Calvin Black


(1903–1972) and
built a celebrated folk art environment in the Mojave Desert near Yermo, California. Calvin was born in Tennessee, and was only thirteen when he took re-
sponsibility for the care of his mother and siblings. He taught himself to read and write and worked in the circus and carnival, where he learned puppetry andventriloquism. Ruby was raised on a Georgia farm. They were married in 1933, and at the height of the Great Depression the couple moved from Tennessee tonorthern California to pan for gold. They lived in Los Angeles before buying land outside of Yermo, south of Death Valley, in 1953. There, the Blacks opened acombination rock shop, souvenir shop, and refreshment stand to attract the few tourists who passed through the area.While Ruby managed the shop, Calvin began to build an attraction he called
Possum Trot,
a Southern phrase describing the shortest distance between two points.Prompted by the need to augment the income their shop provided,
Possum Trot
was also an outlet for the couple’s creative energies. The environment wouldeventually become a collection of wind powered merrygo-rounds, whirligigs, a wooden train, carved figures, signs, stagecoaches, and paintings, all made of foundmaterials and stretching for a hundred yards along the road that passed in front of their home and shop.
Possum Trot
is best remembered for the more than eighty “dolls” carved by Calvin. With smooth faces, rectangular heads, wide mouths, and articulated limbs, thestylized figures were dressed by Ruby in costumes she made from discarded clothing. Most were female, and many were based on friends or celebrities. The dollsdanced and sang for visitors who paid the requested donation to view the “Fantasy Doll Show.” Calvin mounted speakers on the back of several dolls, which allowedhim to play tapes of prerecorded dialogue and songs he composed. He created a distinctive falsetto voice for each character, recalling his work as a ventriloquist.The Blacks were childless, and Ruby remembered that Calvin often referred to the dolls as their children. On driving trips East to visit family, the Blacks would bringwith them several dolls. Having devoted much of their adult life to creating their unique environment in the desert, it is understandable why Ruby refused to agree withCalvin that the dolls should be destroyed after his death. After Ruby’s own death,
Possum Trot
was abandoned, and the Blacks’ “children” were dispersed.
See also
Dolls; Environments, Folk; Whirligigs
Milwaukee Art Museum.
Common Ground/Uncommon Vision: The Michael and Julie Hall Collection of American Folk Art.
Milwaukee, Wisc., 1993.Hartigan, Lynda Roscoe.
Made with Passion: The Hemphill Folk Art Collection in the National Museum of American Art.
Washington, D.C., 1990