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The Couple That Launched a Thousand Artists

From a pottery school to a B&B to a bakery, Marcia and Bruce McDougal have forged a 55-year partnership in creation.

SLIDESHOW

Marcia McDougal.

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Bruce McDougal.

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Bruce and Marcia McDougal’s living room is a study in color and pattern.

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Potter Michael Cardew teaching at Big Creek.

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The supplies Marcia once used to hand-mix glazes.

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A cupboard overflows with cups, many made by the McDougals.

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Bruce at the potter’s wheel.

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The McDougals walk their 25-acre property in the foothills above Davenport.

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Bruce cleans clay from a pottery wheel.

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The couple, married for 55 years, at home in bed.

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Handmade pots stand guard outside the front door.

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For some two decades starting in the late 1960s, artists, wannabe artists, and all manner of free spirits descended on a ranch called Big Creek outside Davenport, the speck of a town just north of Santa Cruz. There they lived off the land and, day after day, threw clay pots, mugs, and bowls on a pottery wheel as part of a multiweek ceramics workshop run by a couple named Bruce and Marcia McDougal. It was paradise. The McDougals and their students cooked with food from the garden and drank wine from a 25-gallon barrel purchased from a nearby vintner. They climbed the ridge behind the ranch at sunset to listen to the coyotes howl. Students went to hear live bluegrass at Shakey’s in Santa Cruz and skinny-dipped in the creek.

“Big Creek was like my dream,” recalls Kathy Erteman, who arrived in 1970 at age 18. “The wonder of that lifestyle—it was blinding in its idyllic presentation.” Erteman has had a prolific career since her halcyon days at Big Creek: She worked on The Dinner Party with Judy Chicago and has designed for Tiffany, exhibited at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, and taught at Parsons School of Design. She’ll admit that Big Creek didn’t necessarily influence the style of her work. Nevertheless, she calls her nine weeks there “my first and really main inspiration,” because it was at Big Creek that she first saw what it meant to live as an artist.

Now 88 and 87, respectively, Bruce and Marcia McDougal met briefly in 1956 at a Berkeley pottery studio. But not until several years later, when Bruce returned from teaching in Iowa, did they fall in love. “We had a very short romance of about five days, and then we got married,” Marcia says. “That was the beginning of our fantasyland together.” He taught pottery and she made jewelry near Santa Barbara, and then in 1967 they moved to Davenport and founded Big Creek Pottery School with potter Al Johnsen. After several years, the McDougals bought out Johnsen and began running the school on their own. Bruce taught—students remember him as kind and a stickler for “the perfect curve”—and Marcia managed the logistics. But together they shaped the vision for Big Creek: that pupils would learn not just how to make art but how to turn their whole lives into art.

They weren’t didactic about it, Marcia recalls. “We were just ourselves.” Striving to show their students that “it’s fun to cook, to laugh, to play, to make pottery,” they modeled the joys of collaborating with other artists, of living in community, of applying dedication to a craft. Their message resonated: Like Kathy Erteman, many former students credit Big Creek with awakening them to a different way of being.

“You can apprentice to a potter and learn skills, but it was like we apprenticed to a lifestyle,” says Susan Horowitz, who attended Big Creek in 1973 and is a working potter in Maine. Ramah Commanday, a St. Helena–based ceramicist who studied at Big Creek in the summer of 1971, remembers it similarly. “It was life changing in a sort of quiet and wonderful way,” she says. “It was all about beauty, it was all about harmony, it was about the joy that came out of that spontaneously. It was like, make good stuff, understand what you were doing, clean up after yourself, be a mensch—the McDougals were mensches.”

For the McDougals, that “make good stuff” philosophy extended beyond Big Creek Pottery. In the early 1980s, at the beginning of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, they felt a sea change. Enrollment was dropping; young people were increasingly moving away from the arts and into business and law—“all those middle-class things,” as Marcia puts it. The McDougals closed the school in 1987. But by that time they were pouring their creative energy into running the New Davenport Cash Store, a restaurant, B&B, and boutique selling pottery and other crafts. One business turned into two when they bought an old bar in Davenport and transformed it into Whale City Bakery, which their son Kristen Raugust still runs. “We never felt we took anything away [from our art],” Marcia says of life after Big Creek. “We were creating new spaces, new friendships. That’s the art of living.”

They are still practicing that art, albeit at a slower pace. On a sunny Wednesday in July, their house still carried traces of the 50-person bash they’d thrown for Bruce’s 88th birthday—bouquets of flowers on the kitchen table, stray napkins on the jewel-toned patio furniture. People flowed in and out as the McDougals sat on the back patio, reminiscing and detailing with gusto their more recent projects. They’re collaborating with a “surfer-doper” painter to transform the outside of their house, bit by colorful bit, painting one wall plum, another teal, some trim ocher or rust or fuchsia. They’ve also started running a salon—in the artistic sense of the word—out of their home, hosting readings by local writers.

“We happened on a good thing,” Bruce says of the life—the art—they’ve spent the past 55 years creating. But more and more, the McDougals are confronting the reality that all good things have their moment, then wind down; Marcia was diagnosed with Parkinson’s some years ago, and Bruce is learning to navigate the world with memory loss. The bodies and minds that have been their tools for so many decades are changing day by day. And so is the world. Marcia believes it wouldn’t be possible to re-create Big Creek Pottery School now; so much of its magic was specific to the time and place in which it existed. (Or, as she puts it, “Where can you rent a ranch for $300 a month now?”) But its legacy, like the McDougals’, will live on through the 1,100 students who came to Davenport so many years ago and first saw the beauty and bounty that is possible when one shapes life into art.

 

Originally published in the September issue of San Francisco 

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