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Kate Zessel: From Coffee Shop Walls to the Outdoors Industry

Exploring the backcountry under the light of the moon. Mitch Winton photo. 

As soon as Kate Zessel could walk, she could ski. Growing up, she felt a pull towards the backcountry, where she now spends most of her time. Kate, or “Zessel,” as her friends call her, gets her energy from the mountains. “I think it’s important for women to get outside, explore, and break out of routine… and I think that mountain women are a different breed.”

With clients like Sherpa Cinemas, Patagonia, and Girls Do Ski, Kate is making a splash in the outdoors world. “Having their support and the opportunities they’ve given me has just escalated my love for producing in this industry,” Kate tells TGR. She’d always wanted to break into the industry, and now she’s found her niche. As for the client she’s most proud of? “Any client that promotes outdoor living and creative [people] is something I’m proud of.”


Intricate line work in some of Kate's pieces. Artwork by Kate Zessel. 

As a Whistler native, Kate is no stranger to the mountains. “Whistler is an incredible place to be an artist,” she says. “I grew up here as a weekend warrior, and always knew that I wanted to be in the ski and snowboard industry.” She’s a strong believer that she wouldn’t have had the same influence, inspiration, or opportunities had she stayed in the city. Zessel's work features intricate line work and pops of color, and is everything mountains and wilderness.

Kate Zessel's design was featured on Prior Skis. Pretty rad. Kate Zessel photo. 

While in school for graphic design, Zessel created a hand-illustrated, 60 page book called “Little Talks,” centered around the top five most influential female skiers at the time. Getting back in touch with hand illustration during the creation of the book made Kate feel more connected to her art, and was the birth of her current style. “It was all about [these women] having little conversations about their season goals, and how they made these verbal commitments or goals to grow and push themselves as athletes.” Kate applied her concept to her own life, and continues to do: live by your word, grow, and create.

Artwork by Kate Zessel. 

Kate has learned that putting yourself out there is the best way to get things done. “I used to be so nervous to reach out to individuals doing rad things…skiing, creators, artists hiking biking etc… As I got more comfortable with myself and being an artist, I said yes to more things and that fear just went away.” The more time she spends outside going to new places, finding new adventure buds and more creatives, she more she’s inspired to sit down and put her experiences on paper. For Kate, it’s all about pushing herself out of her comfort zone—that’s where she finds herself inspired to produce new things.

ALWAYS SEEKING ADVENTURE

Backcountry touring Rogers Pass. Kate Zessel photo. 

“I go out and try to do three big adventures a week…go somewhere new, or a place I feel I need to explore more. Translating the feeling of adventure into a piece is what I aim to do.” Zessel tries not to plan her drawings too much—“I want to follow the direction and inspiration for a piece organically,” she says. Zessel says her clients connect with her work because they are like-minded. “I have such a great connection with places I’ve never been and people I’ve never met because they allow me to see a little piece of their life [and] their stories. I get to take my experiences and the way I felt in my own adventures, and translate it to theirs.”

As for making art about the mountains in the contemporary art world, Zessel feels that it’s just like any other kind of art: “People are inspired by what they experience… I think that people connect with mountain artists because they are drawn to them. The mountains have a way of connecting people,” she says. “They make you feel small and humble, and if you can somehow put that feeling into a piece of art, [people] resonate with it.”

When it comes down to it, Kate lives by a simple motto: Work hard. Dream big. Stay humble.

Artwork by Kate Zessel. 

Starting out, Zessel was working three jobs to fund her lifestyle and desire to create. “It was a slow process,” she says. She worked with coffee shops, hoping they’d show her art on their walls, and got involved with shows and contests through the Whistler Arts Council. Social Media, mainly Instagram, has been a huge part getting her work out there. She’s not overly concerned with the perceived rules of social media, though. “I honestly don’t care how many followers I have…If my art can invoke a memory or a desire to get out there, that’s its purpose, for me.” As her work gained attention, Zessel needed more and more time to create, and slowly quit each of her other jobs. “I’m still sort of waiting for the floor to fall out from under me, but I think if you’re following your passion, people will support you. We all want to see each other succeed.”

Recently, Zessel has been exploring using wood burning in her work. Kate Zessel photo. 

Right now, Kate’s got Alaska in her sights—she’d love to spend a month driving around skiing and drawing. Currently, she’s working on some collaborations, and finding new ways to push herself. She tattooed herself for the first time recently. She drives a Tacoma named Peach. She brings her stove, coffee, and her hammock almost everywhere. She really, really wants a wolf dog (who doesn’t?). She’d rather have experiences than gifts. Kate Zessel is a mountain woman through and through, and has earned her place in the outdoors world.

ONE FOR THE ROAD

The finished piece for Sherpas Cinema. Courtesy of Kate Zessel.

“While I was working with Sherpas I had to create this rustic map of Russia. I had never aged paper before and wanted it to look as organic as possible, so I looked [how to do it], and it basically said to just use coffee and heat. So I created the initial outline of the map, and made a bunch of different photo copies so I could play with it and get the right look. I brewed a bunch of coffee and started dipping the maps in it…when I went to throw it in my oven, I realized that they wouldn't fit. My roommate at the time came home to make dinner and walked in on me with a giant map on tinfoil, all four of our stove burners on and pile of burnt maps on the floor that were collateral damage. Me and the smoke alarm got closely acquainted that day.”

Check out Kate's work on Instagram here

From The Column: Women in the Mountains

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