Cameron: poet, artist, actress, muse, mystic, witch, woman. Cameron: wife of one of the most influential scientists and philosophers of the last century, a man whose tragic, violent death could not hinder or derail his consort’s own development. Cameron: a forceful, rebellious soul who embraced the shadows, stepping forth from the night of nights and drawing herself–and now us–into the vault of light through her words and images.
Opening October 11 at MOCA Pacific Design Center, “Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” reveals previously unseen material: drawings, paintings and ephemera, including her watercolors illustrating poetry by her first husband, Jack W. Parsons, the father of modern rocketry. I love that Jack Parsons, a Southern California native who never attended college was one of the founders of Pasadena’s Jet Propulsion Lab and the designer of the three stage rocket that got us to the moon, and that he has a crater on the dark side of the moon named after him. As a college dropout myself, Parsons’ success was inspirational–an it was kinda of cool for me to be a consultant for Pasadena Babalon, a musical about Parsons, his life, love and rockets produced at Cal Tech. Wait, whut!? Who, me at Cal Tech?!
Even though my dad was a test astronaut whose work put Parsons’ discoveries into practice, even more inspirational for me was his love affair with Cameron and its foundation in occultism and art. (Despite their great love, Cameron had no problem leaving him for extended periods to travel and explore on her own; she was a very independent soul). In 1945, Cameron ended her service in the U.S. Navy where she had worked as artist, drafting maps and other visual materials, and moved to Pasadena to join her parents who had moved there from Iowa. Meanwhile just miles away, Jack Parsons was experimenting with both rockets and ceremonial magic. A follower of Aleister Crowley, Parsons turned his home into the first West Coast lodge for the Ordo Templi Orientis, the magical fraternal order headed by the notorious English author, poet and mystic.
Parsons rented out rooms in a rambling house on Orange Grove Avenue, long since torn down and turned into an a huge and fugly apartment building. One of his tenants, a pulp fiction writer, would go on to found a controversial religion, but at that point he and Parsons were involved in a series of magical rituals to conjure up a suitable wife for Parsons. The writer, L. Ron Hubbard, had begun an affair with Jack’s girlfriend Betty who was also the younger sister of Jack’s former wife, and Jack was fine with that, but he did want a suitable “elemental” for both magic and sex.
He and Hubbard performed series of rituals, and Cameron, referred by a friend, appeared on Parsons’ doorstep to rent a room. They fell in love, married and did magic together. Hubbard and Betty disappeared taking several thousand dollars of Jack’s money, ostensibly to buy a yacht in Florida and sail it back to sell in California, though when they failed to return, Parson sped across country, conjured up a storm and drove the allegedly thieving sailors back to harbor.
Despite their devotion to each other and to occultism, Cameron left Jack for an extended period of time. She traveled to meet Aleister Crowley, but he died before she could reach him in England. Living for a period of time in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, Cameron met artists Leonora Carrington and David Siquieros and the Los Angeles performers Renate Druks and Paul Matheso, further inspiring her art. She returned to Jack in 1950, and the two resumed their magical practices, with Cameron also delving into the Los Angeles art world, becoming friends with George Herms and Wallace Berman and their circle.
Songs for the Witch Woman, a series of poems Jack wrote and Cameron illustrated are the foundation of the MOCA exhibition. The paintings, Cameron’s newly discovered drawings and Jack’s poems were recently published Fulgur Esoterica under the same title.
In 1952, as the couple was preparing to move to Mexico, while Cameron was running errands, an explosion ripped through garage where Parsons was packing up explosive materials. He was killed, and his mother learning of his death from the police, committed suicide. Bereft of family, having lost her mate, Cameron found solace in art, showing at the Ferus Gallery in 1957. Her piece Peyote Vision was considered so pornographic that the LAPD vice squad repeatedly raided the gallery.
Cameron continued to rebel in life as well as in art. She dated jazz musician Leroy Booth–a relationship that was illegal at the time because she was white and he was black. She continued her magical studies and immersed herself in Crowley’s writings, working with queer film maker Kenneth Anger, himself a follower of Crowley, on series of films with occult themes; and co-starring with Dennis Hooper in the 1961 film Night Tide, playing a witch. Curtis Harrington’s Wormwood Star shows Cameron creating paintings and burning them–something she did frequently as her work was often talismanic, designed as magical devices.
“Cameron: Songs for the Witch Woman” is a must-see for anyone interested in post-war Southern California art, in the counterculture, in occultism; and everyone who seeks to embrace life and death while transcending and transmuting the boundaries of the mundane, of society and the Self. It rusn form October 11, 2014 to January 11, 2015.