During a life that ended in 1995, Marjorie Elizabeth Cameron Parsons Kimmel was an occultist, an artist, an actress and wife to one of the world’s first rocket scientists. Neighbors and local newscasters called her a witch.
Cameron wasn’t really a witch. She was born normally enough — 1922 in Belle Plaine, Iowa. But from the very beginning, her art provoked.
“The first drawing that she did in school was somewhat obscene and she got in trouble for it,” says Scott Hobbs, who was a friend of Cameron and helped start the Cameron-Parsons Foundation in order to preserve and promote Cameron’s work.
Cameron kept drawing after school. In the '40s she joined the U.S. Navy, where she drew maps for admirals and worked in a photographic unit during World War II.
After the war, Cameron moved to Pasadena where she found work as a fashion illustrator for newspapers. While she was living in Pasadena, she met Jack Parsons. The co-founder of Jet Propulsion Laboratory and a renowned occultist, Parsons lived in a towering craftsman on Orange Grove that had become infamous for late night revelries.
The two stayed married until Parsons' death in an explosion in his garage in 1952. In that time, Cameron’s husband Jack influenced her art with the teachings of occultist Aleister Crowley, mythology and magic rituals.
Cameron’s art continued to stimulate. A reproduction of her erotic “Peyote Vision” drawing — not much larger than a matchbook — showed in L.A.’s famous Ferus gallery in the '50s. There, it also became a target for L.A.’s vice cops.
“It was considered obscene and the L.A. police raided the gallery more than once,” Hobbs says. “As result of that Cameron vowed to never show in a gallery again. And she pretty well kept to that.”
But Cameron wasn’t only anti-commercial with her art, she was also destructive with it. “At one point in the early 50s she destroyed all of her work,” says Hobbs. “She burned it. Some of it survived because she sold it to friends for little.”
Director Curtis Harrington’s video portrait of Cameron stands as the only visual record of many of the works she burned:
Cameron had a reputation as an enchantress — and an allure about her on screen that led to acting work too. She shows up alongside Dennis Hopper in the 1961 mermaid creature feature “Night Tide.” Cameron plays a mysterious sea-witch:
Cameron was more than just the real-life witch local TV stations would interview on Halloween, more than the woman who dressed in black and drove a hearse. Hobbs says we shouldn’t forget about Cameron the artist.
With the help of Hobbs and the Cameron-Parsons foundation, Yael Lipschutz is curating a show at MOCA that will focus on Cameron’s work.
“It’s an exciting opportunity for younger artists to see the output of someone who has a rather mythic underground status in the art world but whose objects and creations we haven’t had the opportunity to see in the flesh,” Lipschutz says.
There’s no denying Cameron was a prominent figure in the counterculture and beat movements here in L.A., influencing artists like George Herms and Wallace Berman with what Lipschutz calls a romantic, William Blake-like sensibility. Much of Cameron’s work remains obscure because of her own choices, but that doesn’t mean she wasn’t always working on her art.
“She led a sort of renegade life,” Lipschutz says. According to Lipschutz, Cameron was known to escape to the desert, where she led a primal lifestyle and was handy with a shotgun. “No matter how poor her existence was, she never stopped creating,” Lipschutz says. “...It was always the fire that I think fueled her, more than anything.”
As a caretaker and promoter of Cameron’s work, Scott Hobbs agrees that, while Cameron’s fantastic life story might first get your attention, her art will keep you under its spell.
“Her work really does stand on its own,” Hobbs says. “I don’t meet people quite like that anymore.”
There’s a new book out called “Songs for the Witch Woman” that features Cameron’s drawings and Jack Parsons poetry.
Cameron's upcoming MOCA show runs October 11 through next January.