Highway to Heaven

15 October, 2015

Hamish smith talks to ‘Mr Mezcal’ Ron Cooper about art, smuggling and improving life in the Zapotec villages.


WE ALL HAVE CRAZY IDEAS. BUT SOME OF US ALSO HAVE FOLLOW THROUGH. Ron Cooper is one such cat, to use his bohemian vernacular. In 1970 in a blur of tequila he and his friends had the idea that the Pan American Highway may not actually exist. The next morning Cooper didn’t, as is customary when hungover, dismiss the frolics of the night before. No, two weeks later he, a fellow artist and a surfboard shaper, set off in their VW camper van on a four-month journey to find, and travel down, the Pan American Highway.

Thankfully it existed. Because the drinks industry would be a different place right now without Cooper’s experiences in Oaxaca, not least the ritualistic spirit of mezcal he discovered. Before Cooper, the wider world had little idea this crafted, organic, 100% agave product existed.

But the story of Mr Mezcal was a few years in the making. Make that decades.

Cooper, after all, is not a capitalist, he is an artist. He was part of the 1960s Light and Space movement – a band of avant gardes from California that tore up the art world with minimal, perceptual work. “I didn’t want to be like other artists,” he says. “Our work wasn’t understood at first. New Yorkers hated us but we didn’t give a fuck.”

New Yorkers eventually would. Cooper’s work has been shown in the top galleries in the country, including the Guggenheim. “Every piece was like the launch of a new Mercedes Benz – people were waiting for them. It felt very capitalist – people wanting this commodity. So I dropped out and moved to New Mexico.”

Cooper was probably one of the trailblazers of upping sticks to ‘find himself’. Was he a hippy? “I had long hair and a moustache,” he says. He spent a whole year in the American hinterland “building fires and watching the milky way” before moving back to his home state of California to help set up a studio.

This was 1965 Los Angeles. Cooper loves cities as “places where people share ideas” but perhaps it was too hectic for a man who had spent a year growing his hair and staring up at the big black. The “working, please call back” sign rarely left the studio door and when he “fell in love and had a child”, the tranquillity of New Mexico once again came calling.

But there followed an “emotional crash” and split from his family. More than ever Cooper immersed himself in his work. The emphasis shifted to photography and what can be simplistically called drawing with light. “I hadgone through a break up. But I had artistic licence. I felt I could do what I wanted to do. I could have a sense of humour with my work.” Besides, Cooper was a successful artist. He had, as he puts it, “fuck you money”, which is a neat way of saying he had the money to say no to work he didn’t fancy. Five years spent in dark rooms can incubate a sense of adventure. He had had his first taste of the Zapotec villages of Oaxaca a few years before journeying down the Pan American Highway, but somehow knew he had to return.

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