[Today we feature guest journalist Zora Burden. 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. Her autobiographical writing narrates Goeff Cordner’s feature-length film “Portraits from the Fringes.” A segment of this film became the award-winning “Hotel Hopscotch,” which was shown in film festivals across the U.S. and on the BBC. Burden’s work focuses on feminism, radical outcasts, surrealist art, social activism, and the esoteric. She is a San Francisco native, where she still resides.Today we present part 1 of a two-part series.]Rosaleen Norton was a witch, occultist, artist, journalist and philosopher, who was infamous for her unapologetic, brazen and sexually-liberated lifestyle in Australia during the mid 20th century. Norton was known as the Witch of Kings Cross, named after the bohemian Kings Cross region of Sydney, Australia. To her friends, she was known as Roie; to others by her magickal name Thorn.
Norton practiced pantheistic witchcraft and what she called the night side of magick. She not only studied the Kabbalah but its shadow aspect the Qliphoth. She was a dedicated practitioner of sex magic and astral projection, exploring other realms and dimensions filled with both gods and mysterious creatures with whom she regularly communicated and captured in her art. These pieces were often compared to the automatic drawings of Austin Osmond Spare.
She led an incredibly controversial life; one that was constantly exploited and sensationalized in the media. Norton started out as an illustrator for periodicals but was dismissed from her jobs because her art was deemed too controversial. She found her outlet through a liberal magazine called Pertinent and it was then she met poet and surrealist Gavin Greenlees.Together they held an art show consisting of a huge body of her work. The show resulted in some of her art being confiscated by the police, including the paintings Witches’ Sabbath, Lucifer, and Triumph and Individuation. As a result, Norton was prosecuted for obscenity.
After a long successful legal battle, Norton and Greenlees moved to Kings Cross. It was then she met Dulcie Deamer, called “the Queen of Bohemia.” Norton gained much notoriety in the area when her art was included in Dreamer’s poetry book The Silver Branch.
Norton and Greenlees home became a haven for local eccentrics full of murals and collections. They kept a placard on the door that read “Welcome to the house of ghosts, goblins, werewolves, vampires, witches, wizards and poltergeists.” A book of her own poetry and art was released in 1952 and was simply called The Art of Rosaleen Norton. Once again, she was charged with obscenity, and in the U.S. the book was destroyed completely.
For decades, the police continued to look for excuses to prosecute her. The constant court cases left her impoverished, but she never stopped pursuing her work as a witch and artist. Norton’s art is still treasured by many collectors today. It appears in galleries and is reproduced in books. She died in 1979 from cancer, but her last words were triumphant: “I came into the world bravely; I’ll go out bravely.” There is a plaque dedicated to her memory at Kings Cross.In her day, Rosaleen Norton not only challenged every aspect of the female stereotype, but was also one of the most persecuted witches in the 20th century. Unlike her male counterpart occultist Aleister Crowley, who was never officially arrested once, Norton was arrested countless times. She founded her own coven and lived on her own terms through the great moral oppression of the 1940s and 1950s before the second wave of feminism ever began. Norton, in a sense, was a martyr for women’s liberation even though she did not identify with feminism.
To commemorate this remarkable life, Sonia Bible has written and directed a new documentary called The Witch of Kings Cross. As Sonia says, “The time has come to debunk the myths and reveal an intelligent, witty, complex woman who deserves recognition as a talented esoteric artist and writer.” I had the honor of conducting an interview with Sonia Bible about Rosaleen Norton and the upcoming film.
Zora Burden: How did you first become introduced to Rosaleen Norton’s story and what about her compelled you to create the documentary?
Sonia Bible: In 2010, I made a film called Recipe for Murder about women poisoning their husbands and family members with rat poison in Sydney in the early 50’s. During the research for that film, I came across Rosaleen Norton in various pulp publications. I started collecting articles about her and put them in the drawer, or the ‘too hard’ basket. But she just kept coming back and niggling at me, friends would mention her, I would see or hear things about her but I kept pushing the story aside…
Then in 2012, I was selected as an emerging filmmaker to be mentored by famous international documentary filmmakers as part of Adelaide Festival where Recipe for Murder had screened. Mexican filmmaker, Natalia Almada said, “There are no rules in documentary” and showed us her extraordinary experimental documentaries that had been shown at Sundance and The Guggenheim Museum. Then I just ‘saw’ it. The images were flying at me and I wanted to make an experimental ‘art’ film. Rosaleen’s story was the perfect topic …
What attracted me to her story? As a screenwriter and filmmaker, I’m always looking for a story that can become a film. It needs all the elements of a feature film. Some stories are better told as books or essays. Rosaleen Norton is a strong female protagonist. She has goals, she has obstacles, there is drama, there are antagonists and other character archetypes, and most importantly there is an opportunity to explore big themes. The film must be its own artwork and say something to the world.
ZB: Was is difficult to gather information on her?
SB: After receiving some development funding from Screen Australia in early 2013, I was able to employ a researcher, Imogen Semmler, for a month. We accessed everything that we could from library archives, police records, court transcripts, newspapers and all the photography and moving picture archives. That was a solid starting place.
Since then I have continued to research and am constantly uncovering new material. I am actually overwhelmed by the amount of information that I have. It all helps to build a picture that is truthful. Unfortunately, some of the television appearances that Rosaleen made have not been kept or have simply been lost in the records. I did find a television appearance that I believe noone else has seen for over fifty years. I got shivers up my spine when I previewed it at the archives…
I continue to gather research material and am about to embark on the major task or pulling all the images of artworks together. It is very difficult as the film is not yet financed, so I continue independently, without a research assistant or the other resources you would have on a commissioned film. I am working with a fabulous producer, Peter Butt who has a long career making history films. He is always there with advice and support so I’m not completely alone in a sea of research.
ZB: How were you able to fund the process so far?
SB: In late 2012, we got some development funding from Screen Australia and Screen Queensland … I delivered all the requirements for the funding in late 2013 and since then have found it difficult to raise the finance to make the film … We did a crowd funding campaign last year and raised enough money to film some test drama so that I could make a slick promo, as well as film a few more interviews … Luckily my husband is a cameraman and we own equipment. So we have both [have] been shooting interviews with no money, no-one is getting paid and it has been incredibly difficult. I think it’s a real shame that Australian history is not supported by the funding bodies at the moment in this country …
This story is on the edge of living memory and I feel responsible for the research that has found its way to me. I have become the caretaker of this story for the time being and I am always aware of doing the right thing by Roie…
ZB: The response to your work has been positive. Do you think it would have been embraced like it has if the film had been planned years prior?
SB: Currently people are reacting to a three minute promo and the pitch for the film. I do think the time is ripe for this film, and I am pleased to be the one who is making it. I will be doing my utmost to make something that really makes people think about the world we have created. I aim to make films that question the world rather than answer the questions.
ZB: Was there a large interest in Rosaleen among fans and friends that inspired you?
SB: In my life, the interest in Rosaleen has grown organically with the project. It started out as me making my third women’s history film, possibly for the ABC. Since then it has morphed into an independent ‘art’ film that could honestly now be described as an obsession. I have met wonderful passionate people who knew Rosaleen, or who have studied her work in one way or another. I have been blown away by the effect that this woman has on people. She has touched so many peoples’ lives. I feel privileged to be the person to introduce her to a wider audience. It is also a responsibility that I don’t take lightly…
ZB: Did anything about her personally resonate with you?
SB: Rosaleen was courageous and uncompromising. She is ultimately inspirational. I think she has inspired me more than anything. She has inspired me to take risks step outside the safety of convention. In the last three years, that I’ve been working on the film, I have faced scrutiny and criticism, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced before. Rosaleen has given me the strength to face the obstacles and to just keep on creating and not get distracted by the critics.
[Next Saturday, in Part 2 of the interview, Burden talks to Bible specifically about Norton’s life and its influence. BIble reveals some of the details that she found during her research as well as the discussing the reason that Norton became a feminist icon]