Carmen Sorrenti: Art from Dreams, Visions, and the Self

Carmen Sorrenti, creator of the Pholarchos Tarot

GS: Your tarot paintings arrest me. I’m drawn into a realm I’ve never seen before. In each picture, the central character and all the vivid, almost burning color leaping from the canvas, stuns me in an awakening way. I have to stare. There’s so much to see and wonder at. Things are going on as if in a magical, fantastical forest—birds, tiny figures, and all kinds of symbols for emotions, everything poised or moving with life. And it’s all of these elements at once, like a mystical concoction, that pull me into their strange and powerful world. Could you describe how you—your own essence—and your later studies in dreams, mythologies, astrology, storytelling, and the human experience alchemize in your creativity?

CS: I come from mountains that plunge into the sea. The elements are forceful here and the area is dear to old myths. In some versions, it is where Odysseus had himself tied to his ship’s mast to resist the onslaught of siren song. Greek colonies settled along the Amalfi Coast and not far south was a place called Velia, where the philosopher Parmenides lived in the 5th century BC. He is believed to be one of the mysterious “Pholarchos.” I like how the author of ancient philosophy, Peter Kingsley, describes the “idea” of Pholarchos—literally “Lord of the Lair”—as one who enters a cave and waits for big dreams that can be taken back to the community. This practice developed into the healing dream temples dedicated to Asclepius (god of medicine) and the snakes.
I didn't know that Parmenides had lived so near my home, nor did I know about his devotions, until the summer I was in the Dodecanese. These islands float just off Turkey and look onto what used to be Caria. This is a land dense with the original Pholarchos caves. Again, I didn't know this at the time, but on the first night there I had a riveting dream involving the divinities of that very region. I had Kingsley’s book with me and soon brought all these stories together.
Much later, neuroanthropologist Charles Laughlin’s book Communing with the Gods confirmed what was forming in my mind—that since we have lived and breathed upon this earth, in every part of her great rich body, we've sought out caves for ritual dreaming. Pholarchos babies are in every era and culture; dreaming is a primal, necessary practice. And today, our beds are secret healing temples . . . we have no idea how much our dreams do for us each night.
Laughlin raises another point in his book. He says in: “A society’s cosmology and symbolic system are ultimately the product of the creative imagination of its people. I'm not talking about imagination in the mundane fantasy sense (i.e., imagined unreality) but rather the Imaginatio in Henry Corbin’s sense—the exercise of the creative intuitive faculties associated with imagery by which the essentially invisible aspects of reality become envisioned.”

GS: That quote speaks to your images and imagery in the deck.

CS: Yes—the mythic imagination is expansive, able to hold contradiction, mystery, metamorphosis. The imaginal is real and needs tending—it is our relation to it that can be more or less fantastical. Humans have always looked to myth, dream, theater, and story to find a sense of meaning and guidance. Prediction can be diminutive while story opens understanding and possibility, a way of working with one’s destiny and patterns. Astrologer and author Liz Greene reflects that “like all symbolic systems, tarot is about patterns rather than events.” My cards are an attempt to open inspiration, a possible experience of an archetype that invites personal investigation into life’s depths.

GS: I’m glad you said that because the paintings do open the viewer’s latent visionary depths, and even the weirdnesses in the images—the flitting spectrum of human good and naughty— feel like true life forces. I find the texts that accompany the cards convey the same living, almost intangible ideas as your visionary artwork. At the same time, the flowing words convey positivism and encouragement to open ourselves to the infinite well of human creativity and insight within us.

CS: Yes, passion is always under your skin. It’s what animates everything. At crucial moments in your life, the dragon rises its head fully and you find yourself at a power juncture that unfolds design. In such moments synchronicity is at a peak, the imaginal is sharp, all conspires to get you to pay attention. Sometimes it seems too much to bear, especially if you stuff it into an alembic and wait for transformation. Alchemical language is scattered through the cards, as is its fundamental sense of timing signaled but not dictated by the planets measuring the sky. This is a world of correspondences, and how could the soul not be part of this communal language? Within this, according to passion and inclination, alchemists have always taken the freedom to experiment with their art when seeking to make gold or an authentic self—also known as the diamond body, the lapis, and the philosopher’s stone—the soul’s hunger as it creates its fundamental core.

GS: How long did the tarot deck take to dream, study, and complete, and could you share a bit your experience?

CS: I devoted four years to painting, writing, and dreaming the deck. In 2013, I spent a lot of time in the ruins of an Asclepeion in Rome. These were  temples scattered all over the ancient world where people with illnesses would sleep and wait for a dream that held a cure for their ailment. Certain images and sensations began to constellate around what practices might have taken place there two thousand years ago. Then other experiences took me even further back to the people (possibly called Pholarchos) who used caves to call on prophetic and healing dreams for the community.
Today we tend to dismiss our dreaming, yet it’s an integral part of our being alive in a body on this planet. As a society, we’ve lost contact with a fundamental language. In all, the deck has seventy-eight images with accompanying texts—unlike traditional cards, the texts do not explain the cards (there are plenty of wonderful books that do this), but instead use dreams as stories to engender felt sense—as with dreaming, the first impact is experiential and emotional. I’m hoping this will encourage people to continue exploring their own personal archetypes, through their own engagement with dreaming and the imaginal—like becoming the card for a moment and dreaming it on— stories make sense of our lives and help us discover what is inside us. They are myths, and as dream expert Jeremy Taylor has said: myths are collective dreams. Alchemical and astrological language is also woven into the deck to create a kind of map with which to navigate so much rich material.

The Deck Travels in 2018
Carmen Sorrenti's Pholarchos Tarot deck (published by Arnell Ando) debuts in spring 2018 and then tours New York, Boston, and Chicago from September to December 2018. The exhibition includes performance art that brings the deck's characters to life. Check the website for updates on the deck's exhibitions and related programming and workshops:

Highlights from Carmen Sorrenti’s Pholarchos Tarot


Before the temple, mosque, synagogue, church, the caves were homes to sacred ritual, a lair of wonder. This creature keeps track of our religious languages. Through her body the phoenix is reborn again and again. Made of chlorophyll and philosophy, she balances all potential on a spiral of manifestation, hears the red and the white snakes as they mingle in the space of her understanding. Preside over the mysteries so they may make a map for you.


Venus drops her precious stones in your blood stream and Vulcan nimbly makes jewels of them. You plunge and surge onto a shore of deep belonging. Now you are vast, the waters of love dissolve your mold yet passion is always glistening inside you, setting a course for life, not only now. Within the fiery dragon of the heart is the lookout point. Keep the taste on your tongue and rather than burn right through, seek an underlying design. This is you unfolding.

Inside your belly. The lion’s hunger insatiable, its eyes yellow alarm, claws ready-made scythes. It will not hesitate to rip right through you and make a mockery of your life in order to find food. It will have you unless you turn and look into those eyes, offer of yourself. Exchange on its own terms. Then it will, like the cards of old, open its mouth for you and let you take what you need when you need it. Your resolve and your fortitude must shine forth. Do not think you can bypass the wild center—it generates your will to live. Etch its mane somewhere along the castle walls, feed it the flesh of your devotion, practice touching your molten core.

Hanged One  

An archaic lineage comes calling. It is your turn to allow control to flood away, not knowing who you will be when it returns. The great river rushes through you. You are not alone in this surrender and everything moves in surprising ways. Ancient memory may return that you have been this way before, at another turning of your soul’s necessity. Paulina risked being burned at the stake for bringing the queen back to life. She waited sixteen years for it to be the right moment. And her only words to the expectant and condemning crowd were: “It is required you do awake your faith”. And so the tale of winter becomes the tale of hope. 


When the water turns black, follow the sage’s climb into the mountain as she mumbles amritas from the dreaming. Slip into the cave where the source is. Red striated rock surrounds you now, miniature bursts of chemical process coax more of its true nature into being. The sage laughs into the deep cold pool until the water turns crystal clear again, gurgling regeneration. Allow laughter to enter you and to this tune, make a scarf with woven leaves of angelica, charge it up with song then wear it. It whispers back to you as you keep walking, ambrosia round your neck. Your love makes numen.


She may open a vein of longing to last for generations or take you back further than the usual couple thousand years, a bridge to a much older time. You feel it in the dreaming, all those voices. We’re in that boat again. A man demonstrates an elemental feat, makes striking sounds instead of words, becomes the night. Mesmerised, you ride the swell of magnified feeling, Dionysian, electric. Our captain docks with her eyes closed as she considers those teachers that work with the Other side. She senses land mass changes through the ages, sees that piece of curve and strait while deep within she hears: the sea the sea the sea. How many turnings of pattern and labyrinth can you float in at once?

Take your song to Apollo for he is the essence of the light. This is how the story goes…he was born on Delos, an island aptly named the ‘unconcealed one’. It used to be a barren perch with no name and no fixed placement, a wanderer in the stormy, windy waves—till the birth. In the inner heart lies the gold and we have learned to conceal it. Make Delos. Here’s a quest encouraging you to find the hidden elixir, the unconcealed one. It  surges you upwards into the elated world, now bright with substance. Give yourself to the inner marriage. Whatever you do in this life, find your essence and be true to it.

Dreamer of sparks

A small whirlwind starts at ground level, sweeping round the furniture. The black trash bags in the corner have opened and the two once lifeless puppets are peeking into the room. As old fear shudders away she pulls them out and places them on chairs. She discovers she is fond of them and trails her hand through tufts of hair. Their beauty is growing at every touch. As she caresses boy puppet’s neck the pair open their eyes simultaneously and they smile. The light changes as they are bathed in new vision.

Queen of wings

Climb to where the air is spirited and your clothes feel light. Bring them every love letter for discernment. They stare unashamedly into your eyes, a great fluttering of birds of all sizes, in perfect balance between species. Don’t mind if they seem impudent, this is how they strip you to your truth, don’t mind the pain. The path is full of scattered poems brought in by wind storms. You may feel like your skin is being read aloud and every one of your thoughts caught on the current.

Artist’s Bio
Carmen Sorrenti was born in Positano, Italy, where she grew up tended to by an Ozzie hippie mom and a host of international artists and eccentrics. Her early food consisted of mystical Persian poetry, Hungarian cartoon strips, singing drag acts and travel…. After training at the Guildhall School of Music and Drama in London, she toured with theater companies, worked at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, played in Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York and opposite John Turturro in Secret Passage. Her favorite experience on stage was playing Philomele in Wertenbaker’s The Love of the Nightingale for Theatre Melange...such encounters with Greek tragedy developed her interest in mythology, which she further investigated with studies at Liz Greene’s Centre of Psychological Astrology. Her expanding research needed a more personal outlet as this weave engendered a stronger and stronger visionary dream life, so she unearthed her childhood passion for paint and poetry. She spent years compulsively experimenting in a kind of alchemical laboratory, putting Shakespeare on canvas rather than on stage. In the autumn of 2012 she began having a series of dreams about plants—this lasted a whole year and restructured her worldview.
Sorrenti has contributed to various publications and painted book jackets. Her deck’s Moon card (shown above) won the Premio Giorgione for Alchemical Painting. She has recently been selected as a Top Ten Artist for art511mag.


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