By JOHN DRURY, August 2023
There is not a lot of contemporary art in Dayton, Ohio that is truly reflective of the city itself - the Dayton Art Institute is rather sleepy, mired in this or that traveling exhibition, generally historical - and the Contemporary Dayton, appears to have more interest in makers from outside of the municipality, than local…an exception, was their wonderful exhibition, “Kneel”, last year - by Dayton mainstay, the undersung Willis “Bing” Davis. I’ve emailed each, the Contemporary and DAI, over the past few years - in reference to multiple topics - and neither has ever responded, not once, indicative of an unprofessional practice.
So, like many who strive to walk just outside of the easily digestible, that which is the stifling banal, artist Robert Blackstone needed to find an alternative to what the layperson may consider acceptable (ie. a traditional and polished form), and “paints” instead with the detritus that he scavenged off the streets - his metaphorical canvas, an abandoned bank lobby, at the core of his struggling Ohio city. Dayton has problems beyond the economic abandonment of its downtown. A result of the dark reality that is the gun epidemic in America, the murder rate in Dayton, Ohio is twice that which it was, at this time last year, and the streets - like many of the storefronts - are too often empty.
From a scavenged and shattered glass ground, Robert Blackwell has built a monstrous, if miniaturized, metropolis; in visual display the passion that he has held in his heart - in respect - for the city of his birth. Some of you will remember the feature article that I wrote for GLASS Magazine, in 2019 (summer issue #155), on Bobby’s Crystal City. I encourage you to search for, or to re-read my work, in pursuit furthering your understanding of the place, the man and his monumental creation - a work which he composed over several decades and in ever-expanding versions; his Crystal City repeatedly constructed and subsequently de-constructed, after the first, built atop his grandmother’s dining room table. Each is larger than that which preceded it, and increasingly detailed. You may also recall - on social media - my plea for support, when its then current incarnation was endangered a year or two back.
Bobby’s Crystal City is again rebuilt, and its present version, installed at the corner of Second and Ludlow streets downtown, is his most gloriously expansive. And while certainly a less conventional maker than the others, Robert’s work may stand amongst those of William Hawkins, Elijah Pierce, “Birdie” Lusch…and Grandpa “Smoky” Brown (another Dayton native), at the apex of the self-taught artists to emerge from the Buckeye state, and to subsequently garner attention on a national stage.
At the first of the month, Dayton lost an individual, arguably a member of the most forward thinking, active, contemporary artists to call the city home. On August 1st, the artist Robert Blackstone (1971-2023) was shot, and killed (as a result of the gunshot wound to his chest), on the streets of Dayton’s city center. Blackstone died only a few short blocks from his beloved creation. As it seems so often the case with these unfortunate tragedies at the hands of a degenerate soul, the perpetrator of this crime - who has now been arrested and indicted - has a long criminal record. Robert Blackstone’s is the first killing in the city’s downtown core, since the 2019 Oregon District mass murder.
A truly unique artist, I found Bobby’s work incorporating a kaleidoscopic and voluminous array of found material, to be the best that I’ve seen come out of Dayton, Ohio for many decades; Blackstone’s colossal work - a plea for societal unity, racial equality and the fair treatment of all individuals, as was rendered in love, respect and hope - was offered as a gift, to the city of his birth; his is a gesture of gratitude, if tinged in dysfunction, and the apt reflection just about any American inner-city marred by poverty, inequity and crime. A forward-thinking community, will see his contribution preserved for future generations. Blackstone’s is the perfect work of art to garner the attention Dayton’s, and the nation’s, children; a proposed meeting place to discuss the talented artist, his motivation for creating Crystal City and ultimately, the gun violence that extinguished his life; that scourge which is also ravaging our youth, at an astronomical and shameful pace. Ours is a loss, the consequence an ignorance surrounding the antiquated thought of assumed and outdated gun rights in this country, as enabled by under-educated and inactive voting - an unconstrained stupidity in seemingly blind service to the almighty dollar - to the enrichment the arms producing and hateful few. When any light of creativity is extinguished, we are all a step closer to the stifling umbrella of shadow play. Yet another important voice has been silenced, in senseless and violent action. The artist Robert Blackwell leaves behind many who will suffer his absence; those that mourn his death, include his four children. WM
John Drury is a multi-media artist, published author, independent curator and instructor. Drury holds a Bachelor of Fine Art degree from the Columbus College of Art and Design (1983) and a Master of Fine Art Degree in sculpture (1985; including a minor in painting), from Ohio State University. John is the father of two teenagers, living in New York City since 1989 and has received the prestigious Louis Comfort Tiffany Award for his work in sculpture.view all articles from this author