August 6, 2022
  • August 6, 2022
  • Home
  • Writer
  • Remembering Mary McChesney, Sculptor, Welder, Mystery Writer

Remembering Mary McChesney, Sculptor, Welder, Mystery Writer

By on June 24, 2022 0
Mary Fuller McChesney. 1 credit

Mary Fuller McChesney, 1922-2022

She was not a famous artist, although her extraordinary art and sincere compassion touched the lives of many people. A UC Berkeley graduate and a true “Rosie the Riveter”, she worked in the Richmond shipyards during World War II and was employed at California Faience, an innovative Berkeley pottery company that operated from 1915 to 1959. and who made tiles for Julia Morgan.

Mary McChesney carried the spirit of Berkeley with her all her life. Somehow, she never left. Berkeley’s private homes and gardens, as well as public spaces, such as the Becky Temko Tot Lot on Roosevelt Avenue, are honored by her work. Harvey Smith, author of Berkeley and the New Deal, says: “I regret that I only knew Mary in her later years, not during her prime. Her outspoken personality reflected her varied and eclectic life.

For decades, she and her husband, Robert McChesney, have transformed their secluded studios and Sonoma Mountain community into an oasis of creativity and a sort of welcome center for bohemians, wanderers and nature lovers. On May 4, 2022, Mary Fuller McChesney passed away peacefully at a Petaluma nursing home, where she spent the last years of her life, struggling to keep a cool head and to welcome friends and admirers from near and far with her irrepressible smile and enthusiasm. When she died, she was four months away from her 100th birthday. Two drawings, which reflected part of his personality, adorned one of the walls of his bedroom. One was titled “Take it easy, but go ahead” and another, “Don’t get angry, be vengeful.”

Alas, his death was not reported in any newspaper or magazine. Yet, not so long ago, art critic and journalist Gretchen Giles wrote an article about the McChesneys titled “True Bohemians.” It was captioned “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 shipyard welder largely because she enjoyed working with her hands and because she respected workers and working class. In 1949, she married artist, printmaker and teacher Robert McChesney. She was often in his shadow, although she also widely promoted his work and was his most ardent fan. For more than half a century, Robert and Mary have been inseparable.

Mary McChesney had her first solo exhibition of paintings and clay sculptures at the Artists’ Guild Gallery in San Francisco. Her work has also been exhibited in Santa Rosa, Petaluma, Occidental and Napa. In her sculptures, which have been exhibited around the world, she often depicted giant totems and goddesses. Yes, she was a feminist. One of his last great works, seven feet high, is called “Gualala Shanti”. Fans say “it looks primitive in a contemporary way.”

From the mid-1940s and well into 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 American Art-Smithsonian Institution Archives, Mary’s interviews with New Deal artists helped provide an accurate account of that era and inspired those who would honor an extraordinary era for public art that reflected real America and real Americans, not the rich and powerful.

For a time in the 1950s, the McChesneys lived and worked in Guadalajara, Mexico, where Mary wrote mystery novels. They have been published under titles such as The victim was irrelevant and asking for trouble, and with two pseudonyms, such as Joe Rayter and Melissa Franklin. Mary McChesney has earned 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 which documents a five-year period sometimes referred to as 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 lives and the art they produced as “colorful”. It was that and more.

Robert McChesney died in 2008. Mary carried on as long and as best she could on her own. Over the years, his friends had included famous painters such as Willem De Kooning and Richard Diebenkorn, as well as artists little known today, such as Hassel Smith and Emmy Lou Packard. She had many young admirers.

Fame apparently mattered more to Robert than to Mary. It aimed to shock the bourgeoisie and often did. Interviews with her are in the Archives of American Art in Washington DC Now, perhaps with her passing, Mary McChesney will be remembered by curators and art historians alike. Perhaps his sculptures will inspire future artists. The property owned by the McChesneys is on sale for $1.495 million. For those unfamiliar with Mary McChesney’s work, it can be seen and enjoyed at the Calabi Gallery in Santa Rosa. Art maven Dennis Calabi ([email protected], 707-781-7070) sings Mary’s praises and shares his memories of her.


Jonah Raskin is a novelist, poet and non-fiction writer.

  Writer