An intense talk about art as therapy with Nicolas Bruno; the man behind the creation of the Somnia Tarot Deck and The Fear Cycle movie.
Nicolas Bruno’s artwork features mediums of photography, sculpture, and costume design…How did the universal consciousness begin to reveal itself through you?
Throughout my childhood, I experienced vivid dreams and nightmares which often felt more real than my waking reality. Being exposed to these experiences at such a young age had a profound impact on my relationship with the universe and spirituality.
I was raised in the Greek Orthodox faith and surrounded by the superstitions that were passed down from my heritage. Being a child without an understanding of the Greek language, I was confronted with a low-resolution understanding of what messages were being communicated at church. I relied on a summarization from my family members regarding God, religious ceremonies, and superstition. I revered the words of Yia Yia, my great-grandmother. Many of her superstitions, if broken, could result in something terrible.
At age fifteen, I began experiencing Sleep Paralysis, which causes you to wake up in a state between sleep and consciousness. Terrifying visuals of shadow-like figures, auditory hallucinations and feelings of asphyxiation are common traits of a Sleep Paralysis experience.
I began transforming my dreams into artwork as a therapy, which helped me gain an understanding of sleep disorders. With this combination of a mysterious faith and otherworldly dreams, my only way to find solace was to dive in deeper and attempt to make sense of the universe through art.
The Somnia Tarot
The Somnia Tarot is a stunning-looking deck that features real images with real art compositions; Why is the tarot deck called The Somnia Tarot?
The Somnia Tarot derives from the Latin word “Somnia” or “Somnium”, which can be loosely defined by dreams, visions, or fantasies. This series of seventy-eight photographs weaves together the classic Tarot with my sleep paralysis experiences and dream journal entries. The Somnia Tarot is one of the first full Tarot decks created in the genre of conceptual photography.
Idea and Execution
How did Nicolas Bruno get the idea to create The Somnia Tarot?
During my childhood, I discovered my Yia Yia’s tarot deck in the basement of my grandmother’s home. I remember climbing onto a high shelf in the storage room and looking through the series of cards. My grandmother hid them away out of superstition, but my curiosity would get the best of me.
This memory resurfaced at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic when I took the time to analyze my life thus far. Being a self-employed artist, my future became uncertain, as many of my income avenues began to close. I wasn’t sure if the world would ever return to normal, or if the world was going to end. With the spark of the memory of my Yia Yia’s tarot cards, I began researching the history of Tarot.
I was immediately struck by the complex archetypes and their meanings. I began to draw similarities between certain cards and some of the artworks that I had created in the past. As I poured over my dream journals, I began to reveal an architecture for a full Tarot series, which would eventually become The Somnia Tarot.
How did you plan the process, where did it begin and what challenges did you face until this idea became a reality?
As the pandemic lockdowns began, I spent my time researching the history of Tarot and sketching the structure of the series on large sheets of newsprint. Through these sketches, I carefully planned how each archetype would be expressed through dream symbolism. After drafting each composition, I outlined the photoshoot locations, required materials, and what props I needed to create or acquire.
I accumulated materials from antique furniture, old shipping pallets, and any type of fabric that I could find. Along with creating the props and costumes, I also modelled for the images with male characters. For compositions with multiple male characters, I used an interval shutter timer to capture myself in different areas of the image.
After I photographed alternating postures and costume changes, I obtained enough images to merge and create the final composition. The female characters within this series are portrayed by my sister, my fianceé, and my close friends.
This series is the most difficult project that I have ever tackled. Being an independent artist, I had to devote myself every day to ensure the project came to life. Some of the most difficult parts were performing some of the stunts, for example, hanging myself upside down for The Hanged Man image. I also faced the issue of depicting a horse for the four knight cards, Death, and The Sun. I managed to find a large fibreglass horse for sale, which allowed me to set up each scene without jeopardizing the safety of an animal.
Each photograph was captured in the marshlands and on the shorelines of Long Island, New York. I finished the last image of the series in November 2020 and had a full gallery exhibition of the works in February 2021. The Somnia Tarot deck was crowdfunded on day one of its campaign launch in March of 2021.
How different is the Somnia Tarot deck in terms of generic Tarot card symbolism?
During the creative process, it was paramount to me that The Somnia Tarot imagery would be functional within the Rider-Waite-Smith Tarot system. While some of the Minor Arcana symbols slightly differ, such as using candles for The Wands, or wooden pails for The Cups, the traditional meanings remain intact.
There are certain visuals within the Rider Waite Smith series that I could not realistically capture via photographs. The giant looming angels were substituted with plumes of smoke, and the jaws of the golden lion with a large iron trap. These substitutions ground the surreal nature of The Somnia Tarot with a level of realism, which to me, creates a successful conceptual photograph.
The College of Psychic Studies
Nicolas Bruno was invited to hold a talk about The Somnia Tarot deck at The College of Psychic Studies in the UK…Tell us more about the invitation, the talk and the experience.
The College of Psychic Studies has a rich esoteric history that dates back to 1884. Pioneers of spiritualism and the occult have lent their talents to the creation of the College, which holds an impressive museum archive of magic books and tarot cards from around the world. I was selected to present The Somnia Tarot at their Tarot Weekend Conference, alongside other creators in the Tarot space.
In my presentation, I offered a behind-the-scenes look at the conception and hidden symbolism of The Somnia Tarot. I also premiered the first look at my latest creation, The Somnia Tarot: Illustrated Edition. Attendees were able to handle the private preproduction sample of the Illustrated deck. It was truly a unique experience to enter a space with such a mysterious history.
The members of the college welcomed me with open arms and made me feel at home. To my surprise, the college acquired a first edition printing of The Somnia Tarot for their permanent museum archive. If you ever visit London, I highly recommend taking the time to visit the college and view its collections.
The Fear Cycle
Is it the movie or the deck that was the main reason behind the movie?
The Fear Cycle film portrays my life experiences with sleep paralysis, and how I create artwork as a therapy to overcome the condition. In this film, we explore what it’s like to pierce the veil of a sleep paralysis episode and enter the world of the subconscious.
We attempt to shed a light on the mystery of shadow figures that appear in the dreams of individuals around the world. Ominous visuals of The Hatted Man or The Old Hag have been documented throughout all of recorded history. It has become my mission to continue the dialogue about these occurrences and uncover their true origins through art.
Was there a specific message sought to be communicated through The Fear Cycle movie?
We embedded the film with various messages and calls to action, one of them being the title of the film itself. The Fear Cycle is a concept that I outlined during my lifetime experiences with Sleep Paralysis. In these dreams, if you feed fear into the scenario, the dream will perpetually become more terrifying. By breaking “The Fear Cycle” with a moment of bravery or curiosity, we can begin to analyze this bizarre realm between wakefulness and sleep.
This method has helped me bring back observations from my dreams that otherwise would be lost due to fear. By transferring our findings to journals, we can rationally deconstruct our dreams and begin to learn more about ourselves. This therapeutic transformation of the dream to image has given me a foundation to stand on and lifted me out of the dark cycle of my sleep disorder. I hope this film inspires others to overcome their difficult situations through journaling and creativity.
In your opinion; how well did the directing company Underhill Films fulfill Nicolas Bruno’s brief?
The Underhill Film crew worked closely with me to build out the visual world of sleep paralysis, which was a magnificent experience to be a part of. We spent days pouring over research, artwork, and my first-hand journal recordings. We transformed the interior of a dark Guggenheim castle into a stage for the subconscious portion of the film.
The crew documented my artistic process from start to finish, eventually ending in the foggy marshlands of Long Island for the final scene. In the Underhill Film studio, we built a faux hospital room where the sleep study levitation scene was filmed. The crew worked so hard on this project, and I couldn’t be more thankful for their help in bringing the film to life.
Is the movie available in cinemas, and can it be streamed online too?
The Fear Cycle film is scheduled to screen at multiple international film festivals, and eventually, be available for online streaming by 2024. A trailer for the film can be seen on my Instagram page.
The Fear Cycle premiered on the 10th of February, 2023 during the SBIFF; what feedback did you receive after the premiere?
We had an amazing turnout at the SBIFF, where our short film was selected for a worldwide premiere. It was an incredible opportunity to host a Q&A and engage with the attendees of the festival. There is nothing like seeing your creation on a massive theatre screen.
After our premiere, I created a treasure hunt in Santa Barbara and released coordinates on my social media pages. Whenever I travel for an event, I like to hide a cache of treasures for my followers to find. We are looking forward to our next film festival showing in New York City.
What is sleep to Nicolas Bruno?
For the average person, sleep is a restorative escape from our waking reality, where we can recount our experiences through our dreams. For someone with a sleep disorder, this adventure into sleep is not always pleasant, often leading to a sombre world of nightmares.
Whether we experience a regular dream or nightmare, we all have a unique opportunity to observe and share a unique experience that stems from our subconscious. In our rest, we are confronted with the raw building blocks of creativity —
“Can we dive into the darkest depths of our subconscious and bring forth a treasure to the surface?”
What was the weirdest revelation that occurred to you during sleep?
My first dream experience with The Old Hag archetype turned my perspective of life on its head. I had never experienced something so alarming and bone-chilling. I awoke with my body completely paralyzed and I couldn’t breathe. A woman in a dress emerged from the corner of the room and hovered above my bed. She began shrieking into my ear and moving closer to me.
This experience transitioned into an out-of-body dream, where I fled my room to the downstairs of my home. I felt as if I was truly awake and tried to get the attention of my parents, but I was immediately pulled back up into my bedroom where the Old Hag was still there waiting for me. That day, the darkest potential of sleep paralysis was revealed to me, and it set me on a path to uncover more of its mysteries.
To Nicolas Bruno; how do sleep and wakefulness differ from each other?
When I first started experiencing sleep paralysis, it was very difficult to differentiate between the two. In an episode, you may feel as if you’re awake and ready to get up, but immediately become confronted with an entity appearing in your room. There are instances where you can astral project and leave your body to flee the situation, but you end up waking up in your bed when the dream is finished.
These experiences are jarring and very stressful. I have worked hard to manage my sleep disorder and look at each dream through a rational lens, which helps me stay grounded.
How do you think the subconscious is involved in our dream process?
In my dream process, I have been confronted with scenarios and entities that seem detached from my waking life experiences. I hypothesize that our subconscious may contain memories from our ancestors, or harbour a universally fundamental set of experiences that are unique to human beings.
Through sleep paralysis, the subconscious metaphorically bleeds into our waking life and stands at the foot of our bed in a ghostly form. The most perplexing part of a sleep paralysis episode is how the visual contents of the dreams are eerily similar across all cultures, languages and timelines.
It makes me wonder if this sleep disorder gives us a blurry lens into the subconscious that we aren’t normally supposed to see.
Featuring your dreamscapes and night terrors in your work; how did Nicolas Bruno experience the relationship between the subconscious dream-states and reality, and how are they correlated to you?
In my teenage years, I was deathly frightened by the recurring experiences of waking up paralyzed in my bed, especially when they were accompanied by a presence in my room. Because of my superstitious upbringing, I always thought that my home was haunted by evil spirits.
After years of making sense of this sleep disorder, I consider this a bittersweet opportunity to explore a world in between realities. I’m not sure if I will make complete sense of these experiences in my lifetime, but I hope that I will pass the torch to others that will continue the research and conversation.
Did Nicolas Bruno’s definition of reality change over the years?
By confronting my darkest fears with my art, I found a path for myself in our waking reality. I had previously begun to lose hope in finding my purpose while being confronted with the visuals of my sleep disorder at the same time.
Through my self-portraiture, I built the courage to share these stories with the world in the universal language of art. Even more recently, living through the archetypes of The Somnia Tarot gave me a fresh perspective of the universe, storytelling, and the code behind the human experience. Thankfully, I feel more grounded than I ever have been. I am looking forward to filling my future with new artwork and helping others use art as therapy.
If you would name a book that might have helped you understand what you are experiencing in life, what would that be?
The book would most likely not have a title or anything printed on the pages. Instead, it would be a blank hardcover sketchbook with a pen. We are all metaphorically given one at birth, and it’s our quest to write our own story. I still do not have everything figured out, and I’m still pioneering ways to make sense of my experiences.
I always recommend keeping a dream journal or sketchbook, even if you are not an artist. We can learn so much about ourselves by creating a simple drawing, writing a few lines of poetry, or spilling some of our thoughts onto the page.
Does music play a role in Nicolas Bruno’s daily life? Where does your music taste lean towards?
I grew up listening to my father play various instruments, and music was always playing in our home. He inspired me to learn music by ear and explore various genres. I often spend my free time playing guitar, drums, piano, or mandolin.
Some of my favourite musicians include Bon Iver, Lord Huron, Fleet Foxes, Florence + The Machine, Aesop Rock, August Burns Red, and Tycho. I am currently working on composing a theme for my upcoming animated series collaboration.
Name a movie you would watch over and over again without hesitation.
One of my favourite films is “The Lighthouse” by Robert Eggers, which follows the story of two lighthouse keepers who are stranded at their post for multiple weeks. The film contains ominous themes of superstition, folklore, dream symbolism and mental health. I was captivated by the visuals and creative direction within the film, especially the scenes that reimagine paintings such as “Hypnosis” by Sascha Schneider, 1904, and “Untitled” by Jean Delville, 1888.