“Queen of Masks” event reunites English Department post-quarantine

By Heather Fabritze
Elm Staff Writer

Following the Sept. 2 release of her biographical book, “Pamela Colman Smith: Artist, Feminist, and Mystic,” Associate Professor of English & Director of Gender Studies Dr. Elizabeth Foley O’Connor discussed the focus of her book on Sept. 9

The program, entitled, “Queen of Masks: My Search for the Secret Life of Pamela Colman Smith,” was held at 4 p.m. on the Clifton Miller Library terrace.

Dr. O’Connor discussed a variety of related topics, including an overview of Smith’s life and accomplishments, the origins of her interest in the artist, and how the book came together over the course of 10 years.

The event also featured an opportunity for Q&A and a raffle that included two tarot decks, a copy of “Jim Crow Networks: African American Periodical Cultures,” and a signed copy of Dr. O’Connor’s book.

Throughout her presentation which, audience members could follow along with a PowerPoint presentation on Dropbox via QR code, Dr. O’Connor stressed the number of gaps that she found in the coverage of Smith’s life and her work.

“I do hope that this book helps bring awareness to her,” Dr. O’Connor said. “Maybe, [it] will help continue to fill in some gaps. And I do think she was a woman ahead of her time and I do think the early 21st century is a perfect time for people to become more aware of her and her contributions.”

Pamela Colman Smith’s most well-known addition to creative history was her role in illustrating the 1909 Rider-Waite tarot deck, which was later renamed the Smith-Waite tarot deck in her honor.

According to Dr. O’Connor, the deck is often recognized for its portrayal of gender-fluid characters and its prominence in tarot culture.

This connection to tarot was one of the largest motivators for sophomore Joshua Torrence to attend the event.

“I love [Dr.] O’Connor and I love tarot cards, so I want to know more,” Torrence said.

However, according to Dr. O’Connor, there was much more to Smith than that. As a feminist and an independent thinker for her time, Smith also contributed much to the suffragist movement and other communities.

“She edited two magazines … by herself,” Dr. O’Connor said. “She operated an independent press called The Green Sheaf Press and she published some of her own work on that, which gave her some independence away from publishers to pursue things that she wanted. She also published the work of many other people, including many women writers.”

When Professor & Chair of English Dr. Sean Meehan and Associate Professor & Chair of English Dr. Courtney Rydel approached her with the opportunity to open the department’s events for the semester, Dr. O’Connor said she was “flattered.” The program also quickly became an opportunity to reunite the community after a long time apart.

Iskandar Haggarty, a senior who was assisting with the event as an English and communications and media intern, appreciated the opportunity to reconnect with old friends and meet new ones with common interests.

“It’ll be fun to actually get back in touch with the community,” Haggarty said. “There are a lot of new people now that I’m meeting … So, it is cool to just kind of, like, get back in touch to feel like we’re all actually on campus together.”

Most of all, though, Dr. O’Connor hopes that she was able to convey Smith’s legacy to an audience that was most likely unaware of her accomplishments and struggles.

“One of the great things about this project has been reading so many of her letters and really to get to know her voice,” Dr. O’Connor said. “And through those letters, she has come alive to me as a person, and I hope I’m able to share some of that in the book.”

Photo by Izze Rios

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