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Scarlet Woman

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I met Cameron in the mid '80s when I was still a banker and she was an old woman with a wild bohemian past; she was a painter of some note. My friend, the photographer Cynthia MacAdams, liked to bring people over to meet this incredible woman, a genuine witch, much to the disgruntlement of the subject on display.

She lived in a run-down part of West Hollywood in a spooky little cottage surrounded by bamboo. Though ordinarily a hard-core skeptic, I had no doubt that the old crone who had so begrudgingly welcomed me was the real deal -- the long, wild white hair, the deep raspy voice, the striking images on the walls, the books, the talisman, the candles, the incense, even the small crescent shaped witches' brooms scattered around the place. But she was a witch who practiced her magic through her art.

I first knew Cameron as an artist. I really loved her magical little paintings which she refused to sell. As I got to know her I slowly learned her life story.

Cameron was the widow of Jack Parsons, a brilliant young rocket scientist, writer and occultist killed in an explosion of mysterious origin at his home in Pasadena in 1952.

After her husband's death, Cameron embarked on a path that led her to become one of the most fascinating underground figures on the West Coast. An artist, performer, poet and occult practitioner, Cameron (Marjorie Cameron Parsons Kimmel, 1922-1995) was a maverick follower of the esoteric mysticism of Aleister Crowley and his philosophical group, the O.T.O. (Ordo Templi Orientis). Cameron was also an accomplished painter and mentor to younger artists and poets such as Wallace Berman, George Herms, Aya and David Meltzer.

Cameron rarely exhibited her art during her lifetime, but wanted it be seen after her death. At long last, three of her most important works are on display at the Pasadena Museum of California Art, as part of curator Michael Duncan's L.A. RAW: Abject Expressionism, part of the Getty's ongoing PST: Pacific Standard Time. It's the pinnacle of a unique, otherworldly and deeply occult character whose life and works merit broader appeal and greater attention.

The three pieces on view are the eerie "Buried Doll," which came from the collection of her friend, the late filmmaker Curtis Harrington, whose 1955 short film Wormwood Star is the only record of her work on the Babalon series, which she later burned in what she described as "a fit of madness." Her infamous drawing "Peyote Vision" was included in the first edition of Wallace Berman's Semina and gained notoriety when the LAPD vice squad cited it as "lewd" and shut down Berman's 1957 exhibition at the Ferus Gallery. Cameron depicted her husband Jack Parsons post mortem as the "Dark Angel," on display for the first time here since Traces du Sacré, the Pomidou Center's 2008 exhibition of 300 years of spirituality in art.

As we grew to be friends, she would occasionally ask for financial advice -- eventually Cameron would ask me to be co-executor of her estate which evolved into the non-profit Cameron Parsons Foundation, committed to finding, restoring and maintaining the work that still exists. Over the years, she shared with me the story of her life. What a story it was. One day it may be properly told, in print, documentary or feature form. Cameron always wanted Tilda Swinton to take her part.

Cameron enjoyed a long widowhood briefly interrupted by her marriage to Sherry Kimmel, Ken Kesey's inspiration for the character of McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.

She became the keeper Jack's legacy, for she believed that she had become the person that Jack felt she could be, the Spirit of Babalon, the Scarlett Woman. Her greatest desire was that her work would be seen and appreciated. I believe that is happening now. Somewhere on the moon, Jack and Cameron are smiling ... probably on the dark side.