A Glimpse Into The Life of Calvin Black

For the past few years, I’ve been posting artwork every day on @folkartwork. Doing my best to make sure I show a wide range and diverse group of artists, I feel like I know everyone. Of the folk and outsider artists, I know them all. But let’s be honest, I don’t know anything, and I often stumble upon a new artist whom I haven’t heard of before and have just incredible backstories and lives.

Enter Calvin Black.

Born in 1903 in Tennesse, Calvin Black received little to no formal education. He grew up taking care of his brothers and sisters, eventually teaching himself how to read and write and making a living working for carnivals and circuses. Calvin’s artistic genius came alive after meeting his wife Ruby and moving to a ghost town in the Mojave Desert in 1953. Making a living selling rocks to tourists and creating nearly one hundred life-size dolls out of found wood (primarily collected after cars would crash into telephone poles) where an art environment like no other came alive.

Welcome to “Possum Trot.”

If you decide you don’t have 30 minutes to watch the video above, let me try and convince you otherwise.

First of all, meet Helen:

Second of all, what more do you need? Can you really watch that clip and say to yourself honestly, “I’m good. I don’t need to know more.”? If you’re like me, the second Helen started talking, singing, and complementing the mystique of Calvin Black’s creation, you knew that your kids were on their own for just half an hour as you had to learn more about “Possum Trot.”

This buried treasure of a film was put together a handful of years after Calvin Black died in 1972, following Ruby in and around “Possum Trot” as you meet Calvin’s cast of characters. As you take in one talking doll after the next — oh, that one is riding a stationary bike that is powering a windmill — you also feel as if you’re breathing the sand and dust kicked up from tourists looking to get a front-row seat to the next show. Then, as you continue to wind in and out of these structures, you notice yet another tremendous homemade sign you can imagine and hear Calvin sternly but politely asking you to keep your voices down as the show begins.

Stern but polite, like most of us who had those grandfathers born in the early 1900s, they told us to “work with our heads, not with our backs,” of course, they never worked a job that didn’t require some back-breaking work. This wisdom was always espoused before or after long naps on the couch, before and after lunch. Like Calvin Black, although I don’t think Calvin Black napped because he didn’t have the time, he had to make sure “Possum Trot” was up and running smoothly. 

As Ruby and friends talked about the life and work of Calvin Black, you understand how passionate he was about “Possum Trot.” You know how vital his art-making and environment creating were to him, especially how important it was for him to share it with his wife, Ruby. I will also assume that while Calvin Black perhaps didn’t love the term dolls (although that was indeed what he was making), he didn’t know a better term for them. I will also assume that Calvin Black didn’t necessarily realize he was making art or creating an art environment that would stand the test of time. It’s the one commonality great folk and outsider artists share. They don’t realize they are making art. They are living authentic lives and doing something, a hobby, an escape, or a way to pass the time, that makes them happy.

The imagery and story told by filmmakers Allie Light and Irving Saraf make me truly happy. To be able to open the book “Outsider & Vernacular Art: The Victor F. Keen Collection” and almost make it ten pages in, drop the book immediately and be able to go to YouTube to learn more about this artist (thanks to the American Visionary Art Museum for uploading!) makes me even more excited to continue to learn as much as possible about this inspiring, raw, and visionary world of folk and outsider artists. I hope you can enjoy it too… or I’ll tell Helen on you.

Screenshots from “Possum Trot: The Life and Work of Calvin Black”

Published by marv

An artist/curator of outsider art and folk artwork, specializing in the marketing, buying and selling, promoting, educating, and storytelling of non-conforming artists.

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