I read somewhere that Maya Deren "was her own avant garde movement"; nothing makes more sense to me. Maya is regarded as one of the founders of the postwar American independent film. She was also involved with poetry, dance, ethnography, photography and promoted her own films. Her best known film is Meshes of the Afternoon,, wich ranks among the most widely viewed of all avant-garde films.
Maya (née Eleanora Derenkowsky) was born in Kiev in 1917. In 1922 her parents fled to the United States during a series of anti-Semitic pogroms in the Ukraine. They moved first to upstate New York and then briefly stayed in Ohio. In 1930 she entered the League of Nations' Internacional School in Geneva, Switzerland, where she became interested in world affairs. Returning to the United States, Maya studied journalism at the University of Syracuse and completed her undergraduate degree at New York University. She was active in the Socialist Party, serving in the Young People's Socialist League (YPSL), organizing and lecturing. During her years in New York she wrote poetry and became interested in photography and modern dance (she worked as an assistant for choreographer and dance anthropologist Katherine Dunham). In 1939 she received a master's degree in English Literature from Smith College.
Her second husband was the Czech filmmaker Alexander Hammid, who taught her filmmaking skills. Together the newlyweds made Meshes of the Afternoon in 1943 in Los Angeles. At this point Deren, whose family name was shortened from Derenkowsky in 1928, changes her name from Eleanora to Maya, influenced by The Tibetan Book of the Dead and the Hindu word for illusion. Her initial films were distinguished by innovative principles of continuity, with a very fluid concept of identity, creating a complex network of impersonations (and we drift with them). Moving back to New York that same year, Maya became actively involved in the creative life of Greenwich Village. She worked as a still photographer, producing artists' portraits and interiors for publication.
Maya continued making films trought the 1940's and 1950's, only completing six of them. She acted in her own films, which also casted friends, colleagues and fellow avant garde artists. In 1944 she made a film (not completed) at the the Peggy Guggenheim Art of this Century Gallery with Marcel Duchamp called Witches Cradle. In 1946, after distributing her films to colleges entirely on her own, she booked the Village's Provincetown Playhouse for a major public exhbition titled Three Abandoned Films- a showing of Meshes of the Afternoon, At Land and A Study for the Choreography of a Camera. Her successful public screening inspired Amos Vogel's formation of Cinema 16, the most successful film society of the 1950's. That same year she wrote her most sustained theoretical essay, An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form and Film. At the Cannes Film Festival in 1947 she won the "Grand Prix International for 16mm Film, Experimental Class"; that same year she left New York for nine months on a Guggenheim grant to Haiti to study dance ritual. During several subsequent trips to Haiti, she became interested and initiated into the practices of the "Voudoun" religion (Creole usage by Deren). As a result of her study on "voudoun", Maya wrote Divine Horsemen: The Living Gods of Haiti.
Troughout the 1950's, Deren devoted a lot of energy to the cause of avant-garde cinema and formed the Creative Film Foundation as an incentive to independent filmmakers. Sara Kathyrn was one of the first award winners, followed by Stan Brakhage, Robert Breer and Shirley Clarke.
Maya died in 1961 of a massive cerebral hemorrhage in New York City.
Here are a few books about Maya Deren:
Maya Deren and the American Avant-Garde, by Bill Nichols (University of California Press): includes the complete text of An Anagram of Ideas on Art, Form, and Film.
Legend of Maya Deren: A Documentary Biography and Collected Works: Signatures, by Veve A. Clark, Millicent Hodson, Catrina Neiman (Arthouse, Inc.).
Essential Deren: Complete Film Writings, by Maya Deren (McPherson & Co).
I have only actually read Maya Deren and the American Avant Garde, which is a great book by the way. I'm still waiting for my copy of Legend of Maya Deren... to arrive, you can easily buy used copies of that one. And if you are that interested on Maya's work, you can also easily buy her experimental films on the internet.