Art Beyond the Glass Empowers Bartenders in Artistic Endeavors
It’s Friday night on the Sunset Strip, prime time for packed restaurants and loud bars, but Daniel Djang manages to slip into Eveleigh, one of the Los Angeles’ most buzzed-about restaurants, without waiting or bumping into a single elbow. Most of the crowd is sprawling on the bar’s patio to relish the balmy and breezy evening, in the middle of one of California’s hottest summers on record.
But cozied up to the bar is where Djang prefers to be. In 2009, he founded Thirsty in LA, a blog about the city’s cocktail culture and the people who create it, as a side project (by day he works with the city’s tourism board on content and marketing). “It wasn’t meant to be a review site,” he says. “I was discovering all these great places and just wanted to share information about bars and bartenders I liked.”
A couple of years later, he took the idea of highlighting the personalities of the Los Angeles bar scene to another level, co-founding Art Beyond the Glass (ABTG) with local bartender Zahra Bates. ABTG was created to support and spotlight the artistic pursuits of bartenders when they’re off the clock; an annual gathering — complete with music, booze, and food — showcases paintings, sculpture, photography and other artworks from local bartenders, while raising money for an arts-focused charity.
“As with most great things, Art Beyond the Glass started during a conversation over drinks,” Djang tells me, over more drinks at Eveleigh. At the dimly lit bar, Garrett, a bartender, musician and ABTG participant, sends out a slew of inspired cocktails for Djang. Among the most elaborate: Failure to Communicate, a three-part flight that includes a shot of mezcal, a shot of bourbon, and a shot of pickle juice served with a pickled egg and pickled okra. “Zahra and I were talking about how creative this community of bartenders was in the city, but no one really knew about them. We wanted to create a platform for them to show their creativity, especially as Los Angeles was growing as an arts destination.”
The revitalized downtown arts community brought bartender Claudia Ramirez to Los Angeles nearly a year ago. Through that community, Ramirez has had the chance to pair her bartending and artistic interests in several ways, from creating trophies for cocktail competitions and designing display cases for alcohol, to whipping up bitters at private events. She found her way to the ABTG community after meeting Djang at an industry event, and she got involved quickly thereafter — this summer, she crafted a chandelier made from sandblasted Lucky Buddha beer bottles for the 2015 gathering. She found the group was just what she needed as a woman who was new to town. “The most important thing Art Beyond the Glass does is celebrate bartenders for their talents outside the bar and validate the fact that it’s okay to have other passions,” she says. “The fact that it’s a highly supported, heavily attended event each year says a lot about both the art and bartending communities here.”
Los Angeles has long had a close-knit bartending community. As Chris Day, manager of cocktail bar General Lee’s, says, attending an ABTG event is like “seeing everyone you know at the same time — or turning around to 360 degrees of ‘I know you.’” But the events have held surprises, too. At an ABTG event, for example, he learned that his fellow bartender and friend, Katie Emmerson of The Walker Inn, loved Irish step-dancing. It’s a chance for everyone in the community to get to know one another as people, not just as skilled industry members. “Sometimes when people see someone behind the bar, they just see a bartender,” he says. “But I like that ABTG focuses more on the person — their hobbies, what they like to do — not the bartender.”
But for all it does to bolster community, ABTG is more than just an art party with drinks made by some of the most talented bartenders in town. The inaugural event, for which the chic local restaurant and bar Sadie donated the space and food, raised $6,000 for Inner-City Arts, an organization in the heart of Skid Row that provides art education to at-risk youth. The 2013 event raised $13,000 for Art Share L.A., a 28,000 square-foot warehouse that provides subsidized lofts for artists. When Djang and Bates presented the check to Art Share’s director, she burst into tears — ABTG had raised enough money to save the space from closing, a predicament that ABTG wasn’t even aware of when Djang chose the charity for that year’s event. A year later, in 2014, ABTG raised $18,000 for the Mural Conservancy of Los Angeles, a nonprofit that aims to restore, preserve and document the city’s wall art. At the celebration, Djang met a volunteer from the organization who lived at Art Share. “She told me she didn’t know what she was going to do if Art Share had closed — she moved to LA specifically to live there,” Djang says. “To donate to charity is great. But to meet someone positively affected by something you've done is really special.”
This year, ABTG chose KCRW as its fundraising recipient, raising more than $20,000 for the Santa-Monica based public radio station. It’s been their biggest fundraising year yet, but the ABTG team is already looking forward to next year’s fifth anniversary event, which includes plans to invite several ABTG alumni who have since found bartending gigs in other cities. ABTG is also looking to expand to other cities, to increase that sense of community and support that's been created in Los Angeles. “Bartenders have a history of stepping up for each other across the country — just look at how everyone in New York City rallied to open up and offer food and drink after Hurricane Sandy,” he says. And while Djang doesn’t technically tend bar, he can count himself a part of that group.
It’s past bedtime when we leave Eveleigh, but before he heads home, he has to stop at one more bar, for a friend.