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

December 07, 1986|ANN JAPENGA | 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.

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