Donna Bragg: Persistence, Patience & Pitching In

Donna in her Gate 5 studio  |  photo and post by Christina Leimer

The first time I saw Donna Bragg was in the documentary Houseboat Wars—a film about our community’s hippie beginnings and residents’ struggle to continue living on the water. She’s being interviewed sitting in a cushioned lawn chair, the bay behind her, wearing dark sunglasses, her long black hair parted in the middle, exuding a warm, calm presence as she describes jousting with the Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC), the county and the city.

I remember thinking, how can she deal with all that bureaucracy?!  So when I got the chance to meet her in person that was my first question.

“Patience,” she said smiling. “And attention to detail.”

Though Donna never aspired to work for the floating homes community, she became one of its founders. In 1979, she moved from San Francisco, where she grew up and was an art major at San Francisco State, to a boat at Gate 6. By then, many people were tiring of the flamboyant and escalating skirmishes with police and officials that were happening in the early 1970s. They had lived on the waterfront long enough that children were growing up here and artists and boat builders wanted stable work space. It was time to try a different tack—using the system’s tools.

They began forming co-ops and using legal and public relations methods to push back against the city, county and bay agencies to legitimize their community. In 1980, after a bulldozer smashed a building at what was then Bob’s Boatyard, residents got a restraining order to stop further demolition at the Napa Street Pier. Donna helped advance the Gates Co-Op and the Galilee Harbor Community Association (GHCA).

One thing led to another until, in 1986, she started working for the GHCA as Project Coordinator. Donna wrote and managed grants, kept track of funds, handled Board details and record keeping, coordinated volunteers and liaised with agencies and municipalities. There were feasibility studies, permits, petitions, grant applications, property purchase requirements and negotiations. Donna corralled a project team of lawyers, architects, politicians and financiers to keep it all going. “Everyone was helping, so I just did what I could,” she told me. “We figured it out as the needs came up.”

Once here, Donna never left the waterfront. She’s lived in several different boats, on different docks, over the years. In 1985, she moved to Galilee on the White Fin with Joe Tate—another of the houseboat community founders. In 1999, they bought the Becky Thatcher where they now live. The 1890 ark sits on pilings at 1A South 40 Pier.

Donna enjoys music, so you’ll often see her at Joe’s gigs. Usually they spend their vacation time in Hawaii. This year though, after cruising the South Pacific, Donna decided she wanted to go to the Marquesas Art & Culture Festival. It’s a popular week-long event designed to preserve ancient Polynesian traditions—music, dance, meal preparations and arts and crafts. The festival only happens every four years on the isolated island archipelago. “There was no way to get there,” Donna tells me. “I have a friend who’s a travel agent, so I contacted her.” As luck would have it, “someone cancelled, and she booked the spot for us on a combined cargo and passenger ship.” This is just one of the many ways serendipity operates in Donna and Joe’s lives.

Just this month, an opportunity to revive her art came along. Before her job at Galilee, Donna taught ceramics at the de Young Museum Art School. In 2008, she installed a kiln and potter’s wheel on her boat. A few years later, when some former College of Marin art students set up a shared work space for sculptors and potters at the Clay Studio on Gate 5 Road, Donna donated her kiln to their cause.

Now, one of the artists is on hiatus for a year having a baby. Donna is taking over the space. She’s set up her potter’s wheel and hauled huge clay hunks over from a store in Oakland in the trunk of her car. She shows me around the studio. Different types of clay, mixing glazes, firing techniques—it’s clear pottery making is a blend of art and science, especially chemistry. Meticulousness and attention to detail, I realize, are essential skills in pottery making as well as bureaucracy navigating.

“It’s meditative,” Donna says, leaning into a table with yet-to-be fired sculptures. “I get absorbed in it and let all that stuff go,” waving her arm, referring back to the question I’d asked her about dealing with bureaucracy.

Donna brushes her hand across a large, empty table where pieces will be set up for sale on December 7-8, at the same time as the ICB shows. After many years, her pottery will be on display.

Related post: Artist Communities