top of page

Queer Person in History: Pamela Colman Smith

You may not recognize her name but you definitely know Ms. Smith’s work. It includes The Fool, The Hierophant, & The Tower. She is the hand behind the imagery of the most recognized and most bought tarot decks in the world, the Rider-Waite (now Rider-Waite-Smith) deck. Smith was not formally recognized until recently because she was a Jamaican-born, mixed-raced woman at the turn of the century. She was born on Feb 16, 1878 to a Jamaican mother and American father, and would spend her formative years moving between Jamaica, the US, and Britain.

She was never “tied” to a man, had Nora Lake (a notable spiritualist) as a 40 year companion, and so is reported to have been a lesbian. Nora Lake and Pamela Coleman Smith associated with known queer social circles adding to support of this claim. Beyond being a part of the three person team behind the most widely known contemporary divination tools in the world, Smith was also an accomplished writer, visual artist, illustrator, costume & stage designer, verbal storyteller, fashion icon, and editor. She illustrated a total of 20 known books during her life, one of which was Bram Stoker’s book detailing the life of their mutual traveling companion, actress Ellen Terry. Smith studied under Arthur Wesley Dow at the Pratt Institute, and much of his influence can be found in her works.

Her work as a costume and stage designer was featured in the productions of the famous Lyceum Theatre. She also had the first solo, non-photography exhibition in Alfred Stieglitz’s Little Gallery of the Photo-Secession. Her exhibition would become the most popular exhibition in the gallery for 2 years. Smith was also a member of the “disabled” community. She had a condition known as Synesthesia. This condition caused Smith to experience sound in a visual way by sounds simultaneously being paired with a visual experience of colors and shapes. At the end of her life, Smith ran a home for Catholic priests, which was a harkening to her Catholic convert upbringing. Her occupation upon death was listed as “A Spinster of Independent Means.” How much more clear could we get about her lesbian lifestyle?

bottom of page