Incandescent Moments

AE-potteryLocal icons Bruce and Marcia McDougal, Big Creek Pottery, celebrated in new MAH exhibit
Bruce and Marcia McDougal have always thrived on “the excitement of the moment.” Ask what this means, and Marcia offers a typically direct and resonant response: “Like the first time your baby smiles at you.”

The McDougals’ lives as artisans, craftpersons, and local cultural icons have been full of such incandescent moments. Potters, jewelry-makers, teachers, hoteliers, international travelers, longtime proprietors of the Davenport Cash Store and Bed and Breakfast, they have been at the heart of cultural life in Santa Cruz County for close to 50 years. But it’s their role as founders of the fabled Big Creek Pottery School, up Swanton Road, from 1968 through 1983, that is currently drawing them once more into the spotlight. The McDougals, their work, and their school are the focus of a major retrospective opening this month at the Museum of Art & History: “Big Creek Pottery: A Social History of a Visual Idea.”

The exhibit is guest curated by Karen Thuesen Massaro, an accomplished ceramic sculptor, educator, and  Santa Cruz County Artist of the Year for 2003. Massaro moved to Santa Cruz in 1980; she was never a student at Big Creek Pottery, but she remembers seeing enticing ads for the school in “Ceramics Monthly” magazine as an art professor in the Midwest. But it wasn’t until she curated the exhibit, “Time and Place: Fifty Years of Santa Cruz Studio Ceramics,” for the MAH in 1997, that she met the McDougals in person. Interviewing them for that show, she became fascinated by both the history and influence of BCP.

For the new show, Massaro has assembled 70 pots culled primarily from the McDougal’s collection—their own work, a selection of student work, and several pieces made during demonstrations by visiting artists/instructors who taught at the school over the years. The exhibit also features 140 vintage photos from the heyday of the school, where students lived and worked together for nine-week summer sessions. (Fall and spring sessions were added later, as the school’s popularity grew.) Massaro calls the exhibit “a real dovetail of the history of what happened in this community,” where, in addition to pottery instruction, students were offered “an experience of how to live in a community.” But she also cites the influence of the school and the McDougals in expanding the idea of “what potters thought good pots were.”

This was a matter of some debate back in the mid-1960s. Functional pottery had become the plain, neglected step-sister of the burgeoning clay arts/ceramic sculpture scene exemplified by high-profile artists like Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos. These new clay sculptors “did not want to be craftsmen,” says Bruce; Voulkos, he says, wanted to elevate clay to “a competitive art.” Few of them wanted to bother teaching their MFA students functional clay techniques. And Voulkos’ students (unschooled in clay basics), were “getting all the teaching jobs in universities.” In this atmosphere, the impetus for the BCP school was radical in its simplicity. “We had an idea of teaching people how to make pots,” says Bruce.

Bruce and Marcia met in Berkeley in 1957 at the Chimney Potters collective. They married a few years later, with Marcia running her own ceramic jewelry business, and glazing the pots that Bruce threw. They sold their work at weekend craft fairs to augment Bruce’s income from teaching undergraduate pottery courses around the Bay Area. At a San Francisco arts fair in 1967, the McDougals met fellow potter Al Johnsen. It was the “Summer of Love,” hippies were dancing in Golden Gate Park, and the back-to-the-earth movement was in full swing. Johnsen (who later became head of the ceramics department at UC Santa Cruz) had the crazy idea of opening a pottery school in some empty warehouses along Highway 1. And Bruce, by this time, was profoundly tired of teaching in academia.

But it was all talk until they found a property off Swanton Road that was available for rent from the McCrary family, owners of Big Creek Lumber. A former cheese dairy that had been vacant for 12 years, it offered two main houses, a cheese house, and a 150-foot barn. Once again, Bruce and Marcia were swept up in the excitement of the moment. Bruce quit his teaching job, and the new partners advertised in ceramics magazines and sent fliers to university art departments across the country announcing their first summer session. With money from student applications, they set to building kilns and equipment. Bruce personally built 24 kickwheel potter’s wheels.

Big Creek Pottery School opened in the summer of 1968. The cheese house was the boys’ dorm. Female students roomed in the two main houses, where the McDougals and Johnsens lived with their families. An extensive vegetable garden was put in, and pigs and chickens were raised for communal meals. Those first two years, Bruce and Al Johnsen taught all the workshops. After the McDougals bought out Johnsen in 1970 and became sole proprietors, Bruce taught all the workshops. 50 workshops were taught to 1,100 students over the course of the school’s operation, hands-on courses in throwing, coiling and other forms of pot construction, glazing and decorating, and firing techniques involving high-fire gas, salt, wood, and raku.

The arrival of the school’s first guest instructor happened by chance. Ceramist, author, and educator Daniel Rhodes had been teaching ceramics in Alfred, New York, and he and his wife, Lillyan, were looking for a place to retire to in California. When they visited BCP, Rhodes declared he wanted to teach a workshop at the school. Open to serendipity, as always, Marcia says they were excited about the idea because “we could learn something from him!” In May of 1971, Rhodes gave a one-day demonstration at the school, attended by potters from all over the Bay Area, along with a one-week workshop for BCP students.  The buzz generated was so positive, the McDougals started bringing in other guest instructors to expose their students to a broad range of styles and ideas.

“They didn’t invite second-string people,” notes Massaro. “They only invited the cream.” The tradition in those days was to offer a guest artist transportation and room and board, but no fee, for teaching a workshop at another school. As usual, the McDougals had a different idea. “We offered what we could afford,” says Bruce, in terms of remuneration, which was considered very generous by their visiting workshop teachers. Massaro believes “what made the school dynamic” was inviting a mix of functional and experimental potters and clayworkers to teach workshops— along with the occasional glass-blowing or brick-making demonstration.

The list of master craftpersons drawn to giving workshops at BCP over the years is impressive: John Glick of Plum Tree Pottery in Michigan; Warren MacKenzie, longtime champion of “everyday pots;” iconic Colorado potters Jim and Nan McKinnell; renowned ceramic sculptor and stoneware muralist Ruth Duckworth; British functional pottery advocate and jar and vessel maestro Michael Casson, host of the popular BBC series The Craft of the Potter; Canadian potter, sculptor, and glaze expert John Reeve; English-born, West-African influenced slipware master Michael Cardew, 75 years old when he taught a lively BCP workshop in 1976.

BCP students were a mix of beginners and professionals, Santa Cruz area locals and refugees from university arts programs around the country. Massaro says BCP “gave local students  an opportunity to meet people they would never have a chance to know otherwise.” ”

By the early ’80s, hand-crafted arts were losing their grip on the popular imagination. University students were more likely to pursue business degrees, and enrollment at BCP began to decline. Rising to the occasion once again, the McDougals closed down the school, donated all the kickwheels and one kiln to the arts program at Soledad prison, and segued into the restaurant business via the Davenport Cash Store, which they’d built in 1977 as a second studio site and showroom to sell BCP student work.

Now that UCSC no longer even offers a ceramics program (although a long-running student potters’ co-op still exists at Merrill College), Massaro hopes the Big Creek Pottery exhibit will inspire a new generation of clayworkers. “I dedicate it to young potters here,” she says. “How will they know what’s possible unless they see the work?”

“Big Creek Pottery: A Social History of A Visual Idea” will be on exhibit at the Museum of Art and History from March 26 to July 17. On May 14, 4 p.m., Bruce and Marcia McDougal will lead a free discussion panel at the MAH on Big Creek Pottery. Visit santacruzmah.org for more information.

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