CALVIN BLACK (1903-1972) & RUBY BLACK (1915-1980)

Ruby Black

Tennessean Calvin Black met Georgia girl Ruby while he was traveling through the South working for circuses and carnivals. They married, and in 1953, believing a change of climate would be good for Calvin’s health, they moved to Yermo, in CA’s Mohave Desert. They named their plot of land Possum Trot, a term used in the rural South for a shortcut between two settlements. They built their home with lumber collected at the dump and shortly after Highway 15 was constructed near their property, the Blacks opened a rock shop. They posted signs inviting tourists to buy “Pop on Ice” and to “See the Art,” a collection of small-scale carousels, windmills, stagecoaches, trains, and over 80 handmade, nearly life-size dolls. Most of the dolls in their “Birdcage Theater” were named and modeled after famous women.

Calvin Black

Calvin carved the dolls’ heads and bodies, using a hatchet and pocketknife but beforehand, he would confer with Ruby about the personality and appearance of the new character. He carved the hair of the earliest figures, but later dolls received wigs found in the dump. All of the dolls wore hats and shoes, and Ruby designed and sewed their gowns. Calvin had learned ventriloquism as a young man, and he used this skill to provide different voices for the dolls. He wrote dialogue, songs, and music for their “Fantasy Doll Show.” Each doll held a can to encourage visitors to make a contribution beyond the initial 25-cent admission charge—the tip would be used to buy that particular doll perfume or jewelry. Calvin had asked Ruby to burn the dolls when he died, but she did not, preferring to keep the site intact. After her death in 1980, local interest in their art environment was not sufficient to save it, and Possum Trot was dismantled. Most of the dolls were sold to individual collectors.

Text by Seymour Rosen/Jo Farb Hernández (courtesy of Spaces)