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In the latest of his professional nine lives, cultural gadfly River Laker is the namesake and event planner for a new arts center in downtown Roanoke’s 16 West Marketplace.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
With his service dog, Echo, at his feet, painter John Bramblitt, who is blind, conducts a workshop with Shannon Tilley (left) and Katherine Devine at Barefoot Studios in 16 West Marketplace. 16 West’s developer sees the River Laker Cultural Center, which will be used for regular events, as an essential means to keeping 16 West’s businesses thriving. The venue is poised to become a central location in Roanoke’s alternative art scene.
STEPHANIE KLEIN-DAVIS | The Roanoke Times
On June 28, blind painter John Bramblitt of Denton, Texas, demonstrated his skills at Barefoot Studios inside 16 West Marketplace. His workshop was organized by the nonprofit Voice of the Blue Ridge, who were able to use the studio space for free.
Sunday, July 7, 2013
The name of Roanoke’s newest artistic hub will no doubt raise eyebrows — in delight or, most likely, surprise.
And that’s just fine with developer and retired engineer John Garland, who welcomes the attention for the River Laker Cultural Center.
“I’ve always been attracted to unique people,” said Garland, who has known Laker for more than 10 years.
Laker, president and founder of Silver Seas PR, remains most notorious as the man who stripped down to a strategically placed bicycle helmet and flower bouquet — an act he characterized as a protest — at a raucous 2011 fundraising event held in Roanoke.
Yet it was Laker’s work as an innovative events organizer and promoter for Roanoke City Public Libraries from 2007 to 2012 that inspired Garland to hire him to stage artistic events at 16 West Marketplace, the building Garland owns on Church Avenue that’s become home to art studios, restaurants, a gym, a chiropractor’s office and a coffee shop.
Laker “has the talent that this space needs,” Garland said.
He sees holding regular events as an essential means to keeping the businesses inside thriving. As a result, 16 West Marketplace is poised to become a central location in Roanoke’s alternative art scene. The River Laker Cultural Center specifically refers to the open court of about 7,500 square feet on 16 West’s first floor.
Garland said that though Laker has hit some bumps in his career, the creativity he’s brought to the arts and cultural scene in the past few years justifies naming a center after him.
Now living in Lynchburg, Laker, 47, said he hadn’t planned on organizing events again until Garland approached him about a month ago — Laker had been spending time at 16 West’s coffee shop.
“I do think it is kind of bizarre, in a good way,” Laker said about resuming that role.
When Garland first began calling the space the River Laker Cultural Center, “I thought he was joking,” Laker said.
New home for many things
The men met in 2001 when Laker was an evangelical pastor for New Life Christian Fellowship, a Radford University campus ministry, and Garland’s son, Aaron, was a Radford student and part of the congregation. Laker kept in touch with Aaron Garland, who along with his wife Andrea is active in Roanoke’s alternative art scene and the city’s cycling community.
John Garland said he became reacquainted with Laker when Laker opened the “Car Less Brit Museum” in a space on Second Street S.W. in Roanoke. The “museum” was devoted to cycling culture (Laker, who is British, sold his car in 2008 and challenged himself to commute on bicycle for six months). Garland also took notice of the events Laker organized for the library.
Laker resigned from the library in 2012 and launched Silver Seas PR with help from a pair of authors who were impressed with his efforts to promote their books. His video announcing the Silver Seas launch won a Golden ADDY Award in February.
Laker’s first official event for 16 West, “Music to Draw To,” took place Tuesday. The idea is that a DJ provides background music while artists gather to work — with occasional dance breaks. “Music to Draw To” will take place at 6 p.m. the first Tuesday of each month, Laker said.
He hopes “Music to Draw To” will help bring back together an art community that he perceives as having drifted apart over the past couple of years.
He’s also reviving PechaKucha Night, a trendy, largely urban networking event in that involves PowerPoint presentations in which speakers use 20 slides and have 20 seconds to talk about each one. Original organizer David Verde, who writes and shoots photographs for The Roanoke Times Style Street blog, ran four PechaKucha events in 2012, then put it on hiatus, saying the events only broke even, leaving him with no funds to continue. In June, he announced Laker would take over PechaKucha.
Laker said PechaKucha resumes 6 p.m. July 31 and after that will be held at 16 West the final Wednesday of every other month.
At least one cultural program has already migrated to 16 West.
About a year ago 16 West took over the screening of TED Talks at noon Wednesdays. TED Talks are thought-provoking and inspirational videos and performances by artists, musicians, politicians, scientists, writers and other figures of cultural significance. Laker intends to start holding evening screenings at 6 p.m. the first Wednesday of each month, starting Aug. 7.
Previously TED Talks were organized by Katherine Walker, wife of Roanoke entrepreneur Ed Walker, and screened at The Shadowbox Cinema on Kirk Avenue. The cinema shut down in 2012 and Garland said Walker asked him to take over the program.
In addition to all that, 16 West will host events that used to be booked at The Water Heater, the eclectic venue in Roanoke’s Old Southwest neighborhood for music, dance and performance art run by Roanoke performance artist Beth Deel.
In April, Deel opened a coffee and smoothie shop inside 16 West called Little Green Hive. This is Deel’s second coffee shop venture — in early 2011, she ran Get inside the now-defunct Freckles clothing shop on Kirk Avenue.
She said that she’s putting the building at 813 5th St. S.W. that houses The Water Heater up for sale.
Referring to “Must See TV,” the performance art piece Deel helped organize at the Roanoke City Market Building in 2009 that led to one participant’s arrest, Garland said he likes having culturally controversial figures in the building.
A communal, free space
A Roanoke native who graduated from William Fleming High School and earned a civil engineering degree from Virginia Tech, Garland founded Spectrum Engineering in 1980. In 2000 Spectrum merged with an architecture firm to become Spectrum Designs. Garland, 61, retired as president of Spectrum last year.
He owns other properties that he’s converting into office/apartment space, among them buildings at First Street and Kirk Avenue and 108 Campbell Ave. S.W.
He purchased the 16 West building three years ago with the idea of turning it into a community center that would cater to people living downtown. The renovations have cost about $2.5 million, Garland said.
First he built the eight apartments that are in back of the building. Then came the RAC Express gym on the second floor.
Garland always had a vision for putting a market on the first floor. At present, aside from Little Green Hive, the first floor hosts S&W Market and Cork and Crust restaurant, which Garland co-owns with chef Mark Linson. S&W is moving toward selling prepared meals to go and will soon open salad and dessert bars, Garland said.
“We’ve got to be distinctly different, so that people come here instead of driving to the big box store.”
There’s also CORE Chiropractic, which has been in the building from the start, Barefoot Studios, run by artist Jane Barefoot Rochelle, and another studio run by artist Fleda Ring.
When there’s no event scheduled, other groups can use the space. On June 28, John Bramblitt, a blind artist from Texas who paints portraits by touch, gave a workshop at Barefoot Studios. The event was organized by the nonprofit Voice of the Blue Ridge.
“You don’t have to rent it. It’s free,” Garland said. “Just come and buy products and services that people have available.”
Garland doesn’t want the court in 16 West to just be place where people eat lunch. He wants activity there all day — and the events Laker plans are central to that strategy.
“It’s kind of like putting together a whole experience,” Laker said.
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