During his long career as an artist of the unusual in Philadelphia, the late Randy Dalton took the color blue as his trademark. But the pieces that Dalton created out of found objects had a more direct message than Picasso's Blue Period.
"Do Blue," Dalton's slogan, was a call to arms to support the arts, as he explained it.
"If the art community and its supporters used the color blue to identify themselves, we would be surprised how many of us there are," he wrote.
Now Dalton's message is surviving on through the "Blue Grotto," a permanent installation of his pieces in the basement of the Lancaster Community Education Center (CEC) in University City.
"Working with Randy and getting to know him for the short amount of time that we did, we got to understand his vision and his thought process," said Paige Miller, one of the Grotto's current caretakers. "We're just trying to keep it as close to his vision as possible."
Dalton passed away suddenly in February at 67. But his "Do Blue" campaign, which beyond his own creations included putting the word "Art" in blue lights in his pool, on a rooftop, and handing out solid blue buttons, lives on through the Grotto installation.
"It's magical, magical stuff," said Scott Maits, a CEC employee and Grotto caretaker who recalled Dalton as "a bundle of energy."
"He could easily spend 24 straight hours working on this," he said.
More than a hundred pieces of Dalton's art are featured in the grotto, encompassing a stunning variety of materials, from glass to ceramics, toys, hub caps and old photo slides.
Dalton, a Mikwaukee native who was living in Mt. Airy when he died, was not formally trained as an artist, Miller said. But he worked for years installing exhibitions at UPenn's Institute of Contemporary Art, and was a member of the Philly Dumpster Divers.
"He was just so excited, so enthusiastic, always on the move," recalled Miller, 24, a UArts grad who met Dalton in 2015 along with her friend Ashley Carrega.
The two started working with Dalton on the Grotto. Since his death, they have taken over upkeep of the Grotto.
"Most of the time, he was trying to help out other people," said Miller, a sculptor. "His mind never stopped. Even when he was doing something, he was thinking about the next thing. You see that in his sculptures and the Grotto itself."
At its simplest level, the Grotto is focused around a collection of blue lights, but the variety of materials yields surprises in every corner. There's even a toy elephant with a reconstructed trunk holding a blue light bulb, titled "Happy Republicans support art."
The grotto is also full of personal and historical touches, like tributes to Dalton's friend Holly Maddux, the 30-year-old woman whose grisly murder at the hands of her boyfriend in the '70s in apartment just blocks from the CEC was one of the city's most high-profile crimes.
The CEC and the Grotto's caretakers have varying plans for the future of Dalton's legacy. It could be a potential gallery space for other artists. But just as a place to gather, it has "very special vibes," as Scott put it.
"People have religious experiences down here," he said. "We like to say Randy's still sitting over here," pointing to a chair with Dalton's jacket slung over it.
Whatever happens, the Blue Grotto will live on.
"Walking through the space, it's kind of like being a kid again, that feeling of awe and amazement, Miller said. "I still go down there and feel like, 'Whoa, has this always been here?' It's just so much to look at."
If you go
The Blue Grotto on Lancaster Avenue is viewable on the second Friday of every month or by appointment.