Mary Fuller McChesney, Sonoma County artist and activist, dies at 99

Living atop the Petaluma side of Sonoma Mountain, where they settled in 1952, she and her husband, Robert McChesney, were a force in the art world for decades, and in other parts of local life.|

Sculptor, author and art historian Mary Fuller McChesney was more influential in the art world than she was famous, but the mark she made is evident, particularly in Sonoma County, where she lived for more than half a century.

Living atop the Petaluma side of Sonoma Mountain, where they settled in 1952, she and her husband, Robert McChesney, were a force in the art world for decades, and in other parts of local life.

She died May 4 at an assisted living center in Petaluma. She was 99. Her husband, a prominent painter known to friends as “Mac,” died in 2008.

“In spite of her salty sense of humor and rough personal style, she was a true intellectual and scholar,” said Dennis Calabi, owner of the Calabi Gallery in Santa Rosa and a longtime friend of McChesney.

“She swore like a sailor and talked a mile a minute,” Calabi said. “She was hilarious. She was the life of the party.”

Like Calabi, Daniel Lienau, owner of the Annex Galleries in Santa Rosa, met the McChesneys during the 1970s and became close friends.

“They were always protesting: anti-war, anti-bombs, anti-nukes,” he recalled. “Mary never minced words, and people still loved her for that.”

Unlike many of their neighbors on Sonoma Mountain, the McChesneys favored plans to open the nearby Lafferty Ranch property for proposed public use in the mid-1990s.

“They were the only ones up on the mountain to support public access to Lafferty Ranch,” said Sheri Cardo, former Sonoma Land Trust spokesperson. “Mary was such a phenomenon. She lived her values. She was so shrewd and smart, a total pleasure to be around.”

In the early 1970s, Mary McChesney, who went by her maiden name as an artist, outspokenly opposed the construction of conceptual artist Christo’s “Running Fence,” a 24.5-mile fabric fence that stretched across Sonoma and Marin counties.

“Her opposition to the Running Fence was largely because of environmental issues, many of which Christo did resolve,” Calabi said. “She also was active in the fight against the proposed installation of a nuclear power plant at Bodega Head.”

Calabi, close friends with the McChesneys since 1978, plans a tribute to Mary McChesney and an exhibit of her work in the fall.

Some of her statues are currently on display at the San Francisco International Airport, and there are permanent installations of her work scattered around Sonoma County and the greater Bay Area. Her sculptures also can be found across California in parks, private gardens and public plazas.

Mary Fuller was born in 1922 in Wichita, Kansas. The family moved to California when she was an infant, and she grew up in Stockton.

Largely self-taught as an artist, she studied philosophy at UC Berkeley. During the World War II, she was a welder in a Richmond shipyard.

In 1949, she married artist, printmaker and teacher Robert McChesney. Both left-wing artists, they faced pressure from anti-Communists in the early 1950s. Mary was fired from a job teaching adult education art classes in Point Richmond when she refused to sign an oath disavowing communism and other radical beliefs. They moved to an artists’ colony in Ajijic, Mexico, near Guadalajara, Mexico.

It was there she discovered the Mayan and Aztec mythology that became the theme of her sculptures, Calabi said. Until then she had been influenced by the contemporary abstract art of her time.

During her time in Mexico, she wrote murder mysteries, including “The Victim Was Unimportant” and “Asking for Trouble,” published under two pseudonyms: Joe Rayter and Melissa Franklin.

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. She sculpted the pieces before the concrete could completely set, Calabi explained.

“It’s not an easy medium,” he said. “She had to work fast. Her sculptures were magnificent, but she wasn’t widely known. What gives her national importance is her work as an art historian and writer.”

In 1973, she published “A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950,” drawing on interviews she had conducted with her artistic contemporaries. In the book, she argued for the importance of the Bay Area to early postwar art movements, especially Abstract Expressionism. Later art historians were inspired and influenced by her book, Calabi said.

The McChesneys were neither rich nor famous, but they were respected in artistic circles. Calabi believes her influence as an art historian will only grow in the future, although she lived through some lean periods during her life.

“During the ’50s and ’60s, Mary worked as a waitress at the Green Mill between Cotati and Penngrove,” Calabi said. “It closed down long ago.”

Age did not diminish her passion for art, life and the issues of the day. Even in her late 90s, Mary McChesney remained a powerful personality, her friends and admirers say.

“I only knew Mary in the last years of her life when I used to visit her at the nursing facility. She was still a spitfire. She was so feisty,” said Jonah Raskin, author and professor emeritus of communications studies at Sonoma State University.

“She was a great original talent. She didn’t care about being famous or making money.” he said. “She will be better-known someday than she is now. Someone will ‘discover’ her. That’s how it works in the arts.”

You can reach Staff Writer Dan Taylor at or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.

Dan Taylor

Arts & Entertainment, The Press Democrat

Do you take fun seriously? I know I do. Tell me what you want to know about arts and entertainment in the North Bay to make the best use of your leisure time and money. As a longtime local arts journalist, I have learned where to look and who to ask.

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