For some artists, a new work begins with a flick of a paintbrush or a rough pencil sketch. But for Denver artist Tya Alisa Anthony’s Organic Tarot series—a 78-piece collection of striking collage portraits that the artist calls “a reflection of a tarot-card deck from a 20th-century Black perspective”—the creative process started with hours of sifting through online photo archives in the public domain to find people with whom she felt a connection. “It’s like a rabbit hole,” Anthony says. “One image will lead to an entire story.” In this case, the stories were of formerly enslaved people and their descendants from the Great Depression era. What attracted her to a photo? “The eyes. The stance. The posture,” she says. “These are real people. Some are wrinkled; some don’t have shoes on…. I envision what happened in that photographic moment, that sixtieth of a second.”

Anthony has been captivated by the narrative power of photography since her military-brat childhood, when her father, a drill sergeant, gave her a Minolta camera to document their peripatetic lifestyle. By her twenties, Anthony was a Baltimore-based commercial photographer specializing in weddings, fashion, and artist portraits. In 2012, she enrolled at Denver’s Rocky Mountain College of Art and Design to hone her photography, videography, and fine art skills, and began applying her artistic talents to a greater purpose.

“I asked myself, ‘What do I care about?’ ” she recalls, “and I thought, ‘the voiceless—those without an audience to change systems of oppression; generations of enslaved people of color; communities remaining silent for fear of retaliation.’ ”

By glueing handcut printouts of historical images and vibrant botanical clippings onto watercolor paper, then adding freehand embellishments with gold paint, Anthony creates scenes that put those individuals at the forefront. In one, a sharecropper perches amid fuschia leaves, his hand gently resting on a painted steeple. In another, a woman dressed in her Sunday best stands in a sea of clamshells, the moon and clouds looming behind her.

With each collage, Anthony aims to create a monument to the marginalized. “My work is created from a space of preservation and exploration, paving a way for people to imagine a future beyond the trauma of historical injustices,” she says. “We all need to reach back to look forward.”