At 7:30 p.m. on an evening teetering between spring and summer, I’m sampling cocktails destined for Other Mama’s next seasonal menu. A table of 10 diners dominates the room, creating a buzz, and all but one seat is taken at the bar where the Davids (bartenders David English and David Cooper) are taking turns shuttling drinks with names like Sadako, Svetlana and Geraldine to guests happily hunched over chef-owner Dan Krohmer’s Instagrammable sashimi bowls. While they’re checking out their photo handiwork, I keep peeking over my shoulder, as if the mural Cooper just completed on the long wall to the right of the front door may have somehow changed since my last look. But the work is done, and it’s turned out even better than I could have imagined. Cooper is an artist in every sense of the word, able to express himself on any canvas, be it a blank page, a cocktail glass or a restaurant wall.
“Some guy dropped off a cocktail book as his résumé,” Krohmer says, recalling how he found out that an applicant for an open bartender position had other skills. “He understands the vibe, the energy.” About two months into Cooper’s tenure there, Krohmer invited him to adorn the walls of the jewel-box restaurant as a paean to the sea. Left to find inspiration, Cooper saw the kitchen’s excitement about a new ingredient: fresh octopus. “I really loved the design of the tentacles, the fluidity. So it was just a really obvious choice.” The artist doesn’t name his work, but an Other Mama food server calls the octopus Hector, and he is an example of what Cooper describes as his “whimsical, kind of psychedelic” and also tongue-in-cheek style. “I always have the same formula, with the background kind of minimal but with a high-contrast color—just one or two colors, and then everything is finished with the black outline,” he says.
Completed in mid-April, Cooper’s latest work at Other Mama is a sea-inspired triptych. “The middle panel is a riff on the story of Jonah and the whale, but [with dark humor]: two hobos having a cookout in the belly of the whale,” he says. While there was talk of the panel to the right depicting “a battle royale between a seahorse and a crab or a lobster,” the be-tentacled quartet of jellyfish echoes the dreamy curls of the mermaid who perches in the panel to the left. The piece is so at home it appears to have always been there.
Cooper just celebrated his one-year anniversary behind the bar at Other Mama, but it’s something of a homecoming for the multitalented artist. Born in Reno, Cooper was raised in Las Vegas, where his father was the vice president of operations at the Desert Inn in the early-to-mid-’80s. The family lived on property for a year when Cooper was in fourth grade while their house was being built. “This was during the transition between mob and corporate,” he says, recounting how his father’s car was regularly swept for bombs. Cooper graduated in 1998 from the Savannah College of Art and Design with a degree in illustration—“by hand, obsolete,” he says—then returned briefly to Las Vegas to design “belly glass” for slot machines. “Also obsolete!” he notes, laughing and shaking his head.
After college, Cooper moved to Portland in 2000 and spent the next 17 years doing freelance graphic design and illustration, all the while bartending. In 2012, he wrote and illustrated a take-home cocktail book for an art show, 30 classic recipes with accompanying sketches. “I really love the history of classic cocktails,” he says. “To me there are only, like, a couple dozen drinks in the world, and they’re all variations on those, one way or the other. It doesn’t matter how weird you get, there’s always a base that you start from.” The little book was incredibly popular with the increasingly serious cocktail scene that fetishized top hats and mustaches. “But I don’t even have one tattoo,” he says with a smile and a shrug, noting the irony of an entirely ink-free artist/bartender before returning to the drink at hand, Rosie. Perhaps Cooper prefers the impermanence of painting with consumables—a mixological mandala.
Mural-wise, he’s left his mark here and there—a few restaurant and nursery walls, all likely painted over by now. As tortured artists go, Cooper’s pain is singular, as he’s found two things he does well, for which he has received recognition in his lifetime and for which people willingly give him money. Actually, there are three things: He also bakes pies. “Because there are rules. With drinks and painting, there’s an absence of rules a lot of the time. Sure, you’ve got to know the guidelines to make something cohesive, but if you know the basic rules, you can go any way you want to. With baking, you cannot.” His pies (especially his Key lime) have a decade-long winning streak. “That’s the only thing I really brag about,” he says.
Cooper is the first to see where his myriad artistic talents cross over. “I like things with high contrast. It translates to my drinks, too. But you have to have balance,” he says. “Before you drink your cocktail, you look at it. And you want to make sure it’s appetizing.” But it can’t all be about the aesthetics; quality must follow through to the palate. “It gives me a lot of pleasure to make something for somebody. Think about it: This woman gets off of work, and this is the first and probably only professionally made cocktail she’ll get all week. You want it to be good for her. And it makes her have a good experience, a good night, a good weekend, the rest of her week. It just kind of helps make life a little easier sometimes.”
His visual art has a similarly ameliorative aim. Across the room, to the left of the daily oyster lineup, another Cooper piece hangs, one he estimates he did 20 years ago that Krohmer liked and asked to display. Like much of Cooper’s art, it’s abstract expressionism, inspired by artists Francis Bacon, Jackson Pollock and Jean-Michel Basquiat. “It doesn’t have to make sense to me. It’s more about getting the energy out,” he says. “You can let your eye travel around the room and clear your thoughts. That’s what I really want: It’s more of a pain pill, an aspirin of sorts.”
A fourth Cooper is displayed in the men’s room, an assembly of bonelike shapes that seem to form a Seussical instrument. It’s captivating in a way that bathroom art rarely ever is. “I was listening to a lot of jazz at the time, I guess,” he says. Curious, I ask: Nothing for the ladies room? Head down, focused on assembling the next cocktail, he says matter-of-factly, “Oh, that’s the next one I get to do.”