A 'conscious' café ... and more

Organizers of a new space on Oak Street say they're venturing into "conscious" activities ranging from concerts to puppet shows to vegan foods.

"'Conscious' is being aware of your impact on the environment, unifying people and moving toward a positive change in the planet," said Christopher Iverson, who is spearheading CultureWorks, a live music hall, late-night organic café, event center and retail store in the old Cantwell's building at 310 Oak St.

For Iverson, that means organic vegetarian, vegan and raw food on the menu at the CultureWorks Cafe, local products sold by local artisans and all-ages, alcohol-free events.

"These are all things Ashland desperately needed but didn't have," he said.

CultureWorks holds its grand opening the weekend of April 2, but already has been open for limited dining and some music events.

With the closure of Stillwater on Ashland Street in January, some of the acts scheduled there found a new venue at CultureWorks, including EOTO and Dehli 2 Dublin.

CultureWorks is in the same space left vacant by The Inner Child Café in May 2008 and tries to honor Inner Child's family feeling.

"One of the things we're going for is Shakespeare meets Burning Man with a pinch of Oregon Country Fair," Iverson said.

The front door opens to a spacious dance floor with the stage set to the left. The cafe is in back of the large room, an open counter facing the front with a few tables on the right set against a hand-painted wall mural.

Immediately to the left of the entryway is the Artist Tree, a retail space operated by local artisans and selling only local or regional goods.

"Everything there is from the region between Portland and Mount Shasta, but mostly from the Rogue Valley," Iverson said. "The concept goes right along with the idea behind our food and entertainment."

Far back to the left, past the stage and the cafe, is a short, wide hall which is planned for use as an Internet cafe, and a performers' green room is nestled behind it.

Iverson has been in the restaurant business for 15 years catering and teaching, with a focus on raw foods. He started an all-ages night club in Portland in 1992, which gave him some insight on how to start such a complex venture in Ashland mixing food, music and retail.

Iverson came to Ashland with his girlfriend, Samantha Sperry, the primary investor/owner of CultureWorks. He soon met Chris Deckker, the founder of EarthDance, a worldwide synchronized dance event started in 1997.

"I knew Chris by reputation and we hooked up in Ashland," Iverson said. "We saw that this was the perfect space to do a performing arts center and cafe."

Deckker is operations manager, and takes on much of the music side of the management duties, leaving Iverson time to focus on the cafe.

Local groups and speakers are also regular fare on the performing arts center stage, which can be shifted to transform into different shapes for different events, such as a fashion show runway.

"We're going for total versatility," Iverson said.

CultureWorks' event lineup reflects that goal. One of the founders of Biosphere 2 spoke there earlier this year. A benefit for the John Muir School featuring Bohemian Soul took place in early March. A series of acts celebrating National Women's History Month was held Friday. There even has been one children's birthday party booked for the hall.

"This is a hub for the community to explore the ethos of sustainability," Deckker said.

The need in Ashland for cross-generational events is very clear to Marla Welp, who managed the now shuttered Mobius in Ashland for four years and who helps book performers for CultureWorks.

"A lot of young parents want to come out and dance to music but they can't because it's in a bar," Welp said.

There are a number of events planned for the remainder of March before the April 2 grand opening, including Prema Mayi and Desert Dwellers on March 19, the Mystic Garden Equinox Party on March 20 and Flowmotion on March 31. The CultureWorks Cafe is open in the late evening with a menu that identifies different items according to patrons' dietary needs. The menu breaks down plates into categories such as gluten-free, vegan, raw food, tree-nut-free and garlic- and onion-free. A $5 kids menu includes quesadillas, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and fruit dishes.

In May or June, the cafe will expand to regular hours with lunch, dinner and a Sunday brunch. A kids puppet show is also in the works.

"We're proceeding slowly and carefully," Iverson said.

CultureWorks' grand opening is set for April 2-3. The performing center will be open from 5 to 9 p.m. for First Friday and Craig Chaquico and Gentle Thunder will perform at the opening party starting at 9 p.m. On April 3, MC Yogi, DJ David Starfire and DJ Solus will perform starting at 9 p.m. The cost for each show is $15.

For information, call 541-488-4888 or see the Web site culture-works.net.

Reach reporter and editor Myles Murphy at 541-482-3456 ext. 222 or mmurphy@dailytidings.com.

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