Meaningful symbols from a new Burns class format

In early October, Burns Library hosted our first hybrid class, Prof. Lisa Kessler’s Introduction to Digital Art, which normally meets synchronously online. Some local students volunteered to come in person and work with original format materials, and we paired them with other students working remotely with scans of the same materials. We are happy to report that this led to some of the most engaged partner work we’ve experienced as Burns Library instructors, as the students needed to work together to figure out what they were looking for and at. After a few distanced – and very quiet – classes, the chatter brought back a sense of normalcy to our session.

To facilitate students’ introduction to symbolism, we focused on the wide variety of bookplates available in Burns’ collections in a range of images and styles of illustrations. After introducing the history and function of bookplates, we helped them recognize symbols in the bookplate illustrations and think about how those symbols might work to communicate concepts.

After working with volumes, bookplates, and woodblocks with us in Burns Library, the students went to Bapst Art Library to review reference works about symbols. Prof. Kessler asked them to capture 20 intriguing symbols from various sources in anticipation of writing their design proposals for two tarot cards that incorporate symbolism and visual references in order to convey a complex meaning or tell a story.

In a new twist to showcasing this class’s student artwork, we also have most of their proposal language telling us a bit more about the reasoning behind the design. We really enjoyed seeing how their initial ideas became reality, and think you’ll enjoy them as well!

–Katherine Fox, Head of Public Services and Engagement, Burns Library


Wheel of Fortune (left):

The Eight-Diagram tactics represents a tool for ancient Chinese augury. It is surrounded by the 12 Chinese zodiac animal patterns since prophet will ask his/her guest about their zodiac symbol to predict the future. There is also a yin yang symbol in the middle which represents Chinese philosophy of dualism, meaning that different and contradictory things are interrelated and give rise to each other. The whole picture is the wheel of fortune, it’s mysterious and unpredictable. 

The Homesicker (right)

Chinese mid-autumn festival is the day when family members gather together. This is a self-portrait while I was feeling homesick and couldn’t go back home due to COVID-19 and travel restriction. I was hoping that a rabbit will come down from the moon and use its magic to take me home. Rabbit is a spirit animal for mid-autumn festival and is also my zodiac sign. It is the sign of luck for me. 


“The Hanged Man” (left) represents a figure viewing the world from a different, and possibly more correct, perspective than everyone else; the triangles on the border represent the change, while the main subject is the only one with open eyes, suggesting that the subject has a unique insight.

“The Tinkerer” (right) uses the symbol of spirals as a representation of creation, as well as the spider in the corner to symbolize creativity and growth. The paper cranes, a symbol of good fortune and happiness, foreshadows the coming joy and success after the figure has persisted through failing so many times.


The Magician (Right) & The Companion (Left)

The traditional Chinese style of representing the magician and companionship. Left, the background showing Chinese symbols of four seasons, representing the seasonal changes and persistence of the relationship. 

Right representing the connection between earth and heaven. Five basic elements on the bottom represent the earth in Daoism (fire, bamboo, water, gold, soil). Heaven in Daoism is emptiness; so the white represents the ultimate emptiness in heaven. 


The Hanged Man tarot card (left) transports hanging as corporal punishment into a 21st-century American context, where mass incarceration has made the spirit, rather than the body, the object of punishment. Specific symbols include a thin blue line to represent the American policing system, an inverted American flag formed by the bars of the cell, and handcuffs that frame the image. 

The Soul Searcher tarot card (right) represents the process of looking inward to identify the aspects of oneself to portray in a self portrait. The main figure is looking inside a shape inspired by a Sierpiński triangle. I used Celtic and Norse symbolism to represent different aspects of myself, including a Celtic ailm, Celtic knot, Norse valknut, and an eagle. 


I took inspiration from the many easily-identifiable symbols representing death and academics. I love incorporating bright colors in my work. So, particularly with the death card, I worked to meld my own personal aesthetic with the traditional meaning of the death tarot card. 


I chose to create two tarot cards based on my real life-understandings of two concepts: “The Older Sister,” (left) and “The Hermit.” (right) The hermit I created embodies a more modern rendition of “a hermit” that aligns closely with younger generations’ attachment to social media and technological devices, and the resulting detachment from the outside world and from natural imagination. 
“The Older Sister” comes from a very personal understanding of what it means for me to be an older sister to my two siblings, each of us rooted in our same heritage, yet particular in our own ways as we continue to grow into ourselves.” 


Butterfly tarot card (left)

Butterflies are very powerful as they represent life and transition. They are a metaphorical representation of rebirth and this is why there is a baby behind the butterfly. 

After the butterfly is born, it grows as a beautiful animal and represents beauty and hope. This is also why the butterfly has a beautiful blue color. 

Fool Tarot card (right)

The fool for me represents humans and how they believe they are at the center of the universe. 

They are foolish as they think that nothing will ever happen to them and they see themselves as on top of the world. Because of this, the human is lying down on a very top hill without acknowledging that they might fall. 

Sarah Al-Mayahi ‘21

The World  (left)

The World is often portrayed as one woman, but in this Tarot card, the World is comprised of three women. They are all physically and spiritually intertwined in an attempt to represent the beauty and love the world emanates.  

The Balance (right)

This self-portrait aims to describe the characteristics of a Libra. The Libra is both level-headed and indecisive, and has a love for nature. There is both order and disorder, which is exactly what the Libra encapsulates. 


In the Fool (left), the fool’s hat and the elephant balancing on the ball represents goofiness and entertainment. In the Heritage (right), the crane symbolizes happiness and youth, the cherry blossoms represent renewal, and Mount Fuji is just a classic representation of Japan.


The symbolism I incorporated into my two tarot cards are quite different. For my self-portrait, “The Musician,” (left) I wanted the symbols to be a representation of me and of music. I used music notes as symbols to represent the flow of music. The spiral symbol on the music stand represents my growth as a person through music. For “The Lover,”(right) I used masks as a representation of the pandemic and how the pandemic has affected love and the demonstration of love.



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