Enter Upper School art teacher Kate Trepagnier’s studio classroom and there is much to take in. Paint supplies with varying degrees of splatter cover much of the space as a testament to the creative work that goes on inside. As you might expect there are images from the likes of Degas, Modigliani and Dürer adorning the walls. But unexpectedly there are little skeletons, plastic flowers and even a rusted bicycle hanging from the ceiling. Books with titles such as How Artists See Play, How Artists See Animals and How Artists See the Elements are stacked on work tables beneath student assignments. The space is comfortable, cozy and in a state of organized disarray. Kate is no stranger to disarray, having faced the flood of 2016 that ravaged her home, but not her spirit. While the experience was a challenge, she values the new perspectives she gained as a result of overcoming such adversity.
Trepagnier appreciates and celebrates the unique perspectives from which we all see the world. Ms. Kate, as her students affectionately call her, is a small, red-haired, bespectacled woman who imagines herself as a guide for young artists. The items on display in her classroom are not there by accident or convenience. Each piece is there to inspire students and to help them see the everyday objects from a different angle or viewpoint. Kate feels her purpose as an educator is helping students view the world differently by accessing their imagination and discovering who they truly are. Thanks to her innate ability to read people she connects with students in a way that makes this possible with a genuine ease.
Most teachers will tell you that the profession requires psychology as much as classroom management and field expertise. Kate’s intuition has long been her guide. Sometimes she can discern a students’ feelings by reading their brush strokes and other times it’s the look in their eyes or simply the words that they share. However she takes in the information, there is acceptance and encouragement. She knows what students need, whether it’s a quiet corner to think, a gentle nudge to revamp a draft or a witty retort regarding a late assignment.
The art of living your life has a lot to do with getting over loss. The less the past haunts you, the better.
She would lie in her yard watching the beauty of the landscape while her sister described her as “pale as death”. Eventually Kate healed physically and years later, someone gifted her with a set of paints. The explosion and joy of color and painting returned to Kate quickly as she once again wielded a brush. “No one will ever take this away from me again,” she says. And they haven’t. Kate commuted across New Orleans as a young girl in order to attend the art school that would best cultivate her gift. At university, she encountered professors who attempted to “crack” their students with tough assignments and even tougher mannerisms. While others buckled under the pressure, Kate was steadfast, earning top marks for the art in which she was confident.
Kate is not bitter. In fact, she says bitterness is not an option and would stand in the way of her creativity. She says most of her time is spent imagining her next creation. “There’s a painting yet to be made that has never been made before,” she says. This passion for art and the wisdom that comes from overcoming adversity are what Kate has passed on to Episcopal students for years and they are grateful for it.
“Ms. Kate showed me that art is about expressing yourself, not comparing yourself to other people,” says senior Alex Harrison. “She’s a great teacher who cares about all of her students.”
“I took a break from art for a while, but my freshman year I took a class with Ms. Kate and she helped me love it again,” says sophomore Katie Knight. “She guides people so they can express themselves in their art and pushes us to explore our abilities so we can find something we love to do. She was absolutely amazing to have as my teacher, and her guidance will stick with me for a long time.”
Kate imparts her artistic insight to Upper School students as they draw with colored pencils or paint with twigs and ink. In a world where image and perception seem so important with social media and constant connection, Kate knows exactly who she is and remains true to that identity. Through art instruction she attempts to help students access their creative side in hopes that they will also learn more about themselves. She empowers students. “I preach to kids to make mistakes,” she says. “There is no right answer.”
Kate Trepagnier is equal parts fierce and gentle. As she instructs students on how to make monotype prints of their original drawings, she is reverent with their works. She guides them on how to tear a page from a book at just the right angle to avoid destroying their composition or how to tape a piece to a mat with just the right amount of adhesive to avoid disaster when the mat is removed. Her descriptions are vivid, reflecting a creative, playful mind. “Pinch it like a crawfish,” she advises one student as he lifts a wet print paper. “Now hold it up and let it cry,” she says as the painting releases the excess water into a catch basin. Even her description of the donuts she’s brought to share – “sugar on cold fat” – elicits imagery and emotion.
Kate sees the world in color. Hues found in the hardwood forests near her home inspire her to create vibrant, captivating, unconventional landscapes. “My art is a way that I get to play with color,” she says. When Kate is painting, she is swept up in the energy and imagery of the colors. She says painting is a way to share energies, to access ancient ancestors and to celebrate the humanity of life on planet earth. As she guides students through a journey of discovery, she hopes to help them find themselves. “If they can access their humanity, they are kind and that’s what we need to give to others,” she says.
Over the course of her career, Kate has given much to the world through her use of color and energy. The labors of her love have been showcased in museums and galleries, including Albemarle headquarters in Houston, Chevron headquarters in Covington and Our Lady of the Lake Cancer Center. Through determination, talent and passion she has made a life doing what she loves while guiding others to do the same.
Similar to how she faced the flood without fear, Kate now accepts and embraces the unknown of retirement. This passionate painter will continue to pursue that painting that has never been made before as she shows us how she sees the world. The rest is yet to be determined. “I’ve always had a clear goal and I don’t now. It’s unfolding,” she says.