Visual art can be introspective, insightful and deeply personal. It can also be communal, public and overtly engaging. We turn our attention in this article to the most public of all forms of visual art – the mural. One of the oldest forms of artistic expression, murals have a lofty pedigree – Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel come instantly to mind!
We spoke with local muralist Mike Cooper, who has been designing and creating large-scale murals in the Middle Tennessee region and beyond for decades. Nashvillians are guaranteed to recognize his work around town. He is the man responsible for such civic points of pride as Legends Corner, the Nashville Zoo underpass, Yazoo Brewery, the Arts Company, the Arcade and Cumberland Transit.
Murals, unlike other forms of visual art, are pieces with a specific commission in mind. “It’s probably one of the few art forms that you don’t have to go to the gallery to see. It’s out amongst the public,” reflects Cooper as we spoke in his studio. “It’s part of the fabric of your everyday life. In and of itself, it’s not only public art and art in public places – it’s just right in front of you. I think it resonates more with people.”
Resonate it does. Many Nashvillians will recall even more of Cooper’s murals throughout Nashville’s history. Sadly, these murals are gone now due to civic change and progress, but these murals we will always remember with pride – the “Greetings from Nashville” mural near the new Music City Center, as well as the Hard Rock Café mural, which Cooper himself designed and created. “I miss the Hard Rock mural. It was iconic. I miss the ‘Greetings from Nashville’ that was downtown,” muses Cooper.
Painting on buildings and walls brings with it an occupational hazard that the surface may one day be modified, demolished or otherwise changed. Unlike painters who use the more conventional canvas and hang their work on a gallery wall, a muralist’s work is at the mercy of commercial structures and industrial building materials. Luckily, very few of Cooper’s works have met their fate at the hands of a bulldozer. One such lucky iconic work is the mural of legendary musical performers on full display in the window of Legends Corner in downtown Nashville.
This mural contains the images of such icons as Dolly Parton, Ray Charles and Patsy Cline, among many, many others. It’s become such a favorite of natives and tourists alike that it can be a challenge to see it without others clustered around. “People will come from out of town and stay with us. ‘Oh, we want to see your murals!’ So we’ll go downtown, and we point out different hot spots. ‘Oh! Over there!’ There’ll be people all in front of it taking pictures with their family members in front of it. We’ll say, ‘That one! Behind those people!’” laughs Cooper’s wife Mickie.
Yet another example of Cooper’s remarkable ability to mimic natural surroundings can be seen in his murals for the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere. The columns at the underpass on Nolensville Road immediately north of the zoo entrance are swathed in Cooper’s murals, with life-size animals and three-dimensional stone blocks painted to appear real. Cooper’s painstaking process to ensure his murals are exacting and precise to his subject is impressive. “For the zoo, I said, ‘What animals do you have that can climb?,’ because I didn’t want something that didn’t look like it wasn’t supposed to be there. I went down there and got images and talked to everyone. That’s just the way you do it!”
Cooper’s sense of humor is interwoven throughout his work, and it can be seen on giant display at one of Nashville’s favorite local breweries. Yazoo Brewery’s outdoor storage tanks, initially an unexciting coat of plain white, have been transformed by Cooper’s ingenuity. “There are three of them. The copper is supposed to oxidize a little bit, because I didn’t coat it. He wanted it to oxidize,” explains Cooper of the tongue-in-cheek application to the outside of the giant storage tanks, now painted in copper tones with giant, oversized beer taps painted on the exterior. It’s become a popular place for people to take candid photographs. “We need to go out and put footprints where you’re supposed to stand with the mug!” laughs Mickie.
A proud Memphis native, Cooper’s educational background and artistic experience lend themselves well to the precise nature of his work. “I have a degree in contract and commercial & interior design. It’s where I learned perspective and rendering and interiors,” Cooper describes.
“As part of the interior design program, I got to draw a lot. And I did a lot of that and then came back to Memphis and did design work. That’s the same drafting board I had back then. I’ve had that thing for, okay, a lot of years… When I started doing murals, it was just a natural fit. Absolutely perfect.”
Cooper’s love of artistic expression did not simply start in college with his choice of majors. Like most artists of note, Cooper showed signs of an artistic bent at an early age. “I have literally been painting walls my entire life. Just for fun. Always. Whether as a kid for my parents – I remember doing stuff for my dad’s office. I did stuff for my kids’ rooms, for their churches and schools.”
Cooper and his wife Mickie laugh as he recalls memories of his childhood plans for his education. “I’d get in trouble at school for drawing on stuff when I wasn’t supposed to be drawing on them,” recalls Cooper.
Mickie furthers the story. “I had no idea that he could paint! The kids and I left town for a weekend and came back and he says, ‘I can’t wait for you to see what I’ve done!’” The hilarious retelling of the story includes wife Mickie’s realization that Cooper had a remarkable talent for creating visual art after she saw his life-size rendering of a favorite Calvin & Hobbes cartoon. “You’ve got to understand. I didn’t know that he knew which end of the paintbrush to hold!”
Cooper laughs. “Drawing on walls is the same thing as drawing on a drafting board. It’s just a bigger board! Instead of a parallel bar and a triangle, I use a 4-foot level and a string. It works!”
Describing more details of his intriguing process, Cooper continues. “What I do is – I paint what I see. Literally, if I’m going to do something, I want good reference material…I’ll take hundreds of pictures of stuff, all to get it at the right angles. There was something I needed a guitar in, and I went down to the guitar shop here in Franklin, and there were specific guitars I wanted to use,” explains Cooper. “I had them at different angles, different lighting. I went down there and talked to them and told them what I wanted to do. I took tons of photographs.”
Cooper’s work is so well regarded that he has become an expert in his field. Featured on a DVD of instructional videos on mural painting, he and Mickie also host weeklong seminars to instruct students on the art of murals. “We try to teach four classes a year, and when we do, people come from all over,” states Cooper.
Mickie continues by saying, “We’ve been contacted about mural classes in Italy and France.” What a way to spend a working vacation, don’t you think?
“We’ve been thinking about that,” agrees Cooper. “Usually, classes here are a week, and they’re jammed. There’s just a ton of information to work on in just a week. I’m basic. I don’t do any drafting or anything like that on the computer. Everything’s by hand. I teach people how to draft, how to use an architectural scale, how to use a lead holder as opposed to a drafting pencil.”
Cooper has even designed custom paintbrushes for the mural-painting industry. “We designed these brushes! When we were at a trade show selling our DVDs, there was a guy that had a bunch of booths across from us,” recalls Cooper.
“I went over there and started talking to him. Turned out he owned the brush company! I said, ‘What about mural brushes?,’ and he says, “Well, nobody’s ever asked for mural brushes.’ I said, ‘Let me bring you some of my brushes.’ These things looked pretty historic! They were my absolute favorites! I’d worn them out and gotten them finally where they worked for what I’m using them for. He looked at them, felt them, measured them. I swear I think he even tasted them!” Cooper jokes.
“We went back and forth, and we finally came back with some brushes that are really pretty cool for murals! If you’re painting on a wall, there’s nothing better!”
Cooper and his effusive wife Mickie make the perfect team. As Cooper himself teases, “Mickie does everything but the painting!” He turns serious for a brief moment after they’ve regaled us with humorous anecdote after humorous anecdote.
“It is so great to think that you can paint murals for a living and support a family and everything that goes along with it. I think, as an artist, to make a living is remarkable. Even to use the term, I feel blessed, to be able to do it. I’ll say it now. I couldn’t do it alone. Ever.”
For more information on Mike Cooper’s work and his company Murals & More, LLC, please visit them at www.muralsandmore.com.