by Michael Duncan
THE REAL ARTISTIC INNOVATORS OF THE WEST COAST are only beginning to be recognized. Artist, performer, poet, and occult practitioner, Cameron (Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel) (1922-1995) is one of the most fascinating underground figures of mid century California. A maverick follower of the esoteric mysticism of Aleister Crowley and his philosophical group, the O.T.O. (Ordo Ternpli Orientis), Cameron was also an accomplished painter and draftsman and mentor to younger artists and poets such as Wallace Berman, George Herms, David Meltzer, and Aya.
Cameron's works demonstrate refined draughtsmanship, formal command, and fantastic imaginative powers. Her sensitive drawings and paintings delineate a magical realm, of metamorphosis and protean transformation. Featuring symbolic creatures in imaginary landscapes, her delicately articulated artworks rival those by fellow surrealists such as Leonora Carrington, Remedios Varo, Ithell Colquhoun, and Leonor Fini. They also seem fascinatingly prescient of fantastical works by contemporary artists such as Kiki Smith, Amy Cutler, Karen Kilimmck, and Hernan Bas.
Cameron's most notorious role was as wife and spiritual avatar of scientist and mystical thinker, Jack Parsons (1914-1952), one of the founders of Cal Tech's Jet Propulsion Lab and, until his violent death, a star pupil of Crowley and the O.T.O. But the Parsons years proved to be only part of Cameron's story. A powerful personality, she led an exceptional and troubled life fraught with hardship and poverty.
Born in 1922 in Belle Plaine, Iowa, she was a cantankerous, rebellious child whose mystical, artistic nature went against the grain of her railroad worker father, church-going family, and small town neighbors. Graduating from Davenport High School in 1940 at the height of World War II, she enlisted in the Navy and was assigned the tasks of drawing maps and working in a photographic unit, jobs that she later regretted as her "karmic connection" to wartime deaths. Despite her success in these jobs, when, she learned that her brother, an Air Force tail gunner, had been injured in action, she fled to Iowa to see him. She was declared AWOL, court-martialed and confined to the base for the remainder of the war.
Upon her honorable discharge from the service in 1945, she moved to Pasadena where her parents were then living and where she became a fashion illustrator and perhaps attended art classes. Disillusioned with mainstream culture, she became an enthusiastic supporter of jazz, frequenting the black clubs on Central Avenue. Her life was forever changed, however, when an old Navy friend took her to the home of Jack Parsons. Instantly struck by Cameron's dramatic red hair and intriguing looks, Parsons was convinced she was his "Scarlet Woman," the incarnation of what he had been searching for in his "sexual magick" experiments.
Indoctrinating her in mystical lore, Parsons dubbed her "Candida" and the couple married in 1946. Cameron wavered in her devotion to the occult with sojourns to a Switzerland convent and, in 1948, to Mexico where she went to pursue her art. She settled for a time in San Miguel de Allende where she met artists Leonora Carrington and David Siquieros and the Los Angeles performers Renate Druks and Paul Matheson. During her Mexico period, Parsons sent Cameron a remarkable series of letters instructing her further in magical practices. In 1950 she returned to her husband who was working at that time in explosives research for Hughes Aircraft.
Parsons' occult practices led to extended investigations by the F.B.I, and the termination of his government defense work. In 1952, the couple's plans to leave the country for Mexico were tragically ended when Parsons was killed in a freakish explosion in his Pasadena garage laboratory caused by his dropping a container of fulminate of mercury. (His death has caused much speculation by occult conspiracy theorists.) After Parsons' death, Cameron retreated to the desert of Beaumont, California for a kind of "vision quest," living for a while in an abandoned canyon Without water or power. Returning to Los Angeles, she reintegrated herself with society by painting a series of works called the Parchments. She gave birth to a daughter, Crystal, in 1955.
Cameron's romantic esthetic and commanding persona prompted filmmaker Curtis Harrington to commemorate her output as a visual artist in The Wormwood Star (1955), a lyrical short film recording the art and atmosphere of her candlelit studio. Most of the beautiful paintings and drawings documented in this film were later lost or destroyed. Paul Mathison and the actor Samson DeBrier introduced Cameron to film maker Kenneth Anger, who cast her in a leading role opposite Anais Nin in his film Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1956), a fanciful depiction of an occult initiation rite as envisioned by Aleister Crowley. With fiery red hair and heavy eye makeup, Cameron played the Scarlet Woman wrapped in a Spanish shawl once belonging to Rudolph Valentine. Her striking presence steals the show from the rival Nin. Cameron enjoyed a tempestuous relationship with Anger for the rest of her life. She also played a key role alongside Dennis Hopper in Harrington's lyrical feature film Night Tide (1961). In 1969 she appeared in an unreleased film filmed in Santa Fe, Thumbsuck, by artist John Chamberlain.
In the early 1950s, Cameron met the fellow LA artist and jazz enthusiast Wallace Berman who was fascinated by her artwork, poetry, and mystical aura. She later recounted that she was impressed by the fact that, shortly after they were introduced, he gave her a copy of Hermann Hesse's Steppenwolf. Although steering clear of her occult activities, Berman was intrigued with her persona and, as she put it in her 1986 interview with art historian Sandra Starr, "He seemed to be interested in somehow promoting me." In 1955 Berman used his photograph of Cameron as the cover of his literary and artistic journal Semina 1 and included in the issue a reproduction of a drawing she had made the previous year during her first experience with peyote, which she had taken after hearing a lecture by Aldous Huxley. The reproduced drawing became renowned when the Los Angeles Police Department cited it as "lewd" and shut down Barman's 1957 exhibition of drawings, assemblages, and sculptures at Ferus Gallery. After this experience, Cameron, like Berman, refused to show her art in commercial galleries. She remained, however, a crucial figure in the Berman circle.
For the rest of her life, she devoted herself to writings and. artworks that explored the ideas of mystical transcendence she had learned from Parsons. In 1964 she published Black Pilgrimage (Baza Press), a volume of dark mystical poems and. ink drawings. A prose excerpt published in Sentinel Two is a kind of exhortation to her dead husband, invoking a spiritual power: "Rise up! I have surpassed the tomb you dreamed for me." Addressed to Myrha (Smyrna) — who, in Greek mythology, developed an incestuous passion for her father and gave birth to Adonis-Cameron's poem in Semina 8, titled June 2, 1962, offers no respite from the "dying world" except through the "grace and joy and sorrow" of a child. The kohl- eyed, wild-haired sphinx in the ink drawing accompanying the poem seems stolidly placed, incapable of providing solace.
Despite the grim fatality of much of her writings, Cameron's artworks portray a fanciful, even wistful lyricism. Her many tender drawings of her daughter present Crystal as an extenuated ephebe or sprite, seemingly the embodiment of a mythological figure. In the early 1960s she corresponded with Joseph Campbell, citing her interest in his book The Hero with a Thousand Faces, as well as in the fiction of Hermann Hesse and Isak Dinesin. Consumed by myth, and the idea of protean growth, Cameron depicted the process of metamorphosis and transformation in hundreds of line drawings where ominous figures and landscapes emerge from uniformly striated, passionately articulated ink marks. Other gouache drawings and paintings depict mythic figures of her own creation engaged, in ritualistic, symbolic acts.
With a brief sojourn in Santa Fe in the late 1960s, Cameron spent her last decades in a small house in West Hollywood. In 1989 Cameron co-edited with O.T.O. leader Hymenaeus Beta an edition of the occult writings of Parsons. Also that year, Cameron's artworks were surveyed in an exhibition at the Los Angeles Municipal Art Gallery curated by Edward Leffingwell. Titled The Pearl of Reprisal, that exhibition included water-color, ink, and casein drawings from the series Anatomy of Madness (1956) and Pluto Transiting the Twelfth House (1978-1986). Cameron died of cancer at the Veterans Hospital in Los Angeles in 1995. A selection of her work was included in the Whitney Museum of American Art exhibition, Beat Culture and the New America 1950-1965 and in the 2005-2007 traveling exhibition Semtnd Culture: Wallace Berman and His Circle, organized by the Santa Monica Museum of Art.