Lives & Times of Valley Folks: Doug Johnson

by Steve Sparks, September 23, 2010

I met with Doug at his property just south of Navarro where he has several showrooms full of his pottery along with the very quaint house where he lives. He made a pot of strong coffee and served up some delicious ‘Tomato Breakfast Pie’ and we sat down to chat.

Doug was born in 1950 in Berkeley, California, to par­ents Robert Johnson and Georgette Tagg. “I really don’t know much about my heritage. I do know my grandfather Johnson worked as a welder on the making of submarines and his wife, my grandmother, was a seamstress whose parents were dairy farmers in southern California. I know even less about my Mother’s side — except they were of English/Irish descent and before moving to Walnut Creek in the East Bay, they were originally from Oregon where they owned a movie thea­tre and a candy store.”

Doug’s parents were both graduates of Acalanes High School in Lafayette who met after graduating. His father was five years older. Doug has a brother, Steve, two years older and another brother, Rob, 13 years younger. Doug was initially raised in rural Pleasant Hill in the East Bay but when he was seven, the family moved to Oakland where his parents had bought a gro­cery store. After renting there for two years they bought a house in nearby Orinda and that is where Doug attended grammar and high school. “I was the worst stu­dent but my parents were wonderful and understanding, My Dad once said to me, ‘We don’t care if you don’t get A’s and B’s but just get C’s’ but I didn’t even manage that and eventually flunked. Coincidentally, I was in a class with Leslie Hummel who now owns ‘All that Good Stuff’ in Boonville although we did not know each other at the time. I was the class clown and was always in some sort of trouble; not anything serious just silly stuff. My best friend, John White, and I would cut classes to go on some peace march. There were lots in the area at that time, 1967/68, and then we’d get suspended for the next day too. But we’d already have a fishing trip planned for that day! This worked well for a time until they got wise to it and then we were kept in school. One day in my final year at Campolindo High School I noticed a ceramics wheel in the corner of the craft classroom. I had never seen anyone working on it so I tried. I fell in love with it and never looked back. That was 43 years ago. My grandmother Tagg, who was a piano teacher and who gave me lessons at the age of four, also happened to be a hobbyist potter and had her own little kiln from which she made hand and foot prints and pots out of clay.”

“I had a good childhood. My parents had a pool and I was always playing outside. My grandfather, George Tagg, was the projectionist at the Paramount Theatre in Oakland for nearly forty years and we’d always go to the front of the line and be let in first for the movies that were showing. It was fun to feel important. From the age of 13 I worked at my parents’ grocery store three days a week after school and on Saturdays too, so by sixteen I had quite a bit of money saved and could buy my own sports car. I smoked pot like everyone else and managed to flunk American government at school and therefore failed to graduate on time in 1968. It was not my fault! The teacher was so boring and I ended up sleeping a lot in the class.”

Doug then attended Diablo Valley College where much to his mother’s joy he completed his high school diploma (“I never needed it”) and studied political sci­ence but, by the third year at the college, he was doing ceramics only. “I had an apartment with my brother Steve and a friend Chris Zimmerman but in 1970 I mar­ried my high school sweetheart, Kris Shaff. I was twenty, she was eighteen, and we lived in an apartment in Oak­land. My father had always talked about living in the country and, with us having little money in the early days, all of our family vacations had been backpacking and camping. As a result I loved the country and always thought it would be a better place to live than the city.”

“Kris and I had visited my friend John White, my buddy from high school, who was working at the Clearwater Ranch residential treatment center for emo­tionally disturbed kids in Anderson Valley. We loved the area and so in the fall of 1971 when John told us we would have a fairly good chance of getting a job there we moved up tom the Valley. We had $140, which was two month’s rent for a two-bedroom mill shack on Big Oaks Drive in Yorkville owned by Fayne and Evelyn Hanes. My parents stocked us up with lots of dry goods before we left so we had some provisions and then almost immediately Kris got a job as a counselor at Clearwater and I was hired as ceramics teacher there too. We stayed in Yorkville for several months before mov­ing into the ranch house at Clearwater where I stayed for about six more months.”

Mary Cathcart, who hired Doug, was fired about six months after Doug started and the new person in charge, Gordon Bear, decided there was no money or space for ceramics and many other of the arts so Doug became a counselor and then a teachers aid for a couple of years. During that time he and Kris broke up and he moved to a rental he shared with Kathy Bailey on Blattner Road in Philo. For a time in 1973, after the breakup, Doug would travel down to the Bay Area on Saturday evenings and work at his parents store all day Sunday for $60 and then come back up. They would always send him back with meat from their butcher and groceries at half price but after six months of this he returned full-time to the Val­ley, living initially in Navarro behind the Navarro Store with John ‘Pogo’ Moats. In 1974 he met Kristy Gould at a party at the Philo Foothills Ranch and they started dat­ing. “She was a fellow potter and there was a real attrac­tion between us. Pottery was my consuming passion; it was my thing in life. Kristen was learning and studying it and was really into it too. We moved in together just out­side Navarro on Hwy 128, where Dave Dart now lives, and opened Pepperwood Pottery. I am not a businessman so she did the business side of things as well as some of the pottery. We were together for 13 years.”

The seventies saw the early days of many of the cur­rent wineries in the Valley and they would hire locals to pick at harvest time. “They would give you a drink at the end of each row as a bonus. My friends Tom English and Wayne Ahrens were at Edmeades and they had a great time. Not surprisingly, the wineries stopped that practice after a couple of years. Meanwhile I would supplement my pottery income by planting trees for Masonite in the winters. I was on Tom’s crew for three years and then had my own crew in my final year on that job... Some other friends of mine, Richard and Teresa Piedmont, had property for sale next to Perry Gulch that was originally an old chicken farm owned by the Pinoli family, and in 1977 Kristy bought the half-acre parcel and we moved the Pepperwood Pottery business here, where I have lived to this day. We had no highway frontage at first so Wayne made us a sign that stood for years. The extra money from tree planting had also meant I was able to buy forty acres of raw land on Clow Ridge for $17,500 in 1978 and put up a cabin and dug a well.”

Meanwhile, while being very enjoyable, the pottery business provided only a meager income for many years. “It was not great and going to craft shows in a VW bus and pick-up truck, loading up all your things before and after, was a hard way to make a living. In 1980, after four years of that, we opened a shop in Mendocino on Main Street where ‘Creative Hands’ is now, and where we remained for six years. It was a good move. We went from the craft show scene, where you never knew if you would do any business or not, to getting a steady income. However, in 1986 Kristy and I split up. She wanted to go to the City so I sold my 40-acre piece and I bought her out of this property here, adding more land over time and renovating the buildings etc.”

For a year Doug wasn’t sure what to do as he kept the business going alone but then he saw an ad for a realty job with Mike Shapiro at North Country Real Estate. “Mike was an old friend and we talked. I said I’d get my license if he held the job for me. He did and I started work there in 1987... Real estate was a good change for me. I found that I could make some money and still do some pottery and now I was able to keep the stuff I made for myself and it was always in my heart to return to pottery one day.”

For a couple of years Doug worked full-time for North Country out of the office at the old gas station alongside Rossi’s Hardware Store in the heart of Boon­ville. “However, working down there in the office could be very boring so in 1989 we agreed that I would work from home for less money but where I could continue to work on my pottery and then respond to any realty calls that came in. I had made many contacts in the Valley and had many referrals so it worked out really nicely that way. I was able to make a nice living selling real estate while still doing my pottery.”

Doug was driven by his pottery but managed to have a good social life when not working, attending many dances in the Valley (he is known among some as ‘Dancing Bear’), playing volleyball in the gym with the same people for many years, enjoying the local restau­rants and bars, and more recently the live music scene in Navarro that is just a couple of minutes from his home. He was with Mike Shapiro for 19 years until four years ago in 2006 he underwent major ankle surgery and called it quits. “The real estate job was originally just a five-year plan — it changed. I really enjoyed the job. Most people looking for a home are having a great time and I’d get to see so many wonderful properties. However, I’d always planned to be a full-time potter and now that’s all I do. The new sign on Highway 128 works well and we have a website up that needs more work but it helps also. I have several small showrooms here at the property and things are going quite well. I have five kilns now, three of which are fired every week as I’m always adding to inventory as things are sold, and I also have a much wider range of products these days. I work on something nearly every day but ultimately I just love throwing pots. It’s my favorite part of the process.”

Doug has been in the Valley for nearly forty years now and has no plans to leave, although, like many others, the upkeep of his property sometimes gets in the way of other things he’d rather be doing. “I love the people in this Valley and I have many friends here. It’s a really good community. I do love to get away sometimes and one of my favorite things to do is to go fishing in Haines, Alaska with that old school friend, John White. It’s phenomenal fishing up there and I recently went with Dennis and Palmer Toohey from the Valley, but to live there during the winter would be very tough. Fishing in the Valley has really gone downhill a lot in recent years. I remember how great it was catching steelhead on the Navarro River etc. It’s too bad. Crabbing still happens in Big River and rock fishing can be done year round but for me diving for abalone is about all I do around here now. Apart from that I have traveled quite a lot — Europe a few times, Egypt with my Mom, Mexico several times, Costa Rica, Panama, and many fishing trips with the ‘Mendocino Fishing Team’ of Dennis Toohey and John Buckner. I just love to fish. However, pottery is the thing for me. Day and night, it’s like living my dream, my real passion. I read about it and I’m constantly thinking about what I can do next. It’s still very exciting to this day and there is an endless amount of things to do or experiment with for the rest of my life. It’s like opening Christmas presents all the time. Very exciting.”

I asked Doug about the issues often discussed by Valley folks.

The wineries and their impact? “For me personally they have been really good. They bring people here and my business is often with the same people. The vine­yards look really beautiful and having grapes is better than having houses. The water usage is certainly a con­cern though. It seems like there is a lot of water going to waste here too, and it’s not just by the wineries.”

The AVA? “I like it and buy it every week. There’s a lot I don’t read and I’m not really into politics but I do enjoy all the local stuff.”

KZYX radio? “I never listen any more. I listen to The Coast radio station, 95.3FM.”

Changes in the Valley? “Well in my time here there have been some really big changes but I like what has happened.”

Drugs in the Valley? “I have no problem with mari­juana at all but the methamphetamine situation is bad. It is a horrible drug and hopefully we can get rid of it.”

I posed a few questions from a questionnaire on TV’s “Inside the Actors Studio with James Lipton” and some I came up with myself.

What excites you, makes you smile, gets your juices flowing creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Pottery. Music too. I like to play guitar and sing.”

What annoys you, brings you down, turns you off creatively, spiritually, emotionally? “Nothing really bothers me.”

Sound or noise you love? “Birds singing; old rock ‘n’ roll or folk music.”

Sound or noise you hate? “Heavy metal music.”

Favorite food or meal? Your ‘last meal’ shall we say? “Salmon.”

If you could meet one person dead or alive, one on one for a conversation, who would that person be? “President Obama.”

If you were to be left completely alone indefinitely on an isolated island in the ocean, but with unlimited provisions, what three possessions would you like to have with you? — “My guitar, my potter’s wheel, and some clay.”

Where would you like to visit if you could go any­where in the world? “Ireland.”

Do you have a favorite film, song, book or one that has influenced you? “I loved ‘Pride and Prejudice star­ring Keira Knightly and went out and bought the book by Jane Austen. I read mainly ceramics books and love when my ‘Ceramics Monthly’ magazine arrives.”

A smell you really like? “Narcissus.”

Favorite hobby? “Fishing.”

Profession other than your own would you like to attempt? Your fantasy job, perhaps? “A singer/songwriter.”

Profession you’d not like to do? “Working at Philo Mill!”

Happiest day or event in your life? “The day I was born!”

Saddest? “When my parents died. My mother passed two-and-a-half years ago and my father 15 years ago. Many years ago they had moved to Mt. Shasta and had a grocery store there. They never really liked it though so they went to Chico where they lived for 17 years before my Dad died. My mother then went back to her roots in Walnut Creek in the East Bay. My brother Steve is a retired schoolteacher (Ukiah High) in Redwood Valley and brother Rob has a dog-grooming business in Napa.”

Favorite thing about yourself, physically, mentally, spiritually? “That I have an easy-going personality. That I am very creative with my hands and a good ceramic artist.”

Finally, if Heaven exists, what would you like to hear God say when you arrive at the Pearly Gates? “Come in, Doug, you are very welcome.” ¥¥

(To read the stories of other Valley Folk, visit the archives at www.avalleylife.wordpress.com. Next week the guest interviewee from the Valley will be Mike Reeves.)

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