One day before too long, a journalist will craft an obit about the artist known as Mary Fuller who lived much of her life on Sonoma Mountain with her husband and fellow artist Robert (Mac) McChesney, an abstract expressionist, a printmaker and lots more. Also, one day a wordsmith will write a biography of Mary Fuller McChesney, who called herself a “sculptor – writer,” married Mac in 1949, and three-years later joined her muscle to his muscle and built the house they called home for decades.
The house is still there, though the McChesney’s don’t live there anymore. Mac died in 2008 at the age of 95. He was still making art in his 90s. Mary is 96 and lives in one of those institutions where men and women go when they’re near the end of their lives and need extensive medical help. The place where Mary now occupies a bed in a small room is called “a skilled nursing facility.”
On the walls there are several of her recent drawings, one of which says, “Take it easy, but take it.” Another says, “Don't Get Mad, Get Even.” No one at the nursing facility seems to know anything about the McChesneys, their radicalism, their bohemian lifestyle or their commitment to art and community that lasted all though the Depression, the Cold War, the Vietnam War, and the madness of the Nixon years, the Bush years, and the Clinton years.
This essay doesn’t pretend to be a capsule biography of Fuller or an obit, either. After all, Mary is still alive. I know that because I recently spent part of a morning with her in Petaluma. Mary could barely hear me, even when I bent down and spoke directly into her ear. I’m not sure how clearly she saw me, either, but I sat down on the edge of her bed and read some of my poems to her, while she held my “free” hand and listened attentively. “Are these your poems?” she wanted to know. “Well, yes,” I said. She smiled and added, “They’ve very good.” Then we talked about Sonoma Mountain and about Mac, who loved to hunt. For years, Mary and Mac ate a lot of venison.
That’s when Sonoma Mountain was a wild place. It still is a wild place, especially on the higher grounds above the dairy farms. At 96, Mary is still wild at heart, as the sketches on the wall suggest. When she was a young woman, she read lefty books by authors like George Bernard Shaw and got in trouble with teachers at school. In the 1970s, she lambasted Christo’s so-called ”Running Fence” that stretched across Sonoma County farmland and all the way to the 101.
Mary told my friend and fellow reporter, Charles Schultz, that Christo’s fence was “just European bullshit.” That’s when many art critics thought it was one of the wonders of the civilized world. Mary also told Schultz that pre-Colombian art, some of which she saw during a sojourn in Mexico, inspired her “more than anything contemporary.”
Schultz’s interview with Mary was published in the Point Reyes Light in August 2016. In a recent phone conversation with me, Schultz reminded me that Mary and Mac refused to sign the infamous loyalty oaths of the anti-communist era and lost their jobs as public school teachers in Richmond, California. Mary wrote pulp fiction with titles like Asking for Trouble. Those words might be carved on her tombstone. She’s never been reluctant to look or ask for trouble.
According to Karen Petersen, a longtime librarian and an art historian who helped curate a show of her work, Mary wanted to shock the bourgeoisie and also to be accepted by the bourgeoisie, though Karen added, “that was more true of Mac than it was of Mary.” No one did more to promote Mac than Mary. She wrote a whole book about him titled, Robert McChesney: An American Painter. Mary was Mac’s muse, wife, biggest fan and near constant companion. When she had to, she went downhill and worked in the Petaluma poultry industry to make money and keep her and Mac afloat. In World War II she took a job as a welder in the Richmond shipyards. She liked to work with her hands, which led her to clay, ceramics and sculpture.
On the day I visited Mary in the hills above Petaluma, a mutual friend lent me a copy of one of her books, A Period of Exploration: San Francisco 1945-1950, which was published by the Oakland Museum, and that emerged from interviews she did with artists such as Joan Brown, Alfred Frankenstein, William Morehouse, Hassel Smith and Jean Varda. Mary knew all of them and many more.
In a note at the front of the book, she explains that “spontaneity and candor” are advantages of “the interview technique,” but that “there is a great deal of inequality of ability among people to express themselves verbally.” Mary never had trouble expressing herself verbally. Starting as a teenager, she said whatever she wanted to say, wherever and whenever. On the topic of exhibiting her work along with Mac’s, she told reporter and art critic, Gretchen Giles, "We showed together at Bolles Gallery and there was a big write-up about it and it was all about Mac, and in the last paragraph there was a sentence like, 'And Mary was in the show, too.'”
“A period of exploration,” could serve as a major theme for Mary’s life, though she didn’t have any one single period of exploration. For nearly nine decades, she explored, expounded and expressed herself emphatically. These days, art critics tend to say that Mac is more famous than Mary. But it remains to be seen whether that view will obtain in five, ten or in 20-years from now. When there is a major retrospective of Mary’s work, the curators will have to go to the McChesney’s property near the top of Sonoma Mountain. More than one hundred pieces of Mary’s work dot the landscape. Indeed, some of them seem to spring from the mountain itself. Two sculptors, Ilana Spector and Mark Grieve, carry on the McChesney’s legacy. For 13 years they lived next door to Mac and Mary. They still live and work on the property that’s adjacent to the land that Mary owns. Spector is a lawyer as well as an artist; Grieve is a graduate of the San Francisco Art Institute and a veteran of Burning Man.
Mary’s work, which is outside the house that she and Mac built, is in bronze and in cement. It’s both abstract and representational: mythological, erotic, and almost always pushing boundaries, and challenging received ideas about what art should or shouldn’t be. My favorites are two large lionesses, one fierce and the other gentle that express two sides of Mary. Some of her pieces have moss growing on them. The moss seems to enhance their power.
Ilana Spector gave me a guided tour and told me, “Mary wanted big and bold. She’d take mythological figures like Leda and like the Minotaur and put her own twist on them. She turned the Minotaur, who was depicted by the ancient Greeks as a half-man and half-bull, into a cow.” Spector added, “Mary challenged gender stereotypes.” Mark Grieve also talked about Mary’s work and added that, “she could be very eloquent and at the same time curse like a sailor. She was very tough and she was all about public art.“
Grieve installed one of Mary’s works, “Leda and her Friend,” at the nursing facility in Petaluma. It was too erotic, too explicitly sexual. Someone covered it up and then Grieve was forced to removed it. Not surprisingly, Mary’s work still has the power to shock. One wonders what St. Peter might say to her at the Pearly Gates of Heaven, and what she’ll say to him.