Remembering Dayton artist Robert Blackstone: ‘He found the extraordinary in the ordinary’

Blackstone’s “Crystal City” installation bridges the whimsical and thought-provoking.

Figurines, mirrors, ornaments, stuffed animals and train sets are among the eye-popping kaleidoscope of found objects within the fascinating installation known as “Crystal City,” the late Dayton artist Robert Blackstone’s crowning achievement.

Blackstone, 51, died Aug. 1 in downtown Dayton from a gunshot wound in the chest, but his artistic imprint lives on in his sprawling installation that began in 1990 on his grandmother’s dining room table with just a few pieces.

Situated downtown within the first floor of the vacant Leigh Building, located on the corner of Second and Ludlow streets, “Crystal City” is an invitation of exploration. Whether conjuring memories of childhood or encouraging thought-provoking discourse, the exhibit symbolizes Blackstone’s intent to create art as a means of bringing people together.

The artwork contains many found and cast-off objects, including toys, miniature cars, yellow police tape, various lights, a boxing glove, a road sign, a license plate, a world globe, musical instruments, masks, historical artifacts, memorabilia and much else.

The expansive work is partly a eulogy to the matriarch who raised Blackstone, says an article in the summer 2019 edition of the UrbanGlass Art Quarterly.

“Like the actual Dayton, Blackstone’s sculptural city is constantly in flux, building and rebuilding in an unrealized fantasy of renewed relevance and commercial sustainability,” the article states. Crystal City is “dense with piled and purposefully positioned content, to expose inequity from its rotting source.”

Before it was housed in the Leigh Building in 2018, “Crystal City” resided in a space formerly occupied by an Elder-Beerman department store just off Courthouse Square. The space was secured with the help of The Collaboratory, an organization committed to community innovation and action, and Eva Buttacovoli, executive director of The Contemporary Dayton (formerly Dayton Visual Arts Center).

“Sometimes we took Robert’s weekly visits over the past 10+ years – both at DVAC and at The Co locations – for granted,” Buttacovoli says. “Sometimes we didn’t have time to talk, and he would hang out to look at the art and have conversations with other artists who stopped by – many becoming his friends and collaborators. Sometimes he would come by in the middle of a big installation or event breakdown and just jump right in to help. Sometimes he would ask me to hold onto a clipping or an article that was important to him or that mentioned him, to keep it safe and ready if someone were to discover him and want to tell his story. Sometimes he just wanted to see what I thought about an idea for a sculpture he was working out and would bring an entire miniature model made of scraps of stuff. When we moved, we made bins and bins of old, gently-used art, office, and building supplies that he would take back to ‘Crystal City,’ one by one, on his bike. Sometimes we had time for these wildly swooping conversations about how he was trying to reconcile the ideas and images in his head with his artmaking – that’s where his gifts shone. We miss him.”

Peter Benkendorf, founder of The Collaboratory, recalls Blackstone’s passionate penchant for collecting and storytelling.

“‘Crystal City’ was a sanctuary for Bobby,” Benkendorf says. “It was about representation as opposed to the aesthetic. He was telling a visual story that was a very personal story yet very reflective of how he saw the world around him. The installation is a microcosm of his world in so many ways. He found the extraordinary in the ordinary.”

Credit: Russell Florence

Credit: Russell Florence

Embracing the outsider artist

The self-taught Blackstone was a perfect fit for The Collaboratory, who embraced his outsider spirit and passion for the unique.

“The Collaboratory is all about building a better Dayton,” Benkendorf says. “We’re really a place of refuge for anybody who has ideas about building a better community and doesn’t know where to go. Bobby wasn’t necessarily a part of the art establishment, but a lot of artists saw ‘Crystal City’ which meant a lot to him. It meant everything to him to say he was an artist.”

Dayton native and Brooklyn-based artist/writer John Drury, author of the aforementioned UrbanGlass Art Quarterly article, says Blackstone’s alternative artistry is comparable to Lonnie Holley, a prominent figure within the found object medium.

“‘Crystal City’ is worthy to be on a national level and (Blackstone) is on par with some of the best outsider artists,” Drury says. “Bobby worked toward reclamation. He found value in what 99 percent of people have thrown away. He made sure art was for everybody. ‘Crystal City’ is about inclusiveness, equality and equity. It’s also kid-like, which is great for students. There is a lot of imagery in ‘Crystal City,’ and I’d be surprised if anyone can’t find something that’s relatable.”

Credit: Russell Florence

Credit: Russell Florence

Benkendorf says Blackstone devoted 30 hours per week to his constantly evolving installation, which spoke volumes about his dedication to his craft and the people he loved.

“He cared about his family and community and wanted other people to be happy,” Benkendorf says.

The Dayton native, born Sept. 19, 1971, was funeralized Aug. 8.

Robert Blackstone discusses his “Crystal City’' exhibit with and the Dayton Daily News in 2018

“He had a big heart and was always there to lend a hand to someone in need, as he was a jack of many trades,” his obituary stated. “As many would say, Robert was a selfless, humble man who impacted many people here. He would convey, ‘It’s God’s Work.’ Nevertheless was a man who brought his imagination to reality, inspiring others.”

He is survived by his children Robert Brookshire-Blackstone, Quincy Brookshire-Blackstone, Robin Blackstone, and Shataria Blackstone.

Art was Blackstone’s passion, but he was a “jack of all trades” who was good with his hands and he loved cars, said Hope Brookshire-Hendricks, a friend who shares three children with Blackstone.

“His thing was living life and being happy,” she said. “He liked fixing cars, doing things around the house, helping people move — he always had multiple jobs, so he was always staying busy.”

She added, “His children are having an extremely hard time because they were very close to their father.”

Police arrested Antonio Marvin Murray, 43, and charged him with two counts each of murder, felonious assault and having weapons while under disability in connection to Blackstone’s death, according to municipal court records.

Building upon legacy

“Crystal City” is still in search of a permanent home and is only available for viewing by appointment. Benkendorf says the ever-evolving installation deserves greater prominence for visitors to enjoy, particularly school groups, even if certain elements could be housed at other art institutions in the region.

Credit: Russell Florence

Credit: Russell Florence

“The Collaboratory wants to keep ‘Crystal City’ going and Bobby’s family does as well,” Benkendorf says. “There’s an opportunity to turn this into something very special like the Hartman Rock Garden in Springfield, an off the beaten path attraction you find in tourism books. And it brought Bobby so much joy whenever other artists wanted to add to the installation. ‘Crystal City’ isn’t going anywhere in the near future, but I’m hopefully optimistic the legacy will continue.”

Drury echoes Benkendorf’s sentiments of keeping Blackstone’s legacy alive.

“Bobby was only going to continue to give,” he says. “A life was cut short, but it was a life that was important to the culture of Dayton.”

If you’re interested in viewing “Crystal City” or discussing ideas to secure a long-term future for the installation, contact The Collaboratory at 937-732-5123 or visit

Credit: Russell Florence

Credit: Russell Florence