Ava holding up a quilted work!

Ava Sayaka Rosen Is Designing A More Inclusive Tarot Deck

By on May 31, 2023

Ava is an amazingly versatile artist (it’s hard not to be impressed by her range alone—from vocals in her band, Galore, to poetry, textile patchwork, cyanotypes, photography, and on and on!). As we chatted, I found myself appreciating her thoughtful presence—the kind of person who really listens and then always has an answer that surprises. We spoke on Zoom about bat mitzvah rhymes, making her own tarot deck, the wisdom of oysters, Jewish multiplicity, and the Bay’s secret drain network. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jason: To start off, I wanted to ask about your art! I know it takes several different forms, including music, photography, and poetry. Was there any first love?

Ava: I grew up obsessed with writing, and that’s what I focused on through undergrad. Dance was my other love which I haven’t been doing as much lately. It wasn’t until later that I started integrating visual art into my artistic identity.

Were there any subjects you were particularly drawn to as a young writer?

There was always a lot of story, and nature generally had a prominent role. In school, I found haiku especially appealing because I was a nature nerd and I’m half Japanese. I also loved to rhyme. For my bat mitzvah, I wrote in verse!

So cool. As a one-trick pony, I’ve been impressed by the breadth of your artistic practice. For instance, I saw you’re working on a tarot deck that you started during your time as a fellow at LABA BAY

That project grew out of personal explorations when I was taking a naturalist course, an ecology course, and nature guiding. I was also learning about earth-based Judaism for the first time, even though I grew up in Jewish community and studied texts. I got really excited about the intersection of art and nature and spirituality. Tarot brings those things together, because it’s a tool for self-reflection. My deck uses metaphors of systems like ecologies and organisms to reflect on our own personal growth and relationship to the natural world, helping us feel more connected to it and want to take care of it.

Can you talk about the magic of tarot and what power it has?

For me, the magic of tarot is the poetic translation of an image. There’s an archetypal quality: the repetition of the visual metaphors over time used by so many different people in different places and different generations. That history and lineage creates power in the images.

There can also be power in translating those archetypes into something less patriarchal or into images that feel more inclusive or just a different interpretation. I don’t treat tarot as a fortune-telling device—I prefer noticing whatever pops out to me in the image and thinking about what that says to me in that moment. If I return to that same image later, it might mean something totally different. Tarot can really just be a lens or a kaleidoscope; your perception of it is what gives it meaning.

When I do a reading, I’m always taken aback that despite the randomness of whatever cards I might get, it has a way of bringing to the surface whatever is feeling important, or tense, or worthy of emphasis. It really is an illuminating tool.

I see Torah that way, too. There are infinite interpretations of Torah! For me, it’s not even necessarily about what the original intent of the text was, but more so, how do we make sense of it for ourselves now?

Is there a specific card that’s been resonating with you lately?

Ever since working on a card about oyster reefs, I’ve been digesting the teachings of oysters. They hold a paradox I find myself coming back to: on one hand, they could represent anchoring and creating structure because they literally create land with their bodies. In another way, they also help filter water and food and nutrients—they’re out there creating their own current, and letting resources move through them. They’re not just holding on. They’re letting things flow.

I’ve always been curious about oysters. Before New York—where I’m from—was the “Big Apple,” it used to be called the “Big Oyster.” Not kidding.

I learned about that. So fascinating! The Breakwaters Project on Staten Island is actually what got this whole excitement going for me.

Have you undertaken any other pieces or projects recently that you’ve been excited about?

We just had what my friend and collaborator—Arielle Tonkin—and I called a “Prayerformance”—a ritual celebration with music, art, and some embodied creative practice. That project came out of the Shuvi Residency we did last August in Essaouira; Morocco is one of Arielle’s ancestral homelands. We connect over mixed identity, and the residency was very much an exploration into Jewish history and multiplicity and diversity, expanding our ideas about what it means to be Jewish.

For the Prayerformance, we worked with textiles, flags, cyanotypes, and also music! It was at the Albany Bulb, which makes us feel connected to Essaouira, also on the coast. We were thinking about what it means that we’re here on this land. What does it mean to take experiences from lands that we came from? As part of the project, I’ll be going to Japan to visit my grandmother’s ancestral village.

Wish I could go back in time and book my ticket for the Prayerformance…Has any of that engagement with Jewish multiplicity extended to the community here?

I’ve been involved with a Jewpanese group, and we worked on Passover resources that are more culturally specific to Asian Jews and Japanese Jews. I’m also working on a zine with a couple people and then on “Dancing In-Between,” an Asian-Jewish Haggadah through the LUNAR Collective. Being part of these Asian-Jewish communities has been really transformative in how I engage in Jewish community. It’s been exciting and validating and not like anything I’ve ever experienced before.

So many different things! All so great. Now, onto our in-house Proust Questionnaire to wrap up. Tell us a poem, book, movie, play or piece of art or media that you love.

I’ve been pretty obsessed with the book Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer. I’m constantly going back to it to the point that it’s become tattered!

What’s the best-kept secret in the Bay?

A new friend of mine took me to the drains, which I’d never heard of even though I grew up here. So, there are a series of storm drains throughout the Bay and parts of them are used as mural sites. The spot we went to, you go down this creek and then you’re wading in water. You enter the drain, which is a big tunnel, and then there’s art everywhere!

What was a recent time you felt some kind of spiritual connection?

Out surfing on a wave! Or even just out sitting on my board in the water. It’s a thrill. It’s quiet. Time slows down. You’re listening and you hear the edge of your board on the water. You’re looking at what the waves are doing and you’re making tiny adjustments to stay with it. It feels like communion—what’s the Jewish word for that?!


GatherBay Profiles is our interview series spotlighting the vast array of community members doing rad things! Released twice per month, the series aspires to celebrate GatherBay’s greatest treasure—the people around us. Want to be profiled? Email info@gatherbay.org.