[Once again we feature guest journalist Zora Burden and resume the conversation with filmmaker Sonia Bible, who is currently making a film about Rosaleen Norton or the Witch of Kings Cross. Burden is the author of five books of poetry and a contributing writer for the San Francisco Herald and California Herald for over 15 years. This article is the second part of a two-part series. The first part was published last week and can be found here.]Zora Burden: Do you see her as being a feminist icon?
Sonia Bible: Rosaleen Norton was at the vanguard of feminism and the counter-culture revolution. She was doing it, living it, decades before the second wave of feminism. From the late thirties, when she left art school she was living an unconventional life. She was so ahead of the times, and it is important to look at her in that context.
Women were allowed to work during the war, and after World War II, women were told to go back into the homes, get married have babies and to desire washing machines. Divorce was frowned upon, eighty percent of the population was Christian, abortion was illegal and there was no social security for women at all. In the fifties, Rosaleen was divorced, living in sin with a man 13 years her junior, had no children, was living as an artist and was a self proclaimed witch. I certainly consider her a feminist icon.
ZB: Did she have many women who admired her? Or were there mainly males in her social circles?
SB: I spoke to Dr. Barbara Creed, author of The Monstrous Feminine about Rosaleen Norton. She told me how in the late sixties … she had heard about Rosaleen Norton. She and her friends hitchhiked to Sydney, went to Kings Cross and walked around looking for her. They had hoped to catch a glimpse of Rosaleen Norton, a woman they idolized as a feminist icon. By the late sixties and into the seventies, Australia was catching up. Younger educated women would have seen her as a feminist at that time.
Rosaleen did have a lot of male admirers in her life. In the early research stage, I appeared on the James Valentine radio show, with the aim of getting people to call in if they knew her or met her. We had a lot of callers and then people emailed later too. One woman, whose father was infatuated with Rosaleen, contacted me. She said she thought it was interesting that everyone who called in were men. Or the story was ‘My father… my uncle… or my grandfather…’ I did notice this trend as well.
But what I learned from working on Recipe for Murder, when you are dealing with history, it’s important to keep digging. Often the women were there, they just don’t become part of the history. Women of that era are less likely to come forward. They think that their story is not important, so as researchers and tellers of history we think that they didn’t exist. By digging deeper and also because the film has been a long time in gestation, I have found that there was a strong community of creative women around Rosaleen, particularly in the earlier years.
I interviewed dancer Eileen Kramer, who has just turned 100. She lived with Rosaleen in an all woman artistic commune in Circular Quay in the late thirties. There are more stories or creative collaborations in the forties. As with most people, Rosaleen had many different stages in her life. There certainly was a stage when there were a lot of men in her life. There was also a stage when there were a lot of transgender people in her life …ZB: How do you feel she affected the women’s liberation movement then and now?
SB: I admire her courage and determination. She never compromised, even though it would have made her life considerably easier. I think, in the late sixties and seventies, she would have been an inspiration to young women at university etc. I do think that she has the potential to affect the women’s liberation movement now in a more profound way.
ZB: Will you give examples of how Rosaleen was punished by the male establishment for her rebelliousness, like with her extensive arrest record and constant scapegoating in the media?
SB: Following the razor gang war of the 20’s and 30’s, when Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine ruled the underworld, the Vagrancy Act of 1929 was introduced to stem the violence. A consorting clause was designed to clean up the street gangs. It specified heavy penalties, including jail for anyone who consorts with reputed thieves, or prostitutes, or vagrant persons who have no visible or legal means of support.
Kings Cross police abused the vagrancy act to persecute artists, transvestites, musicians…anyone who didn’t have a job really. Rosaleen Norton and Gavin Greenlees were constantly arrested on vagrancy charges and thrown into jail. A couple of Catholic detectives really had it in for her, including the notorious Detective Bumper Farrell. Once the tabloid media realized that Rosaleen Norton sold newspapers, they pursued her for stories, and it didn’t matter if they were true or not. Dr Marguerite Johnson talks extensively about the changing relationship between Rosaleen and the media in the film.
ZB: Can you describe the many ways she lived an unconventional lifestyle?
SB: For a woman to be an artist in the late 30’s, 40’s and 50’s was a rarity. To be a woman artist painting occult themes was extremely unconventional. Rosaleen lived in group housing with other young women artists in Circular Quay and then in Darlinghurst. In those days, women got married young, had babies and that was it. Looking after a husband and a family was the only expectation.
ZB: What inspired Rosaleen’s infamous artwork? How did she cope with her arrest? Please talk about the obscenity laws that they used to prosecuted her.
SB: Rosaleen Norton holds a unique place in Australian art as an esoteric artist. The late Dr Nevill Drury explains how she went on to the astral plane through trance and met the various gods and goddesses there. Her paintings and drawings are depictions of these experiences. Art curator and dealer Robert Buratti explains how her art is like the most ancient art, where the artist depicts their place in the universe as a way of figuring it out. Dr Marguerite Johnson talks in detail about the meanings and origins of the gods and goddesses in Rosaleen’s art and the notion of duality – between male and female, human and beast. The work is extraordinary and when you start to look into the symbolism in the work, it comes to life on a whole other level.
Rosaleen Norton coped with her obscenity charges with dignity. She never apologized for the work. She tried to explain it and charges were often dropped. The judges on the most part seemed quite reasonable, but it didn’t stop the police from continuing to arrest her for the same pictures over and over again. The police were the censors.
ZB: How did Rosaleen survive as a woman artist during a time when women had no real options for work, living as a single woman and was so open with her sexuality?
SB: Rosaleen worked as a journalist, writing articles for ‘pertinent’ magazine. She and Gavin were employed by Walter Glover to create the book The Art of Rosaleen Norton. She did little paintings and drawings that she would sell at the cafés. People would bring food and coffee to the house, and she would give them a little drawing or something. I’ve uncovered quite a few of those artworks, all with similar stories. She was always very poor, but she didn’t desire a material life. She thought that people should worship nature not the dollar.
ZB: Will you describe how she influenced those around, and how her coven came about, operated and evolved? Did she prefer to work alone and the coven was more of an entourage?
SB: The coven was made up of a small group of close friends who liked to practice magick together. The members I’ve spoken to are protective of their privacy and I respect that, so I don’t have much to offer in that area. She worked alone at times and other times with a small close-knit group.
ZB: Do you feel she was ahead of her time with her explorations of the astral plane and the occult, working with the entities she met, along with her other esoteric interests?
SB: Rosaleen was a very studious woman. She was well versed in the works of Jung, Freud, Crowley, the Jewish Kabbalah, and much more. She developed her own unique practice while continuing to learn from others. She was a prolific writer, and much of her writing is still coming to the surface through my research…
SB: I think her art was a serious ritual practice and that she should be recognized as Australia’s leading esoteric artist. She did little caricatures of judges and police that were a response to what was going on. But there is a difference between the little works for bread and butter and the major works. There are comments about society in some of her major works, about censorship … She was certainly provocative and communicating through her art. She held a mirror up to society and they didn’t like it. I don’t think that she considered her life a performance, as performance art is a modern concept. She did what she did to survive and to live the life she wanted and that included managing the media. You’ve got to remember that there was no precedent. People weren’t as media savvy as they are today.
ZB: How do you see her as inspiring women today to empower themselves?
SB: I’m not so sure that she would want to inspire women today to empower themselves. I think she did what she did, and lived the way she wanted for her own reasons. And that’s why she is an inspirational woman without necessarily trying to be. Women’s history is so important as it’s easier to see where we are now, by looking back at where we’ve come from. There’s still a way to go so let’s celebrate the things that courageous women like Rosaleen Norton did to pave the way.