Culture

5 L.A. Artists Get Creative Inside and Outside of the Bar

Man expressing an orange peel over a cocktail.
Creating beautiful cocktails requires a level of artistry. Eugene Lee of Big Bar exercises this creativity behind the bar and outside of it — his passions split between cocktails and photography.

The Los Angeles craft cocktail scene has boomed since 2009, attracting creatives who enjoy experimenting with flavors, playlists and atmosphere. From Pasadena to Long Beach, we chatted with five artists who see their bartending jobs as more than a way to pay the bills. For them, pairing inventive hospitality with an independent creative endeavor is one way they find the yin and yang in their day-to-day lives. Hear what they think about tending bar, making art and finding balance between the two.

DJ with headphone to his ear and a soundboard. Dave Fernie shares his energy with people as a bartender and a DJ. Photo by Daniel Djang/Thirsty in L.A.

Name: Dave Fernie

Bar: Honeycut

Location: Downtown Los Angeles

Creative side: DJ

On tending bar: Fernie moved to L.A. seven years ago and began working with 213 Hospitality, a company that includes Honeycut, two years ago. Fernie and fellow bartender Mary Bartlett celebrated the bar’s two-year anniversary in October by rewiring lighting and painting a wall with neon heat reactive paint. “We like that you can lose yourself in this colorful, whimsical experience,” he said. “We’re trying to create the perfect curated club experience.”

On making art: Fernie picked up DJ skills from his roommate at the Georgia Institute of Technology and took them to New York City and ultimately L.A. He heads up the playlist at bar-driven events and Tales of the Cocktail meetups. “A big part of letting loose for bartenders is having a party and having great music,” he said. “Being able to read somebody’s vibe like that is an extension of bartending.”

On mixing the two: With both music and cocktails, creators put time and commitment into products that are enjoyable, tasteful and require skill but are fleeting. “What is produced is consumed,” Fernie said. “With art, drinks, even food, this new creation is temporary and only lives on in memory through the senses.”

Two people are holding massive cut outs of cocktails and pretending to drink them. Eugene Lee's photography often highlights cocktail culture.

Name: Eugene Lee

Bar: Big Bar

Location: Los Feliz

Creative side: Photographer

On tending bar: Big Bar celebrated its five-year anniversary in October, and Lee recalls the bar’s first days in 2010 when he learned the cocktail craft through intensive training. “I enjoy making drinks that customers haven’t had and seeing that ‘aha’ moment,” he said. “If I can get that person to trust me and step out on a limb, it’s great.”

On making art: Lee picked up photography from a coworker and started shooting drinks and bartenders. He now covers concerts, weddings and Big Bar events. “I’m fortunate because the cocktail industry has been my day job and also my night job,” he said. “Never before has a bar been documented so heavily.”

On mixing the two: Even craft cocktail bartenders need a creative outlet. “Craft cocktail bartending is more artisan than artist and emphasizes hospitality and service,” he said. “Having a creative endeavor provides that balance so you can come back and be present behind the bar.”

A woman is blowing glass and wearing large goggles and gloves.When Claudia Ramirez isn't making visually stunning cocktails, she can be found expressing herself as a glass blower, a painter and a pianist.

Name: Claudia Ramirez

Bar: Clifton’s Cafeteria, Westin Mitchell Design Group

Location: Downtown Los Angeles

Creative side: Glass blower, painter, pianist

On tending bar: The new Clifton’s Cafeteria recently opened to huge crowds, where Ramirez enjoys making cocktails with tequila, mescal and agave. “I’ve never seen a massive kitchen space dedicated to food and alcohol the way this space is,” she said. “It’s been exciting to work on a big project that people are excited about.”

On making art: Ramirez also mixes at Sweet Claw, an in-house bar for the Westin Mitchell Design Group, and makes art at Super Chief Gallery, a live-work studio where she uses different media to create objects. During October, the gallery is hosting a haunted house that features dark artwork and creepy sounds. She’s also curating an art show that features lighting installations. “Lighting is one of the biggest influencers for how people feel when they walk into your space, whether that’s a bar, hotel or gallery,” she said. “You can’t out-decorate bad lighting.”

On mixing the two: Art and tending bar are about communication, entertainment and connection. “They fuel each other,” she said. “It would take the joy and freedom out of the creativity if all I did for a living was play piano or create cocktails.”

Name: Peter Jones

Bar: 1886 Bar at The Raymond Restaurant

Location: Pasadena

Creative side: Graffiti artist

On tending bar: Jones enjoys changing drinks with the seasons. His current favorite is the Robinson Crusoe, a new take on the Zombie that combines rum, 151, lime juice, lime syrup and an IPA for a frothy, fruity contrast. Jones also designs the signs and menus for the bar. “It’s fun to do hand-painted lettering to switch it up,” he said.

On making art: Los Angeles has faced graffiti problems with gang tagging and taxing of advertising. Over time, regulations largely removed the strong mural culture in town. Jones joined the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, which educates the public about murals. “Other large cities have been more open to public street art,” he said. “It’s been interesting to watch the battle with politics and gangs here.”

On mixing the two: Jones uses the design principles he has learned, such as contrast and the rule of thirds, to create visually appealing cocktails. “For me, there’s an obvious correlation with the creative side of designing cocktails,” he said. “The same principles and techniques apply for culinary dishes and cocktails.”

A man is stirring two drinks. Jason Schiffer led L.A. as a bartender at the first craft cocktail bar in the city, but he is also a burgeoning painter who envisions cocktails from a lineal perspective.

Name: Jason Schiffer

Bar: 320 Main

Location: Seal Beach

Creative side: Painter

On tending bar: 320 Main opened in 2009 as the first craft cocktail bar in Orange County. Schiffer founded the Orange County Bartender’s Cabinet to connect with others as the trend picked up around Los Angeles. “Six years ago, the OC didn’t have a cocktail bar and now they’re all over the place,” he said. “It’s pretty inspiring.”

On making art: Schiffer has painted throughout his life and enjoys pouring artistic vision into growing the Orange County bar scene and bartender network while he creates on the side. “Everybody usually has some artistic ability hiding,” he said. “Sometimes the best way to unload that creativity is through cocktails and food.”

On mixing the two: Schiffer sees cocktails in a lineal perspective with the ingredients forming lines, shapes, musical notes and colors in his mind. “If a spirit is particularly interesting, it paints a picture for me,” he said. “The Detroiter, my signature drink, uses apple brandy and Stone IPA to evoke the fall season when the leaves turn and drop.”

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