Mary Fuller McChesney, Bay Area artist and historian, dies at 99

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Mary Fuller McChesney, Bay Area artist and historian, dies at 99
The 1950 sculpture “Seated female figure” by Mary Fuller McChesney. McChesney, the Bay Area artist and historian who documented California’s postwar art scene and created Aztec-inspired sculptures, died on May 4, 2022. She was 99. Chad Anderson/SFO Museum via The New York Times.

by Clay Risen

NEW YORK, NY.- Mary Fuller McChesney was teaching adult education art classes in Port Richmond, California, when she was forced to make a choice. It was 1951, the height of the Red Scare, and the state had ordered all public employees to sign an oath disavowing radical beliefs, in particular communism.

She refused, and was fired.

McChesney and her husband, Robert McChesney, both left-wing artists who had been at the center of the Bay Area’s art scene in the late 1940s, soon joined dozens of intellectuals fleeing what they feared was a wave of authoritarianism crashing over the West Coast. They bought a Model A mail truck, converted it to a camper and drove to Guadalajara, Mexico.

The couple remained there for only a year, until their money ran out. But in that time, McChesney was transformed.

Her early paintings and sculpture, in the 1940s, had mostly been abstract, in keeping with the tone of the times. But in Mexico, she became fascinated with pre-Columbian art, and along with it Aztec and Mayan mythology.

After she and her husband returned to the Bay Area, McChesney developed a technique in which she blended cement and vermiculite, a mineral that slows the drying process. Once she had a basic form in place, she took to it with a knife and rasp, carving the stone into bears, owls, alligators, cats and a menagerie of fantastic beasts and totemic goddesses.

“She really had no influences other than mythology, so she was way outside the mainstream,” Dennis Calabi, a friend and gallerist who showed her work, said in a phone interview.

McChesney’s sculptures, dozens of which populated the woods around her home on an isolated peak in Sonoma County, were inspired as much by her encounter with pre-Columbian traditions as by her desire to create a new, women-centered aesthetic.

“I feel very strongly that in order to create a viable, true, feminist art, we have to bypass the entire patriarchal ideology and vision; we have somehow to get back behind all of that falseness and distortion to an authentic concept of women, and of men,” she said in a 1992 artist’s statement.

Though McChesney — who often used her maiden name, Fuller, professionally — never achieved widespread celebrity as an artist, her sculptures can be found across California today, in parks, private gardens and public plazas as well as outside San Francisco General Hospital and at the city’s zoo.

She died May 4 at an assisted living center in Petaluma, a few miles from Sonoma Mountain, Calabi said. She was 99.

Mary Ellen Fuller was born Oct. 20, 1922, in Wichita, Kansas. Her father, Robert Fuller, had met Mary’s mother, an English nurse named Karen Rasmussen, in Britain while he was deployed to Europe during World War I. When Mary was 2, the family moved to Stockton, California, with hopes of starting a farm.

Robert Fuller struggled with agriculture, and eventually became a pipe fitter for Pacific Gas & Electric. Karen Fuller served in the Women’s Army Corps during World War II and later worked for the American Legion.

Mary grew up poor, but with stellar grades she managed to get a full scholarship to study philosophy at the University of California, Berkeley. Like many students in the late 1930s, she protested against U.S. involvement in the coming war in Europe, but as someone affiliated with the Communist Party — she never said whether she had officially joined — she reversed her position once Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941.

With the world in tumult, she grew exasperated sitting in philosophy seminars and yearned to do something with her hands. She left college after three years for a job as a welder at the sprawling Kaiser Shipyards in Richmond, California, in the Bay Area.

After the war she apprenticed herself to a ceramics company, where she proved so adept that she quickly had her own line of tableware, for sale at high-end San Francisco department stores.

She also began writing about the Bay Area art scene, which in the late 1940s was the West Coast base for Abstract Expressionism. She became close to artists such as Clyfford Still, Richard Diebenkorn, Ad Reinhardt and McChesney, whom she had met at a gallery opening. They married in 1949.

Robert McChesney died in 2008. Mary McChesney leaves no immediate survivors.

Even before her Mexican sojourn, McChesney was an accomplished artist, with several first-place prizes in statewide art competitions. She was also widely regarded as a critic and art historian: She wrote for magazines like Art Digest and interviewed dozens of New Deal-era artists for the Smithsonian Institution.

In 1973 she published “A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950,” drawing on interviews she had conducted with her contemporaries. In the book, she argued for the importance of the Bay Area to early postwar art movements, especially Abstract Expressionism, a view that has gained traction in recent decades.

The McChesneys ultimately settled near the peak of Sonoma Mountain, north of San Francisco Bay, where they traded labor for an acre of land, then built a house by hand at the end of a 5-mile road. They raised their own food and lived off the venison that Robert McChesney secured from his hunting excursions.

By the mid-1950s, McChesney was focused almost exclusively on her art — though to make ends meet she occasionally wrote mystery novels, including “The Victim Was Important” (1954) and “Asking for Trouble” (1955), all under pseudonyms.

She took to the printed page once again in the 1970s, when she repeatedly attacked the French artist Christo for his work “Running Fence,” a 24.5-mile-long fabric fence that stretched across Sonoma and Marin counties.

It was, she told the newspaper The Point Reyes Light in 2016, “a con-job, a big theatrical show” and “another example about how Europeans think of Americans: that we are a bunch of idiots.”

Christo sued her for libel, but when she refused to retract her articles, he dropped the case.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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