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The Trippy Art (and Trippier Life) of Occult Artist Marjorie Cameron

Twenty years after her death, Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel finally has the spotlight.

Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel (1922-1995) was an artist and occult practitioner whose remarkable work has only been rediscovered by the public since the first extensive survey of her art last year in Los Angeles at MOCA's Pacific Design Center. Now, Deitch Projects in New York is exhibiting many of the same pieces, bringing Cameron's oeuvre to the East Coast and further shining a light on her rare talent. Yet perhaps just as fascinating as Cameron's art is the quintessentially bohemian life that she led, and the way her life informed her art, and vice-versa.

Cameron’s spirit always burned with a profound wanderlust that extended back to her childhood. She was born on April 23, 1922 and raised in the small town of Belle Plaine, Iowa, with three younger siblings. As both sides of Cameron’s family worked in the railroad industry, the Chicago Northwest Railroad was the backdrop for her formative years, which the artist described as being difficult at best, owing to her early connection with people who rejected normative codes of behavior. “I became associated with women who were all considered antisocial for some reason or another,” Cameron said. “They were not following the chosen paths.”

Cameron’s grandfather worked in the roundhouse, where railroad engines were stored, and for a while, Cameron’s father worked there, too. She called it her "secret realm." The railway itself was also a line of demarcation in their modest town, severing the connection between the haves and the have-nots. But by all appearances, Cameron didn’t care about that long, narrow mark; her friends occupied both sides of the divide.

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Cameron, June 2, 1962. Printed, poem and drawing included in Semina 8, 1963. (Courtesy of Cameron Parsons Foundation)

The only one of her relatives to have red hair, Cameron herself was always the black sheep in her family, and her talents as an artist only set her further apart from her surroundings: “When I was in kindergarten, I was taken out of the regular schools and put into a special school because they recognized that I had above average abilities,” she said.

Whether because of her precocious talent, misfit social circles, active imagination or all of the above, Cameron remained an outcast, yet she still vividly described her early years as being full of black cats, magical thoughts, art, and poetry.

Though born and raised in the midwest, Cameron was always drawn to Los Angeles. “To move to California was my dream,” she declared. “It’s just that our actions in a small town were more open to censorship than they are [in L.A.], where nobody gives a damn what you do.”

Upon high school graduation, Cameron was offered scholarships that she didn’t use, choosing instead to enlist in the Navy and eventually serving as part of the “Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service,” a.k.a. the WAVES—a branch of the armed forces established in 1942 that attracted qualified patriotic females. It also appealed to Cameron’s nomadic nature as well.

Cameron worked with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, where her responsibilities were so secretive, they turned her own life into an equally restrictive and disconnected existence. Due to the alienating nature of her work, Cameron requested a transfer and moved to Washington, D.C., where she served in a photographic science lab on the Potomac dubbed the “Hollywood Navy,” as most of the people there had gone into the service from Tinseltown. She remained there for three years until the war ended in 1945.

After the war, Cameron moved to the Los Angeles area to join her family, who had moved there in the interim. While at the unemployment office, Cameron ran into an old acquaintance who asked her to drop by the house of a "mad scientist" that he wanted her to meet. That mad scientist was Jack Parsons, and his home was the Agape Lodge, which Cameron described as huge house that had supposedly been built by Anheuser-Busch. It was the U.S. outpost of the Ordo Tempi Orientis, a secret society run by Aleister Crowley (1875-1947).

Parsons and Cameron instantly fell in love, spending two straight weeks together holed up inside the “lodge” in Parsons’ bed, which he claimed once belonged to Cardinal Borgia. Soon, the pair were married in a civil ceremony on October 19, 1946 in San Juan Capistrano.

Not long before his wedding to Cameron, Parsons had begun associating with science-fiction writers, who were, as Cameron explained, “rather bemused over the occult connection.” L. Ron Hubbard, who later founded Scientology, was one of them. “He and Hubbard had been doing this invocation, and I had walked in.” Parsons and Hubbard later had a falling out, and the exact nature of the secret ritual in which Cameron unwittingly took part continues to be shrouded in mystery, as secret rituals tend to be.

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Cameron and Parsons (Courtesy of Cameron Parsons Foundation)

At Parsons’ urging, Cameron then traveled to England in 1947 to meet Aleister Crowley, but the 72-year-old British occultist died before she arrived. Cameron then spent three weeks in Lugano, Switzerland before coming back to the States. Not long after her return from Europe, Cameron left again to live in San Miguel de Allende, Mexico, this time staying for two years—without her husband. When she moved back, the couple returned to Pasadena, and Cameron found herself becoming part of a burgeoning artistic milieu. Through Parsons, she met people who were involved in jazz, poetry and the visual arts, including Wallace Berman (1926-1976), whose contribution to American art history remains firmly entrenched in Southern California’s cultural landscape.

Tragically, Jack Parsons was killed on June 17, 1952 in a mysterious explosion at his home laboratory at the age of 37. It was the day before he and Cameron planned to leave together for Mexico. Immediately after Parsons’ death, Cameron went to Mexico alone for three months in order to escape the media, who hounded her as stories developed concerning Parsons’ sensational occult connections and bizarre death. Still grieving, she then spent the next year in the then-barren landscape of Beaumont, California making art and exploring her spirituality.

When Cameron came back to Los Angeles, a friend she met in Mexico named Paul Mathison introduced her to Kenneth Anger. Though he later became infamous for a pair of books called Hollywood Babylon, Anger was then focused on pursuing another profession. He used part of his $28,000 inheritance from his recently departed mother to further his career as a filmmaker, directing seminal psychedelic art films such as Inauguration of the Pleasure Dome (1954), which initially featured French writer Anaïs Nin in the lead role.

While Anger himself has since declared himself a devout Crowleyite, Cameron said she was the one who introduced Crowley’s work to Anger. “He claims now that he knew about it earlier, but he didn’t,” she said. Nevertheless, under Crowley’s posthumous tutelage, the original plot of Pleasure Dome changed to replace Anaïs Nin with Cameron in the 38-minute avant-garde film.

“I call myself a catalyst and I'm a visionary,” Cameron once said. “I don't confine myself to any one scene.” She was referring to her numerous collaborations, including those with Kenneth Anger and Wallace Berman, who, according to Cameron, wasn’t too keen on Anger. Cameron’s collaboration with Anger has since turned her own appearance in Pleasure Dome into an iconic image following her death, while her association with Berman helped give Cameron a small but intense kind of recognition during her lifetime, one that would involve the hazy interstice of art and drugs.

It was under the influence of peyote that Cameron created the one drawing that became famous while she was still alive, Peyote Vision. Within the context of the buttoned-down, mid-century American zeitgeist, the piece was a scandalous reflection of a repressed sexuality that would come to the surface in the late ‘60s, but at the time, it was practically pornographic. Still, Wallace Berman reproduced it in Semina, an art publication he published that features Cameron’s image on the 1955 debut edition. In 1957, Berman had an exhibition at the short-lived Ferus Gallery on La Cienega, and upon the show’s opening, the L.A. County Sheriff's Department shut it down, all because of Cameron's drawing.

Cameron, “Peyote Vision,” 1955 (Courtesy Cameron Parsons Foundation)

The artist's own discordance with conservative society became apparent in another way. She became pregnant by an unknown man, and gave birth to her daughter Crystal in 1955. Four years later, Cameron married Sheridan Kimmel, but her second husband also died in the mid-‘60s, consequently facilitating Cameron’s single motherhood, which railed against the prevailing notion of the nuclear family.

For the rest of her life, the two-time widow and single mom devoted herself to practicing Tai Chi, smoking pot, and spending time with her loved ones and beloved grandchildren. And still making art, of course.

Cameron passed away on July 24, 1995, leaving behind many friends, her daughter, and six grandchildren. Her refusal to be pinned down to any one “scene” partly contributed to the art world’s inability to associate Cameron with any specific style or category. Also, the artist’s strong reluctance to sell her work (and history of destroying it) made it even more difficult for the public to see her art during her lifetime. These are just a few of the many complicated reasons Cameron's work went largely unrecognized. Thanks to the nonprofit Cameron Parsons Foundation, which has collected several interviews with the artist and supplied many of the pieces in the new show at Deitch Projects, we've been able to learn more about the singular woman who was too long in the shadows, until now.

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Cameron ca. 1969 (Photo credit: A.R.Tarlow)

Cameron: Cinderella of the Wastelands is on view at Deitch Projects through October 17, 2015.

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