J.A.W. Cooper was born in England to a South African/British mother and an American father--both freshwater ecologists. She grew up traveling for their research and professor exchanges, living in Kenya, Sweden, Ireland and traveling across Europe. Home base was Southern California between trips, sabbaticals, and longer stays in other countries. Cooper's mother always practiced art, in particular scientific illustration, and from an early age she was eager to learn how to perform the same kind of "magic." Between her parent's dedication to ecology, thier extensive traveling, and her mother's skill as an artist Cooper was primed to be fascinated with flora and fauna and obsessed with capturing them in sketches and paintings.