From Out of the Desert, Wooden Dolls Carve a Niche in Folk Art World : The Reincarnation of Possum Trot Theater

Times Staff Writer

Allie Light and her 14-year-old daughter, Julia, were driving through the Mojave desert in 1974 when they noticed what appeared to be a yard full of scarecrows. It was one of those roadside attractions with a neglected look about it, the kind of place tourists often pass by. Light stopped the car anyway. Walking around the property, about eight miles east of Barstow on Highway 15, she and Julia saw dozens of solemn-faced homemade dolls, some mounted on carrousels. In the wind, the wooden platforms groaned and the dolls jerked like puppets.

The Lights were about to head on down the road when they saw an old woman sitting on the porch of a nearby shack.

"She was quite a sight, dried and burned looking and wearing a dress she had lived in for a long time," Light wrote in her journal entry of June 20, 1974. "Her hair was matted and full of bobby pins. She was hard of hearing, but needed to talk in the worst way."

Ruby Black explained that her husband, Calvin, had spent nearly 20 years carving the dolls, rigging them with wires and speakers so they could sing. The power of the wind made them dance. Since Calvin had passed away two years before, Ruby had stayed up nights with the coffee pot on and her shotgun nearby, guarding the imaginary community they called Possum Trot.

When Ruby Black died in 1980, there was no one left to protect the wind-powered puppet theater, and no interest among the local community in saving it.

"They (the Blacks) were mostly disliked, people thought the place should be torn down," Light said from her San Francisco home in a recent telephone interview.

Los Angeles folk art dealer Larry Whiteley purchased all 86 of Calvin Black's dolls, as well as the signs and other paraphernalia that made up Possum Trot.

Today, 14 years after Calvin Black's death, his creations are in demand among folk art collectors on both coasts. Individual dolls have sold for as much as $30,000, said Whiteley, who displays the last 15 dolls remaining for sale in his gallery on La Brea Avenue.

The dolls Calvin Black never wanted to see separated--he asked Ruby to burn them upon his death--now travel to museums and galleries all over the country. They are currently appearing at the Cincinnati Contemporary Arts Center where a symposium addressed the phenomenon of artists like Calvin Black who create lasting work against many odds.

"Part of the magic of this stuff is that it's done by people who aren't allowed to be creative or aren't assumed to be creative," said Seymour Rosen, a Los Angeles-area photographer who has documented and worked to preserve folk art for 30 years. Rosen, who participated in the Cincinnati symposium, said that folk artists tend not to be acknowledged due to factors such as class, age, lack of formal training and the fact that they live far from recognized cultural centers.

While collectors and museums trade Calvin Black dolls as if they were baseball cards, those who witnessed Possum Trot in its intact state feel that breaking up the collection is akin to scattering a family--for the Blacks, who were childless, in fact believed on some level that the dolls were their children.

"Distributing the Black stuff to the four winds is a form of destruction," Rosen said. "It wasn't a bunch of separate dolls, but a world these people created."

Artist Michael Hall has attempted to reconstruct a corner of that world in his Michigan home. Hall said he first bought a Black doll five years ago as a souvenir of the "ambitious and extraordinary" creation of Calvin and Ruby Black. Then he acquired a few more, as well as tapes of Calvin singing in a keening falsetto as his dolls' voices.

Hall built a stage and rewired the 15 dolls in his collection so that they would sing and perform again.

Mood Preserved in Film

A sculptor in residence at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., Hall said that taken out of their home environment, the dolls become merely fragments or statues. "It's not as Cal saw it," he said. (Hall's re-creation of Possum Trot is currently on display in Cincinnati.)

The mood of the original Possum Trot is preserved in a half-hour film made in 1976 by Allie Light and her husband, Irving Saraf. Light and Saraf got a $10,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to make "Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black."

The film became the first in the couple's award-winning series on folk artists ("Visions of Paradise" by Light-Saraf Films).

Through animation of Calvin's dolls who performed on an inside stage (these did not move in the actual show), and repairs of the wind-powered outdoor stages, the film makers were able to approximate the sound, motion and glory Calvin Black must have seen in his imagination.

Born in 1903 in Tennessee, Calvin Black taught himself to carve dolls out of corncobs as a boy. When he reached puberty, other boys began to tease him about his hobby and he burned all 200 corncob dolls he had made.

At age 17, Calvin won a $100 prize at the county fair singing opera in a woman's voice--another talent he would later apply to his work at Possum Trot.

He joined the circus, working as a bodyguard for a snake woman. But his favorite things in the circus were the Kewpie dolls; he hated to see people win them and take them home.

Calvin married Ruby in 1933. She was 18 years old and had never been away from home before from "Monday to Sunday," she once said.

The two traveled West. Calvin took various jobs in Northern California, including panning for gold. But the poor circulation in his legs due to diabetes was aggravated by standing in icy water all day. In hopes that a warmer climate would improve his health, the couple purchased a tract of land sight unseen from a magazine ad, and moved to the Mojave desert in 1953.

Restricted to bed until his legs began to feel better, Calvin passed the time by carving dolls.

In an interview with Saraf and Light in 1976, Ruby Black said: "We didn't never have any children. I lost the first one and I never could carry any more. It's the only real disappointment I had purt near 38 1/2 years (of marriage), cause I really love children."

Allie Light asked, "Were the dolls like children?"

"He called 'em our children," Ruby replied.

Lived on $40 a Month

The Blacks lived on about $40 a month made by selling soda pop--as well as turquoise, quartzite and other rocks--to tourists. They had no electricity (Calvin ran his tape recorder on a gasoline-powered generator) and no telephone. They couldn't afford doll-making supplies. So Calvin would wait until a motorist plowed into a utility pole on the highway, then he'd go out and retrieve the lumber. He used redwood from the downed poles to craft his dolls' faces. The noses, arms and legs were carved from softer sugar pine.

Ruby was billed as gown maker to the dolls (she collected discarded clothes from the Barstow dump and cut them down to size); but the show was all Calvin's.

"Ruby was very jealous of the dolls," Allie Light said. "She complained because Calvin would be off with the dolls and she'd be left alone. There was a real, deep resentment about Calvin's other life."

Tim Brehm, now a photography instructor at John Burroughs High School in Burbank, got to know the Blacks while photographing them on a number of occasions from 1968 to the mid-'70s. He once described a Calvin Black show in an interview with Light and Saraf. Brehm sat alone in a small room with broken television sets on one side of him and sand sifting through the ceiling. There were about 20 dolls on stage:

"You'd sit on this very uncomfortable bench, and then he (Calvin) would get up in front and he would give a deadpan monologue to kind of get things rolling. Then he'd walk back of this little booth on the left-hand side and you'd see him starting to fumble away with some tapes.

"He had rigged up a unique system of various tape recorders and different tape cassettes that were wired to the different dolls. You would see a conversation taking place with Calvin and a doll, and maybe the doll would start to talk and introduce a song."

'Dolls of Desert Wasteland'

At the end of the show, guests were asked to place coins in the kitty boxes next to their favorite performers. Calvin used the money to purchase necklaces, perfume and even store-bought dolls for his girls, "The Beautiful Dolls of the Desert Wasteland," as he advertised them.

"It became obvious to me, after I watched several of these shows, that this entire show was a representation of Calvin's life," Brehm said. "Actually each doll was a representation of someone he'd known in his life. It was a very personal thing to him."

Allie Light believes that the dolls expressed a feminine side of Black's personality. What makes Calvin Black a source of fascination and inspiration to collectors and others, she said, is that he chose to spend most of his time not in the real world, but in a world he had created.

"Most people forget how to live in the imagination," Light said.

In the late '70s, Larry Whiteley learned that Calvin Black's widow was living in the desert alone. Art dealer Whiteley said he offered through a contact to sell a doll or two so that Ruby could move out of her shack and into a trailer. But the offer was refused; Ruby would not sell a doll for any price.

Ruby Black was discovered dead by a minister making a home visit in 1980. The dolls were removed by a neighbor who was conservator of the property and stored temporarily in a nearby warehouse. Larry Whiteley drove out to the desert and made a bid on what was left of Possum Trot.

For the first year he owned the work, there were no buyers, Whiteley said, and he began to wonder if people had been right when they told him the dolls were junk. (One museum even advised that they be burned, Whiteley said.)

What attracted Whiteley was the directness of Calvin Black's work. "It was painted on instinct rather than academic training," he said. "Real folk art is made by people who don't make it to sell. They were just expressing themselves.

"Each doll is totally individual," he added. "All the faces look alike when you first look at them. Then, after a while, none of them look alike."

Allie Light and Irving Saraf purchased a doll from Whiteley. Her name is Miss Sherion Rose. There's also a photograph of Calvin and all his dolls in the couple's living room.

'Crept Into Our Lives'

"It's sort of crept into our lives," Allie Light said of their connection to the Blacks. She and her husband sometimes find themselves quoting Calvin and Ruby in their exchanges, she said.

Light said that what made Calvin Black great was his compulsion, and his obstinate respect for his own taste. It didn't matter if some tourists thought Possum Trot was creepy. (Light's daughter, now a TV anchorwoman in El Paso, couldn't wait to get out of there the first time she visited.) But it didn't matter what anyone thought--Calvin loved his dolls.

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