and indeed helped transform my life.
I "met" Brian when I joined the Tarot-L mailing list in 1997. I was a complete novice at tarot, but the on-line conversations propelled me to learn at an accelerated rate. Brian had just finished writing the companion book to his Renaissance Tarot deck, and so I decided to buy the set, mostly out of an interest in his use of classical mythology in the deck. But when I began to study the cards, I found them extraordinarily special. Brian's style pays loving homage to Renaissance and mannerist art of centuries past, but is also thoroughly modern and bears a personal style that is lively, confident, and utterly unique.
But beyond the beauty of the work, what captivated me most was Brian's vision of humanity. The women in his cards are imbued with classic beauty and a kind of deep spiritual dignity that is almost impossible to describe. They are goddesses--evoking both empathy and reverence simultaneously. We live in a society which has so long objectified women sexually that dehumanization seems to be the inevitable attendant of female beauty, no matter how artists and photographers might struggle to assert their own values against that pressure. But Brian's goddesses break through that pathological pattern and give us images of femininity that are esthetically exquisite but yet potently independent and spiritually self-contained.
Conversely, Brian's men are not the rigid heroes and islands of emotional impenetrability we expect from our stereotypes of masculinity. Even as they wear armor, carry swords, and pose confidently in their scenes, they reveal their vulnerability and their humanity. These are gods who do not recoil from a gentle touch, and who know the silent, tugging waves of love and friendship. Once again, the stereotype is broken and something astonishingly authentic and genuine spills up through the fractures.
It is easy and trite to attribute the strength of Brian's women and the gentleness of his men to his own sexuality, and indeed that must be counted as one of the gifts that underlies this special way of seeing people. But there is something even more special at work here--a spiritual capacity to approach all of humanity with love, understanding, admiration, and depth.
My own spirit resonates with this vision in a most profound way, so that through his cards I feel I am given the opportunity to see my fellow men and women as I was meant to see them. Working with the Renaissance Tarot has helped me find my authentic self, and there is no greater blessing, no greater gift, than that.
Brian Williams is an avid student of art history and Renaissance culture, with a special passion for Italy--its language, art, and people. He knows more than any other popular tarot writer today about the cultural milieu that gave birth to the first tarot decks. One might expect, then, that his books would bring that great knowledge to bear on impressing the reader with a particular vision of the philosophy and motives of those who designed the first decks. Indeed, this is the approach taken by virtually all of Brian's predecessors in the study of tarot origins, from the 18th century onward. But Brian, with characteristic gentle grace and humility, instead simply invites the reader into his world, a world full of archetypes, parallels, connections, and ubiquitous cross-cultural expressions of a shared human spirit. As close as he walks with the inventors of the tarot, Brian refuses to kill its mystery by claiming to speak for them. Instead, he reveals the tarot as it truly is and always has been...a living thing, a bubbling up of image and truth from the deepest places of the collective human soul. He delicately, lovingly, deflects our attention from his own knowledge and expertise and lets it shine upon the great web of human culture, of which we are a part.
I've only touched on his art and writing, but now must move on if I am to complete this portrait.
If I knew Brian Williams only through his decks and books, I would count myself deeply blessed. But I've had the greater privilege of knowing him as a friend. I cannot begin to count the many thousands of words we have exchanged over email, sharing our perceptions of tarot history, politics, the arts, and religion. He is an apparently bottomless reservoir of humor, caring, insight, and spirit. Regardless of his own circumstances and needs, he never neglects to support me with the most generous expressions of encouragement and admiration, not to mention unexpected gifts of original artwork, which are priceless. This is a kind of nourishment, which we need no less than food and water, and which is in sadly scarce supply in this world.
Of course, we all have friends, and it may seem odd to single out friendship as something to include in a public tribute. But it must be so, because it is so much a part of who Brian is and what he has given to this world. There are literally hundreds of us...people from all over the world, in all walks of life, who have been nourished beyond price by Brian's attention, friendship, and love. The tarot community, in particular, owes an immense debt to Brian Williams and to the culture of caring and camaraderie which he has helped to give us. I came into this community as a self-absorbed and rather detached person, hoping to learn about the cards for my own purposes. But Brian's life has worked its magic on me, and now I yearn to give back, to care for others as I have been cared for, and to remember that we all exist in a web of relationships; we are each responsible for the health of the whole.
The artist, the writer, and the friend are in fact one person, a single spirit finding consistent expression through these distinct but interconnected channels. That haunting, profound love for humanity that I first found in his art is something he actually lives, and to be touched by it is a sacred gift and continuing inspiration.
I have learned much from Brian Williams--about tarot, about art and culture, about history. But most of all, I've been learning that greatest thing, the thing we're all here to learn as best we can before our time is up--how to care for each other, how to spin the web of love that keeps the world alive.
Thank you, my dear friend.
Images © 1987 US Games
Essay © 2002 Tom Tadfor Little