[Today I was lucky enough to tour the artist home/studios of two creative individuals (Ellen Benson, and Randy Dalton, both of the West Mount Airy neighborhood of Philadelphia), plus an installation known as The Blue Grotto, and several related galleries/installations nearby in West Philadelphia. Because my head is still spinning with sensory overload, I’m going to share my visits with you in several chunks. This first chunk is about Randy Dalton, and his Blue Grotto Installation/Do Blue project.]
When I heard that my friends Steve Berg of Nichols-Berg Gallery and encaustic painter Clarissa Shanahan were going on a field trip to visit the studios and installations of found object artists Ellen Benson and Randy Dalton (both of whom are affiliated with the Dumpster Divers of Philadelphia), I couldn’t help but invite myself along for the ride. (Actually, Steve invited me along before I had to beg. He’s generous that way.)
Before venturing down to West Philadelphia to see the infamous Blue Grotto installation, we first picked Randy up at his West Mount Airy home, and he was kind enough to give us a tour, having recently completed some renovations. The home was gorgeous, and full of incredible art. I wish now that I had asked permission to photograph some of it, but since I had only just met Randy and his partner of 25+ years, I didn’t want to encroach upon their privacy. Many of the pieces in their collection were made by one or the other of the couple, or their friends. Even the home itself was full of creative touches, like the collection of antique doorknobs installed on the hall closet door, and the gigantic candelabra made of various pipes, valves and a gas regulator… a steampunk fan’s dream.
The couple purchased the large property behind their house, and now maintain it as a private sculpture garden. The estate is dotted with sculptures by local artists, nestled among the old-growth trees (including one massive white oak) and approximately 300 rhododendrons. Fancy birdcages or original wire sculpture were pressed into service in the garden to protect new plantings from the resident fauna.
After touring the estate, we all headed down to West Philadelphia to see Randy’s Blue Grotto installation at the Community Education Center on Lancaster Avenue (map). The installation is on display as part of Lower Lancaster Avenue’s LOOK on Lancaster Avenue through November 30, 2011. When I was introduced to Randy earlier that day, I thought it was a coincidence that he was wearing a smart blue windowpane check shirt. It wasn’t until I remarked at how his shirt matched the blue door entrance to the installation that I realized it was no coincidence. The Blue Grotto is an installation of approximately 750 square feet (my estimate) consisting of hundreds of found object sculptures and arrangements of stuff lit solely by various blue lights. It is part of the Do Blue campaign that Randy started over 12 years ago to draw attention and brand the Philadelphia region as an important center for the arts.
I remembered getting a solid blue button, and seeing galleries and boutiques with a blue light in support of the arts back in the late ’90s… that was Randy. I asked Randy how the Do Blue campaign got started, and he told me the original idea was to ask people to leave their swimming pool lights on at night to create a beautiful and festive atmosphere. The idea quickly grew to include using blue lights, blue paint or ink, and wearing blue to signify support for the artists in the region who don’t get the credit or the cash they need, considering their importance in creating a vibrant society. Randy doesn’t want people to feel blue, he wants them to Do Blue.
The Blue Grotto itself was wild, wacky and funky, but it makes a big impact on anyone lucky enough to see it. I doubt that few of the pieces individually would have much impact (save for one sculpture I saw consisting of a large wire mesh cube filled with unlit blue lightbulbs) but taken together as an environment, one is immediately overwhelmed. I got the sense that I could spend days in there exploring and searching for details, and still not see it all.
Just up the street from the Blue Grotto, at Projects | Gallery (map), Randy gave us a tour of an exhibit of 15 artists of mixed media he curated, inexplicably called Discover A Dozen (or more) Out of the Blue. Inside this space, Randy had installed a mini-version of The Blue Grotto at the rear of the gallery. Other artists on display here included large-scale nudes in oil by Nancy E. F. Halbert, and other work in various media by Lane Davis, James Dupree, Tony Fink, Diane Keller, Angela Klarner, Claes Gabriel, Alice Hyvonen, Michael Mooser, David Slovic, William Slovis, John Taylor, Victor Thompson, and Suzanne Wheeling.
Randy took advantage of several unique spaces on the basement level to create site-specific installations in places like broken pipes emerging from the rough red brick walls, and what was once a wood-fired bakery oven only about a foot high.
There were several other galleries within a block or two of these, and I would recommend a visit to see them. For more information about what’s in the area, visit the Lancaster Avenue Arts website.
Next time, I’ll blog about my visit to Ellen Benson’s home and studio.
The Blue Grotto is at the Community Education Center (CEC), 3500 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia. The studio/exhibition/gathering space features over a hundred blue light sculptures, models, and memorabilia. It illustrates the positive effects of doing blue, using paint, found objects, ink, paper, and electricity and imagination to create a different way of seeing the world. For more information, call 215-779-4566.
Discover a Dozen (or more) Out of the Blue, curated by Randy Dalton on display at Projects | Gallery, 3820 Lancaster Avenue, Philadelphia through October 29, 2011. Hours: Friday 5-9pm, Saturday 12-6pm, Sunday 12-6pm, and Wednesday 5-9pm.