Mary Fuller McChesney, 1922-2022
She wasn’t a famous artist, though her extraordinary art and her heartfelt compassion touched the lives of many people. A graduate of UC Berkeley, and a real “Rosie the Riveter” she worked in Richmond shipyards during World War II and was employed at California Faience, an innovative Berkeley pottery company that operated from 1915 to 1959, and that made tiles for Julia Morgan.
Mary McChesney carried the spirit of Berkeley with her her whole life. In a way, she never left. Berkeley private homes and gardens, as well as public spaces, such as the Becky Temko Tot Lot on Roosevelt Avenue, are graced by her work. Harvey Smith, author of Berkeley and the New Deal, says, “I regret I only got to know Mary in her later years, not during her prime. Her outspoken personality reflected her varied, eclectic life.”
For decades, she and her husband, Robert McChesney, turned their remote studios and their community on Sonoma Mountain into an oasis of creativity and a kind of welcome center for bohemians, wanderers and nature lovers. On May 4, 2022, Mary Fuller McChesney died peacefully at a rest home in Petaluma, where she lived for the last few years of her life, struggling to keep her wits about her and to greet friends and admirers from near and far with her irrepressible smile and feistiness. When she died, she was four months shy of her 100th birthday. Two drawings, which reflected some of her personality, graced one of the walls in her room. One was titled “Take it easy, but take it,” and another, “Don’t Get Mad, Get Even.”
Alas, her passing has not been noted in any newspaper or magazine. Still, not long ago, art critic and journalist, Gretchen Giles, wrote a piece about the McChesneys that was titled “True Bohemians.” It was subtitled “Artists Robert and Mary McChesney found peace outside the limelight.” Mary also died outside the limelight.
Born in Wichita, Kansas, she came to California in 1922, studied philosophy at UC Berkeley and became a welder in the shipyards in large part because she liked to work with her hands and because she respected workers and the working class. In 1949, she married artist, printmaker and teacher Robert McChesney. She was often in his shadow, though she also promoted his work extensively, and was his most ardent fan. For more than half-a-century Robert and Mary were inseparable.
Mary McChesney had her first solo show of paintings and clay sculptures at the Artists’ Guild Gallery in San Francisco. Her work was also exhibited in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Occidental and Napa. In her sculptures, which have been exhibited all over the world, she often depicted giant totems and goddesses. Yes, she was a feminist. One of her last big works, which is seven-feet high, is titled “Gualala Shanti.” Admirers say “it looks primitive in a contemporary way.”
Beginning in the mid-1940s, and continuing until the 1970s, Mary won awards and grants from places like the Ford Foundation and the National Endowment for the Arts. An oral historian for the Archives of the American Art-Smithsonian Institution, Mary’s interviews with New Deal artists have helped to provide an accurate record of that era, and have inspired those who would honor an extraordinary time for public art that reflected a real America and real Americans, not the wealthy and the powerful.
For a time in the 1950s, the McChesneys lived and worked in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Mary wrote murder mysteries. They were published under titles such as The Victim was Unimportant and Asking for Trouble, and with two pseudonyms, such as Joe Rayter and Melissa Franklin. Mary McChesney gained respect as an art historian, and as the author of A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950, which was published by the Oakland Museum and that documents a five-year period time sometimes called “The Golden Age,” when painting, especially abstract expressionism, flourished in the Bay Area. The McChesneys exhibited their work together in 2002 at the Art Exchange Gallery in San Francisco. One reviewer described their life and the art they produced as “colorful.” It was that and much more.
Robert McChesney died in 2008. Mary carried on as long and as best she could on her own. Over the years, her friends had included famous painters such as Willem De Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, plus artists not widely known today, such as Hassel Smith and Emmy Lou Packard. She had many young admirers.
Fame apparently mattered more to Robert than to Mary. She aimed to shock the bourgeoisie and often did. Interviews with her are located at the Archives of American Art in Washington D.C. Now, perhaps with her passing, Mary McChesney will be remembered by curators and art historians. Perhaps her sculptures will inspire future artists. The property that the McChesneys owned is on sale for $1.495 million. For those who don’t know Mary McChesney’s work, it can be viewed and appreciated at the Calabi Gallery in Santa Rosa. Art maven Dennis Calabi (firstname.lastname@example.org, 707-781-7070) sings Mary’s praises and shares his memories of her.
Jonah Raskin is a novelist, poet and non-fiction writer.