On a recent trip through Bluff, I took a little time to nose around the area looking for art. Someone in town mentioned Comb Ridge Coffee to me — “it’s on the right, just before you drive out of town, you can’t miss it.” I found the coffee house gallery in an old restored trading post where Susan Dexter, who works as an assistant for owners Andrea and David Carpenter, made me feel right at home. Rough hewn pillars and exposed beams support a number of strategically placed spot lights that brighten the lodge-like interior filled with inviting couches and characteristic wood furniture. Curiously, the lower half of the walls is painted with a stripe of deep red that enhances the old world atmosphere. Intriguing rugs soften and add dimension to the unusual graphics that are painted on the cement floor.
Dexter took the time to sit down with me, explain what it is that attracts most people to Bluff, why the Coffee house is called Comb Ridge, and — catching me off guard — what brought the Carpenters to Bluff and motivated them to open a Coffee Shop art gallery. I never expected to find out that this endeavor, that seems rather insignificant under the awesome landscape forms that define this area, could have such a worldwide scope and also have an influence on the local community and the artists in the area.
Most people come to Bluff to run the river, and while they’re here they do some hiking and camping and often take an interest in the area’s abundant archeological sites. Rock art, ruins and ancient graineries can be found in almost every little canyon.
The coffee house takes its name from Comb Ridge, a geological uplift that starts in Arizona and ends in the middle of Utah. Comb Ridge sits on the eastern edge of what is called The Monument Upwarp. The Upwarp reveals an underlying layer of rocks that were formed during the Paleozoic, or maybe even the Precambrian periods. Surface erosion and further plate movement produced the show stopping formations of spires and buttes that dominate the area.
Before coming to this inspiring landscape, Andrea and David Carpenter lived a typical suburban life in Colorado Springs. David is a software engineer and Andrea an archeologist. Andrea took what started out as a short-term volunteer position in Bluff, working with Vista, a domestic peace corp that sets up programs to help less advantaged people. David came with her, and, bewitched by the landscape, the couple decided to stay. Interestingly, my hostess Susan Dexter, who lived in Main, also came to Bluff as a volunteer with Vista. I was startled when she started to describe the diversity found in this small community that includes a number of other Vista volunteers who have found a way to stay longer in the area.
The Carpenters did not start the coffee shop with the idea of becoming millionaires, but with the idealistic dream of finding a way to benefit others. They both continue to work hard in their respective professions. Comb Ridge Coffee is actually a community service project, Dexter explained to me. I had a hard time believing this claim at first, but she had plenty of documentation to support her statement.
During the Bluff Arts Festival late last fall, Comb Ridge Coffee sponsored two well-known Western and Navajo weavers. Two looms were set up so that both types of weaving could be exhibited. The whole town was involved in the event, sponsored by the Utah Arts Council, called “Trail of the Artists.” Throughout town, area artists were matched up with a local business to display art and host a reception. People went from one business to another to meet the artists at work in the different venues. This was interesting but it wasn’t enough to convince me that the coffee house is a service project.
Dexter went on to describe the current collection of art found at Comb Ridge Coffee that includes works gathered from the talented artists in the region. With only limited exhibition space, the gallery is able to offer over a dozen artists an outlet for their works with each one taking the responsibility to arrange and refresh their own art on display. The artists that show here are required to have some tie to the area. The idea is to give local folks an opportunity to show their work. Now, here is something that surprised me — the gallery offers the artists an unheard of 80% for the sale of their works. From the remaining 20% the owners give 15% to charity, keeping only 5% to pay credit card fees and gallery overhead.
Last year, the 15% allocated for charity enabled Comb Ridge Coffee to give over $3000 to their two favorite charities: International Peace Initiatives and Smile Train. International Peace Initiative focuses on empowering women and orphans who have been affected by the Aids epidemic in Kenya. The initiative builds housing and supports micro enterprises that help these people become self sufficient. Crafts made by these communities in Kenya are part of the art offered for sale at Comb Ridge Coffee. Smile Train pays for children around the world to have cleft palette repairs. In this way the art sold at Comb Ridge Coffee benefits a world far beyond the boundaries of this small Utah town.
Comb Ridge Coffee also makes quite an impact on the local community, serving as a gathering place for the local meetings such as book group and other events. A special education teacher in the area helps his students make unique arts and crafts to sell here. An example of their work can be seen in the background of the photo of Susan Dexter in the coffee shop. Look closely over her shoulder and you’ll see the charming birdhouses that sport roofs made out of discarded license plates. |3| Dexter is also wearing hand made jewelry that’s for sale in the store. At this point of the interview I began to believe that the idealistic goals of the Carpenters when they started this venture are actually being realized.
Be sure to check out the Comb Ridge Coffee website, which serves as a portal to the area. You’ll find more information there about area artists, including JR Lancaster, who will be the topic of my June article. Don’t miss the Bluff dog of the month. And if you’re seriously mystified about life or art or even this article the site offers you the profound wisdom of the “foam reader” that promises to have an answer to all your questions.