Denise Weaver Ross shuffled through her memories and dealt herself a heart transplant.
Hers is not the surgery done in hospitals, but the more metaphorical kind that wrenches the soul into new life.
The artist has spent the last three years creating 56 vibrantly colored works on paper based on a deck of playing cards. She used mythical and contemporary imagery to depict universal themes of loss and redemption with oil pastels. The final paintings measure a massive 2½ by 3½ feet.
“House of Cards – The Whole Deck” is up at the Tortuga Gallery through October.
“I started with the queen of hearts,” she said. “I had written a poem about a heart transplant. It was a metaphor for grief and heartbreak. I thought, ‘I’m the queen of heart transplants.’ I’m a widow.”
The project boasts dual inspirations. A friend was going through a divorce; in 2001 Weaver Ross’ husband died from sickle cell disease when he was just 39.
“To me, it was a great way to illustrate what you go through when you lose somebody,” she said.
To create the card suits, Weaver Ross transposed diamonds into stars, clubs into trees and spades into bones. The heart suit combines her own personal story with Egyptian and tarot motifs. The intricate renderings surfaced as she layered imagery on top of imagery in a maze of lines. The process combined her love of art, myth and poetry.
“It was a rich minefield for ideas,” she said.
A graphic designer, she came to view the project almost as an assignment.
“Almost every day, I would come home at 8 p.m. and work from 8 to midnight.”
As the ideas flowed, she Googled words and played word association games. To create the star suit, she looked up constellations.
“I would combine not only Greek myth, but how different cultures viewed the stars,” she said.
The clubs became trees in an ode to her verdant Wisconsin childhood.
She traded spades for bones because the garden tool reminded her of death. Bones also echoed New Mexico’s Day of the Dead traditions.
“I was also very interested in fossils,” she added.
While she was creating the suit, King Richard III’s skeleton turned up beneath a British parking lot, so she added some royal bones to her cards. But she declined to crown Richard the king of her suit.
“The king of bones would be the T-rex,” she said.
Throughout the show, Weaver Ross will sponsor an online auction of her works to raise money and awareness for people with sickle cell disease. She’s donating a portion of the proceeds to organizations supportive of patients with the disease. Sickle cell disease is an inherited blood disorder that causes severe pain and a shortened life span.