Combat Creative Block with Life Lessons from Famous Artists

  • Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

    Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

Move over, Magic 8 Ball. Step aside, fortune cookie. There’s a new oracle in town—and it delivers wisdom inspired by 50 of history’s most inspired artists, from Vincent van Gogh to Frida Kahlo to Yayoi Kusama.

Introduced this month, “Art Oracles: Creative & Life Inspiration from Great Artists” is the brainchild of art writer Katya Tylevich, illustrator Mikkel Sommer, and Laurence King Publishing. Part tarot deck and part imaginative art history lesson, each of its 50 cards hosts an artist’s illustrated portrait alongside poetic, pithy tidbits of advice inspired by their lives, artworks, and personalities.

Tylevich and her compatriots designed the cards “to help people with creative block, life block, or simply boredom,” she tells me over the phone from Los Angeles. “It’s meant to be fun, engaging, and a little mystical—the way art is itself.”

The writer has devoted her career to exploring some of the biggest questions that shroud art: “What attracts people to certain artworks and to certain artists?” and “Why do we look to them and their work to make sense of our own lives?” she explains. So, when Laurence King Publishing approached her with “a bit of a crazy proposal” for a tarot-inspired game that imparts imagined words of wisdom from famous artists, she immediately signed on.

The first order of business was to compile a list of 50 artists who’d grace the cards and, in turn, dole out advice. Tylevich felt that they should be well known. “It’s more fun when people understand the references and are in on the jokes,” she explains. She also looked for artists who had strong personalities and made unique work—qualities that would translate into potent insight that the cards could impart.

  • Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

    Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

  • Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

    Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

All of the creatives who made the cut are “inimitable characters,” she says. “They have engaging or enchanting personalities, they’ve lived extraordinary (good or bad) lives, they’ve said and done shocking things, and have inspired generations of people to unsuccessfully copy them.” The final list includes Ai Weiwei, R. Buckminster Fuller, Artemisia Gentileschi, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Georgia O’Keeffe, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Piet Mondrian, Paul Gauguin, Salvador Dalí, and many more.

But the greater challenge for Tylevich still lay ahead: to conceive of advice these artists might give in response to some of life’s most pressing questions. Her research process was long and meticulous, leading her deep into library stacks and through countless art history tomes, biographies, video interviews, artworks, and obituaries. “I prepared as if I were writing a hardcore academic analysis,” she remembers. “I researched their personalities and habits, their manners of speaking, their particularities.”

The resulting cards each deliver three pieces of advice: the first related to life (indicated by a swirl), the second to work (indicated by a pencil), and the third to inspiration (indicated by an eye). Inspired by the artists’ personalities, life experiences, and artworks, the phrases shift from witty to poetic, from humorous to profound.

Take van Gogh, for instance. Under a beautiful illustration of the Post-Impressionist artist post-ear hack (a red coiff emerges from a large bandage on his head), his guidance is scrawled. For life advice, the card delivers: “If committed, stay committed.” The phrase could be interpreted countless ways: “Stay committed to your project, committed to your artwork, whatever it is you’re trying to see through to the end,” notes Tylevich. But it’s also a reference to van Gogh’s history of mental illness and institutionalization. “Even when he was committed to an institution, he still he still kept making artwork,” she continues.

“Posthumous recognition requires a paper trail,” is the card’s advice for work, referring to the letters van Gogh left to his brother. They documented the artist’s personal life, artistic process, and mental state, all of which has provided essential insight into his practice and, in turn, bolstered his reputation. For inspiration, Tylevich settled on “Use daylight to face the night,” a nod to his most famous painting, Starry Night, and “the darkest elements of his being, of his psyche, of his life,” she explains.

  • Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

    Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

  • Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

    Art Oracles by Katya Tylevich and illustrated by Mikkel Sommer. Image courtesy of Laurence King.

Each artist’s counsel varies widely. “It’s almost like calling a friend then calling your mom and hearing diametrically opposed advice,” says Tylevich. “But both of them have weight to whatever you’re going through.”

For inspiration, Marina Abramović’s card advises: “When a stranger stares into your soul do not press charges. Stare back,” an allusion to her legendary durational performance from her 2010 retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art, during which she invited visitors to stare into her eyes. Leonardo da Vinci’s counsel for work reads: “Dissect what makes us human.”

Like the guidance that emerges from any good oracle, the cards’ axioms are open-ended and mysterious enough to apply to any question you’re asking of them. “And yet they’re very specific to the artists themselves, too,” Tylevich notes.

So what happens when you canvas “Art Oracles” for life advice and Duchamp’s card pops up? It will suggest “Scandal before stardom”—and that is a motivating message, indeed.


—Alexxa Gotthardt