Tuned in to the arts

Written by Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat July 18, 2013 11:30 am

Artist Louise McPeeters (above) sits with a variety of her work, some finished and some incomplete. Amy Alonzo Rozak / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
The arts have an ally in Louise McPeeters, a retired Curtis Creek Elementary School teacher whose lifelong mission is to help students express themselves. 

As the arts education director for the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, formerly the Central Sierra Arts Council, McPeeters connects artists with local schools through the nonprofit’s “Arts Reach to Schools” and “Artist in Residency” programs. 

But she hasn’t stopped working with students herself. She teaches music to Curtis Creek first- through fourth-graders every week and trains other local teachers in the arts through the California Arts Project. 

Several local students take private singing and piano lessons from McPeeters. Most want to study music in college, she said. 

Among her students is 17-year-old Lorna Job, this year’s Mother Lode Roundup Queen, who said lessons with the “really patient” McPeeters are the highlight of her busy weeks. 

“It’s the one place I can go and just breathe,” said Job, who started taking lessons from McPeeters in high school. 

 “She has a passion and is really good at sharing it,” Job said. “With the training she’s had, that’s one of the reasons she’s such a gem in the community.” 

Sitting in on the music lessons is McPeeters’s ringneck parrot, BeBop, who starts chirping when the students sing. The only way to quiet him down is to clap and tell him he’s done well, McPeeters said. 

She didn’t always want to be a teacher. She started out as a performer — singing in musicals and operas, playing the guitar and exploring several genres. 

She grew up in Tracy, the child of a doctor and homemaker. Music ran in her family: Her grandmother was a singer, and her mother played the piano. McPeeters started taking piano lessons at age 6 and decided she wanted voice lessons, too. 

The teacher she chose, the late University of the Pacific professor Elizabeth Spelts, would only teach her when she reached 13 years of age. McPeeters counted down the days until her birthday and credits Spelts with having a strong influence on her life. 

She eventually earned a UOP music degree. While doing graduate work at California State University, San Francisco, she played Despina in Mozart’s “Così fan tutte.”

McPeeters, a lyric soprano, continued her studies in London. But while she was abroad, she read news about the Watts Riots in Los Angeles and protests against the war in Vietnam. 

So in her early 20s, she felt she should return home and “do something” to help, she said. 

Her father had suggested that she become a teacher to earn a living. The pieces came together when she worked at a preschool in Iowa City while earning her teaching credential. 

There, a 4-year-old student was having trouble learning how to talk. He was so frustrated by his inability to communicate, his behavior turned self-destructive and violent. 

McPeeters and another teacher suggested that the child have his hearing tested. After undergoing surgery that addressed the problem, he was talking within a short time — and no longer acting out. 

That helped McPeeters draw a connection between a safer world and ways for children to communicate or release frustration, especially ways that don’t require words. 

“If they can express their feelings, emotions and desires through the arts, there will be less violence,” she said. “I decided that I wanted to give children the tools to express themselves.” 

Her first teaching job was in Virginia Beach, Va. She returned to California and “gravitated” to Tuolumne County. 

She was familiar with the area, since her grandfather and great-grandfather had built a cabin in Pinecrest in 1921 that McPeeters visited every year. 

“I love it here,” she said. “I feel like there’s a place for everyone where they feel great strength, and this county is one of those for me.”

When she arrived, she performed in Twain Harte and taught a voice class at Columbia College. But her real place was at Curtis Creek, where she stayed for 33 years before retiring in 2008. 

Her teaching evolved through her three decades at the school. She first asked to be a classroom teacher but was given the task of teaching band, which wasn’t her area of expertise. 

She credits other local music teachers with helping her learn the ropes. She started teaching more drama and theater, and students performed in musicals every year. 

When McPeeters’ singing voice wore out about halfway through her time at Curtis Creek, she asked to teach art, too. 

Since she didn’t believe in teaching something without trying it, she learned technique from Curtis Creek teacher Dana-Sue Palemone and local artist Dianne Stearns, among others. 

One day, Columbia College teacher Twyla Olsen dropped by some Oriental paintbrushes for McPeeters’s art classes to use. 

That resulted in McPeeters’ elegant ink drawings on rice paper showing bamboo branches, a heron, chickens and other objects. 

Her Tuolumne home is instantly identifiable as an artist’s by its bright decor. Also evident is her lifelong habit of collecting musical instruments, including a mandola and baby guitar, a basketful of small percussion instruments, and even BeBop the parrot. 

Not everyone has the opportunity to develop a passion for art or music. In times of financial hardship, McPeeters said, schools usually cut those programs first — sending her and other arts advocates scrambling for grant funding.  

“Parents are really important,” she said. “If they feel that the arts are important, they need to express it to their schools and get involved.” 

McPeeters is divorced with a daughter, Kathryn McPeeters, and two grandchildren. 

She said she’s excited about new programs being initiated by the Tuolumne County Arts Alliance, including a series of summer and after-school classes offered by the organization’s new Kids Art Studies Academy. 

Some of those classes will be taught by McPeeters herself. She described the arts as her “most loyal” friend and lifelong companion. 

“When you have something and it works and it brings you great joy to do it, then you want to do it more,” she said. “It also brings others joy. That’s the other thing about the arts. It’s a gift that you give.” 

If the community has its way, McPeeters will continue giving for a long time.

Tuolumne County Arts Alliance Executive Director Connie O’Connor says she’s the glue that binds the organization and arts education in the county together. 

“She’s a gem, and we’re keeping her,” O’Connor said.