Sipping lemonade in room 200 at the Astro Motel, the AC is working diligently to keep us cool in Santa Rosa’s 5pm swelter.
There, Gretchen Giles, Spring Maxfield and I discussed the brilliant and under-represented artist, Mary Fuller McChesney.
Dwarfed in her day by the success of her male counterpart, artist Robert “Mac” McChesney, Mary McChesney’s work is now finally taking center stage after her passing in May.
From its opening last week to Nov. 25, The Astro Motel, in collaboration with the Santa Rosa Urban Arts Partnership, hosts “Mary Fuller McChesney: Myth and Monument from Sonoma Mountain.” Curated by Maxfield, the exhibition features 18 of McChesney’s sculptures taken from the McChesney’s Sonoma Mountain top home, many never before seen by the public.
In order to fully appreciate the value of this exhibition, aside from the overdue light shined on McChesney’s exceptional and previously undersung creative talent, readers must also consider a) The ongoing bypassing of female artists for their traditionally male counterparts, and b) the woman, artist and arts advocate who curated the show.
Though she’s humble, asking for no praise and expressing only a desire to elevate the arts and community connection of Sonoma County, Maxfield is not only a pivotal fixture in Santa Rosa’s growing—even flourishing, thanks to many efforts—arts scene, but an artist herself. She was referred to once by a journalist as “the wife of artist Todd Barricklow,” despite her rather endless list of successes and contributions to the art world. Those include co-founding the Great Handcar Regatta in 2008, working with the City of Santa Rosa to market the city to visitors via hiring local artists to paint murals and design city graphics, and co-founding the nonprofit Santa Rosa Urban Arts Partnership, dedicated to developing community vibrancy and revitalizing Santa Rosa’s SOFA District, in particular and the whole city by proxy.
In short, the idea that anyone would refer to Maxfield via association with a male counterpart is at best humorous and at worst the remnant of underappreciated female talent. And though she’s gotten tremendous press—“Arts Advocate is a Creative Force of Nature” from a 2014 Press Democrat article comes to mind—McChesney’s overlooked creative life resonated with Maxfield.
“When I was invited to meet Mary in 2016, I really wasn’t familiar with who she was; for all of my art history classes, her name never came up. And something had just come out referring to me as ‘the wife of the artist.’ And it was obviously someone new, someone who didn’t do their research, and I laugh about it, but that was Mary’s entire situation,” Maxfield explained.
She isn’t seeking personal recognition or an ego boost, but to continue correcting the art world’s tremendous imbalance towards male artists, while also continuing her mission of bringing art and community together in Santa Rosa. While she actually genuinely found the poor word choice amusing, and gracefully chalked it up to 20-year-old writers fresh from college and new to the area, and while she loves, as she says, “being an artist’s wife,” she knows the difference if an artist is trying to sell her work or gain recognition. Maxfield and I both agreed that for a woman working to establish herself in the artworld, being sidelined for a famous husband isn’t very funny at all.
“I really wanted her to be honored because I knew she was always an afterthought to her famous husband, even though her work was phenomenal and she put as much time and energy into her practice as he did,” Maxfield reflected.
Maxfield—along with gallerist Dennis Calabi, who represented Mac McChesney and later Mary McChesney also—is responsible for preserving McChesney’s work after her death, with no immediate heirs, and wishes only that the show could have happened while McChesney was alive. Tears came to her eyes as we discussed the inevitable delay that resulted in her passing before the show’s organization, in part due to Maxfield’s own impostor syndrome, along with the realities of being a mother of two and working on myriad different projects around the city.
“She was having financial issues and trying to sell her house, and I said, ‘Well, let’s have a show! This is your time. You’ve got all of this work. Some of it has never been seen. Let’s do this.’ But I also thought, ‘Well, who am I to do this, when I barely know this woman?’”
Feeling unsure and pressed for time pushed the idea back. In 2020, Maxfield thought to revisit it, but felt concerns about exposing the vulnerable McChesney to COVID. In 2021, Maxfield started calling, with no response. In January of 2022, she visited Calabi and learned McChesney had been moved into an assisted living situation. She suggested the idea of a show to Calabi, who was initially skeptical.
Around the same time, Maxfield was hired by Astro Motel owners and friends, Liza Hinman and Eric Anderson, to spec art and assess damage in the mid-renovation rooms, which they’d opened to the homeless population during the pandemic. It was while doing this work that she learned that McChesney had passed. There was big press coverage—her obituary ran across the country—and Maxfield realized that in the Astro she finally had a space to curate the show, though McChesney wouldn’t be there.
Who Was Mary Fuller McChesney?
Gretchen Giles, an art critic, journalist, founder of Made Local Magazine and previous editor of the North Bay Bohemian, among other accolades—I was in a room full of powerful women and their ghosts this day—described McChesney as healthy, hale and squat; a powerhouse of a woman, creating work about vaginas and fecundity, about a woman’s life and the physicality of a woman’s life. Maxfield described her as “spicy, piss and vinegar, a spitfire.”
The pamphlet McChesney wrote about the San Francisco Abstract Expressionist movement became a proverbial rosetta stone for the later book, The San Francisco School of Abstract Expressionism by Dr. Susan Landauer. She wrote murder mysteries to support her and Mac McChesney during the year they spent in Mexico, where they fled after refusing to denouce communisim. McChesney sculpted in concrete mixed with vermiculite, which created a unique, strong yet delicate, slower drying material. A commercial potter, she had a philosophy degree from UC Berkeley and worked in the Richmond Shipyards as a welder during World War II.
Upon returning to Sonoma County from Mexico, the McChesneys moved into a home at the very top of Sonoma Mountain that was to become an epic, inimitable, nearly-unreachable artist retreat space, bursting with her work, placed in myriad locations across the landscape. She took care of Mac McChesney until his death. Giles said he “relied on her completely.”
Deeply inspired by Aztec and Myan culture, especially after their stint in Mexico, McChesney’s work is a testament to mythology, fertility, masculinity and femininity, philosophy and her ongoing exploration of existence. A brilliant star in the sky of San Francisco art history, she is rightly, though belatedly, being given her due in the pantheon.
“I love who she was, and I am angry that women aren’t getting their due,” said Maxfield. “And it’s a huge point of sadness for me that this didn’t happen before she died. I wanted her to be seen for who she was and not Robert’s wife.”
The Astro Motel hosts ‘Mary Fuller McChesney: Myth and Monument from Sonoma Mountain’ through Nov. 25. An opening is scheduled for Sept. 8 from 5-7pm. 323 Santa Rosa Ave., Santa Rosa.