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Restoring fantasy: new tarot card signing Sunday

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>80-year-old artist and student of classical geometry Donald Beaman of Charlemont  will be the guest during a signing party for the tarot deck on Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Arts Block Cafe, 289 Main St., Greenfield.

    Recorder/Paul Franz
    80-year-old artist and student of classical geometry Donald Beaman of Charlemont will be the guest during a signing party for the tarot deck on Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Arts Block Cafe, 289 Main St., Greenfield.

  • Recorder/Paul Franz<br/>80-year-old artist and student of classical geometry Donald Beaman of Charlemont  will be the guest during a signing party for the tarot deck on Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Arts Block Cafe, 289 Main St., Greenfield.

If you’re a fan of tarot cards, or are intrigued by using them to divine the future or understanding the present, you may find aspects of yourself in each of the multicolored cards.

But for Donald Beaman, a retired theater design professor whose 26 detailed paintings have been used to illustrate a newly released 82-card tarot deck called “The Tarot of Saqqara,” these cards bring together a whole lot more, from Egyptian, Roman, Celtic and Hebrew traditions.

The 80-year-old Charlemont artist and student of classical geometry will be the guest during a signing party for the tarot deck on Sunday, from 1 to 4 p.m. at the Arts Block Cafe, 289 Main St., Greenfield.

“I think it was all meant to be,” the former Boston University professor said in his Warner Hill Road living room as he reflected in the recent discovery of his paintings by a Shelburne Falls businessman, who found a way to publish as cards the paintings Beaman that had completed after three visits to the Egyptian pyramids in the 1980s.

Tarot cards, which date back to the late 1400s in Italy as playing cards and eventually were adapted to the 52-card decks we play card games with in the United States today, also have been used by mystics and occultists.

But Beaman, who taught theater design at Carnegie Mellon University before his 26 years at Boston University, was introduced to tarot cards while visiting San Jose, Calif., in the 1960s. Although his first wife, because of her Romanian Gypsy background, had done card reading, it was the popularity of tarot as part of what Beaman calls “the hippie revolution” that intrigued him. It had won him over by the time his train arrived back in Pittsburgh from California. He added tarot to the list of ancient subjects that he began investigating.

As a young man, he helped his father build houses in western New York and ever since, Beaman said, he’s been interested in architecture and physical design, as well as in archeology and the study of symbols, which he incorporated into design of theater sets and other theatrical elements.

“It was symbology, with a concept of spaces that support and animate belief systems, that I began studying what I called esoteric geometry, from classical Greek ideas all the way to Gothic cathedrals,” says Beaman, who has a wispy white beard and thin white hair. One of his lectures on the subject was attended by a Boston College professor who was organizing a trip for about 200 people to the Egyptian pyramids in 1981. Beaman was asked to come along as an adviser.

It was on that first of his three Egyptian trips that Beaman stood at the entrance hall to the pyramid complex built by Imhotep, commissioned by the greatest pharoh of the third dynasty, and instead of simply seeing the ruins of chest-high, truncated columns, Beaman’s imagination set to work.

Saqqara, which had served as the burial site for the ancient Egyptian capital of Memphis and served as an important complex for royal burials and ceremonies for more than 3,000 years, was also the place of initiations for those who sought enlightenment.

“I call Saqqara the first university, where various initiates were teaching various aspects of philosophy, about life and the Egyptian ideas of religion. You have the feeling you’re walking through a hallway,” recalls Beaman, who saw the remnants of columns with bits of wall attached as gateways of initiation. As I walked through it, I intuited each of these gateways. It all fell into place. When I walked in, I knew exactly! Bong!”

Suddenly, Beaman says. “I was right at home, in tune with the desert, and part of my instinct told me I could channel a past life, and understand I was channeling Imhotep. My familiarity kept opening doors ... as if I was really returning this character to appreciation in life. … It had an emotional impact on me.”

After doing further research and writing back in Boston, Beaman returned to Saqqara in 1984 with his second wife, the musician and sound healer Sarah Benson, and a troupe of eight other musicians who played music into the open spaces at the imagined gates. He had recently had open-heart surgery and been told he didn’t have long to live.

“It was a healing group and I’m still healing,” says Beaman, who sees his mission as helping to restore for people “the human ability to fantasize ... I was really trying to make the truth more available to people, so most of what you’re dealing with is essentially the human ability to fantasize into symbols. Which really goes back to hieroglyphics.”

The paintings

Beaman began renovating Benson’s Charlemont house in 1995, when he retired from teaching at BU, and they moved here the following year, when he made his final trip to Egypt.

After that, over the next three years, he created the 26 or so paintings — 36 by 52 inches painted with acrylic, silver and gold leaf paints on wooden boards — that now comprise the tarot deck and related subjects. The paintings include images of the early systems of divination that draw on symbols drawn from ancient architecture and from traditions as disparate as the Kaballah and Celtic runes. They were displayed at the Matrix Gallery, a space in a converted church on the corner of Route 8A and the Mohawk Trail. After the gallery closed, he put them in storage until they were again exhibited at the Charlemont Inn, where David Browning, who recently moved to the area while working on a book, first saw them and realized they deserved to be published as a tarot deck. With his Enlightened Media Group partner, Donald Wheeler of Shelburne Falls, Browning published the cards, starting with an initial printing of 500 decks.

“I didn’t know where they would go,” said Beaman of the paintings. “This was my way of expressing, just as the intellectual part of me doing the books and the tour guide in me took people to Egypt and the initiator in me wants to take people to discover the philosophy and the architecture. I knew, eventually, these could became a way that people could experience the initiation without going to Saqqara.”

The project was funded with an online Kickstarter campaign that raised more than $13,000 from 69 backers — some of whom have been invited to Sunday’s Greenfield event as a “thank you” reception at which the cards will be on sale. They’re also available at World Eye Bookshop in Greenfield and will eventually be for sale at Amazon, according to Browning. Meanwhile, they can be ordered by contacting him at
info@tarotofsaqquara.com.

Online: nlitnmedia.com

Senior reporter Richie Davis has worked at The Recorder more than 30 years. He can be reached at
rdavis@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 269.

Staff photographer Paul Franz has worked for The Recorder since 1988. He can be reached at pfranz@recorder.com or 413-772-0261 ext. 266. His website is www.franzphoto.com.

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