Monday, March 7, 2016

Calvin Black's Possum Trot Dolls (Outsider Art Americana)

Good morning!!

How are things? Same old, same old here in my camp-- I've been listening to a lot of Bruce Springsteen, going to a lot of estate sales, and eating as many tacos as my conscience will allow...but don't worry, things aren't as dire as they were in the last blog post. I'mma survive, people! I'm looking forward to going to the beach in a week and giving new meaning to chillaxing by my egregious example of self same behavior. But enough about me-- how you? I hope 2016 has been treating your well thus far!

Hi-ya, friend!
What brings me back to my own private corner of the internet? I was watching a trailer for a movie on Amazon Prime called Almost There early last week and had completely forgotten, the next day, the title of said movie. I googled "outsider artist movie" and came across this helpful list of things I really, really needed to know about, which included an entry on a short film called Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972 . In the words of the list author:
Folk artist and ventriloquist Calvin Black created a makeshift tourist attraction in California’s Mojave Desert in 1954 known as Possum Trot. Black created more than 80 life-size female dolls, which he used to perform with during shows set inside his Bird Cage Theater -- each one with their own personality and voice. You can see the strangely grotesque figures in action in Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black, 1903-1972. Their odd, misshapen forms combined with Black’s quavering impersonation and the desert landscape is a truly surreal experience.
"Truly surreal" is an understatement. I came away from this short documentary completely obsessed with the idea of these dolls and the man who fashioned them, whittled away from salvaged wood and his own feverishly febrile imagination, and it inspired me to come tell you all about it over here at She Was a Bird. Folks, let me introduce you to the weird, weird world of Calvin Black, pictured below with some of his creations:

Does the dollmaker not weirdly resemble the dolls?
Throughout the twenty-eight minute runtime of the documentary, I was sitting with my mouth slightly open. I started watching it in the background of my computer, figuring, like a bunch of the folk documentaries I've been through in recent weeks (as work doldrums threaten to consume my living mind, haha), that it would be as much an aural experience as a visual one. When the tape-recorded, falsetto warblings of Calvin Black in the voice of his dolls started in the first minute or two, I had to stop the movie and back it up to the beginning. Because I would need to see EXACTLY what was going on with this.

The documentary opens with a helicopter shot of a series of ramshackle buildings, the whistle of a desert wind filling the silence of the isolated California landscape. The silence gives way to a reel to reel recording of Calvin Black doing the voice of "...Helen Marvel of the Bird Cage Theeee-ater, out here on Ghost Town Road, out in Possum Trot, California", and the camera begins to cover the exterior of the buildings in detail. Every outdoor surface is festooned with weirdly stoic wooden figures in varying weatherbeaten stages of still life. Some are rigged to be wind powered, arms akimbo, one pair of legs pedaling a stationery bike. Some are just lashed different parts of the building, hair blowing in their eyes and those eyes unblinkingly painted into close-set recesses on their smooth laquered faces. Handpainted signs litter the property: "We don't know where Ma is but we have Pop on Ice", "Often seen Jim and his Limb". And most importantly, in large letters over the main building: "BIRD CAGE THEATRE: FANTASY DOLL SHOW."

Out from the rabbit's warren of outbuildings emerges Ruby Calvin, a stout woman in a kerchief and a man's pullover, a shaggy black dog in tow.  The following dialogue ensues:
1: Hello!
2: Hello.
1: What is this place? What do you have inside?
2: Uh, have...all kinna stuff. Jewelry and rough rocks and postcards...and things.
1: Who made all these dolls?
2: My husband carved the dolls. Head and body's made out of redwood, and uh, their noses and arms, feet, legs are made out of sugar pine.
1: Do you have more dolls inside?
2: Yeah, have some inside...even have one with teeth carved in his mouth. 

TELL ME MORE, I says, PLEASE DO TELL ME MORE. Over the next half hour, Ruby Black, Calvin's widow, takes us through the buildings, describing the life she led with Calvin and the business she shared with her husband for almost twenty of the thirty four years they were married. After moving to the desert for Calvin's health to a parcel of land they bought from ad in the back of a magazine (!!), the self-taught artist and former carnival worker began carving the dolls shortly after the building was finished.

The isolation of the desert setting, the palpable absence of showman/dollmaker, the eerie motionlessness of the totem-like dolls in the amateur roadside attraction he created...those are all just parts of the draw here. Look at the actual dolls themselves, in place in their Birdcage Theatre:

Each of the dolls were lovingly carved by Black from downed telephone poles or highway posts and other scrap materials, featuring "doll gowns by Ruby" (as you can see on the sign above the stage), stitched and sewn by his wife. According to another interview subject who actually saw one of these performances, Calvin would lead tourists into the building and give a short speech before the stage, then play guitar and sing in synchronized routines with the dolls, some of whom had been outfitted with recorded tapes of dialogue and snatches of songs. Think "Showbiz Pizza" but in the most primitive of settings. An "admission" of a twenty-five cents or greater donation, and any other  tips for the girls in "kitty boxes" displayed in front of the figures, would go towards buying new clothes and even perfume for the figures, which grew eventually to number over eighty individual dolls. I couldn't help but think of taking some road trip circa 1970 and stumbling across this great big piece of weirdness in the middle of the California desert. At the same time as I probably would have been afraid for my life, it must have been SOMETHING. ELSE. to see this place in its heyday. 

One of the more extraordinary parts of the film features a stop-motion animation of the dolls frolicking around the building at the twenty two minute mark. If you thought these things looked unsettling sitting still, you can imagine my feelings towards them when they take on human motion, swinging their arms and rocking back and forth to the atonal singing and guitar strumming of their predeceased creator. It reminded me of Czech filmmaker Jan ┼ávankmajer -- and just in the way this his work can be uneasy watching, it shares the same fascinating singularity. It's WONDERFUL by sheer dint of it unusualness. Where ELSE are you going to see something like this?

All of this, but moving. It is WILD.
Though Calvin initially asked that the dolls be burned upon his death, Ruby kept the figures and the property together as it was at his death until 1985, when she herself was found dead of heart failure at Possum Trot. An eyesore to the community, there was a failed attempt to leave the collection intact before the outfittings of the buildings and dolls were sold to an art dealer in Los Angeles for around $36,000 in today's money. In 2007, the Sherion doll alone (pictured below), sold for $96,000, and are hot pieces of "outsider art" for collectors of the same.

Which brings me to a secondary concern, besides what a trip the documentary was-- is the old "it BELONGS in a MUSEUM" chestnut applicable here? And if not in a museum, certainly not in some millionaire's Neutra-style LA house, right? As a frequenter of estate sales myself, I do often ask myself where heartfelt, beloved items "belong" after the person to whom they had such significance passes away...and in this case, the intimately-connected, sense of self-expression of the dolls makes this issue resonate twice as strongly. Robbed of their context, are these pieces not kind of "wrong"? Not wrong in the sense of morally unsupportable, but wrong in the sense of "not correct", inauthentic.? As magical as the dolls seem, outside of their "home" and with their creator long gone, re-invented as collectibles rather than personal totems, they do seem weirdly sad to be orphaned, scattered to the four winds, never to perform again?

The people initially trying to save Possum Trot put forth the following idea in the 80's, shortly after Ruby's death, but as you can see, none of it came to fruition:


I could see someone posting this documentary or photos of the dolls to Reddit's Creepy thread, but I think there's something so much more interesting at play here than "ooh look, what a weirdo, how weird, bet he's a murrrrrderer or something!!" that I'm sure a first glance would gain the Possum Trot gang. Eerie as the place is (especially at night! See: last few minutes of the film), set aside the idea of some James Wan creation taking place in the Birdcage Theatre. Instead, think about the earnestness that went into making this one man's wonderland out in the middle of the California desert. No, the figures are not Disney-quality, but they're pretty ingenious for a man with no formal training or education to dream up out of his own imagination, with what he had on hand. And, besides that, the WHY of it, THAT'S the most fascinating part. When you think of all the time and effort and single-mindness of vision that went into executing the theater and its "girls", it's nothing short of amazing. I have always liked, as is the subject of many of these folk documentaries and short films, the idea of art being made in a vacuum, without encouragement, some times in the face of open discouragement, in spite of lack of resources, in spite of lack of interest-- because you just have to create whatever it is you're moved to create. Think of how there must have been some keening wail of creativity deep down in Calvin Black that drove him not only to make the first doll, but to make almost a hundred more where that came make them a theater to work in and a world to inhabit, to keep working with them. And, as he says in recordings from the documentary, if people come and pay to see it, sure, that's great-- but it's the act of having pulled it off and having it seen and appreciated for which the man worked, far more so than the monetary gain of it.

The dolls in situ at the Possum Trot site, with Calvin
So, taken from that context of being a single vision, without their creator, put up on an auction block for thousands of dollars...what does that make the dolls now? And what else can you do with them, except appreciate them as art objects, now that their creator and the space they were created in are both long gone? ((sighs)) I don't know. I DO KNOW I would give my eye teeth to see some of these in person. I wonder if I'll get the chance!

Here are just about as many of the dolls as I could find online. If you've seen any others, bring 'em to my attention, I'm-kind-of-obsessed, thanks-in-advance:

Bob Greenberg's collection of Possum Trot dolls, now displayed in a case in the office of his ad agency's waiting room

Watch the whole documentary here and see for yourself:


I've got to get going, but do tell me-- how'd you like the documentary? What do you think of the dolls? How do you feel about things being scattered to the four winds? 

You'd better believe I have a back log as long as it is tall of vintage stuff to tell you about-- will try to hurry back before too long and give you the scoop! :) Have a great Monday afternoon, and I'll see you again soon! Til then.


  1. This line really spoke to me:

    "I have always liked, as is the subject of many of these folk documentaries and short films, the idea of art being made in a vacuum, without encouragement, some times in the face of open discouragement, in spite of lack of resources, in spite of lack of interest-- because you just have to create whatever it is you're moved to create."

    Great stuff; an anthem for artists everywhere.

  2. Lisa! I just saw this after checking in to see if you have any new blog posts. I know life and it's trove of commitments have taken over. Without going into too much verbosity, I have to say this was a priceless post, not so much in in the fact you took time to write about the subject- that is a well known fact of the blog- that the subject even existed in the first place! There are so many take always on this for me which will only add to how I see things in my going forward in my ordinary world! I am astounded Calvin created all that wonderland, of course. That is the subject of the short film. His wife was a perfect match for him-what if they hadn't met? I loved to see they did have friends in their community- how dressed and polished they were for the filming in the diner! On another layer is the fact the documentary film makers had a vision as well to preserve this wonderland, what was left after Calvin passed away. I yet another reason why humans need art, creativity, ingenuity and the mediums in which to possess, release and preserve! I see these dolls in time being in a museum one day. It will happen, time just hasn't allowed it to. I must admit, on first glance I thought them to be not my flavor of tea. However, learning beyond their surface, i see they can't be judged by appearance alone. I now see them as unique, through the film of course, and only one person could create these. That is art. A gift from one. Thanks for sharing this. I can't wait to let my friends know about this too!



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