Sculptor and author Mary Fuller McChesney found inspiration in Ajijic in the 1950s
American sculptor and art historian Mary Fuller (McChesney) and her husband Robert Pearson McChesney, also an artist, spent 1951-1952 in Mexico, living in Ajijic and San Miguel de Allende. They moved to Mexico as a direct result of losing their jobs during the McCarthy era.
Mary Fuller McChesney was born 20 October 1922 in Wichita, Kansas. The family moved to California when she was an infant and she grew up in Stockton, California. Largely self-taught as an artist, she studied with Paul Marhenke at the University of California at Berkeley. During the second world war, she was a welder in the Richmond, California shipyard. She later apprenticed in ceramics pottery at the California Faience Company in Berkeley. She began to exhibit in 1947, and won first prize for sculpture at both the 6th and 8th Annual Pacific Coast Ceramic Shows (1947 and 1949).
She married fellow artist Robert Pearson McChesney (1913-2008), in December 1949 and the couple lived initially in the North Bay subregion of San Francisco.
After deciding to head for Mexico in 1951, they sold Mary Fuller’s house, bought a Model A Ford mail truck, and headed south complete with all their belongings. Safely across the border, they decided to write “artistas” on the side of their vehicle. Robert McChesney later told a reporter that, “People on the side of the road would wave at us. Kids would come running out of their house to see us. It wasn’t until later that we learned that Mexicans used the word artista to mean ‘movie actor’.” (SFGate, 2002)
In a 1994 interview for the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art, Mary Fuller McChesney recalled that the artists’ hangout in Ajijic at the time they were there was the Scorpion Club, run by Ernest Alexander, a black American painter from Chicago. Some of the artists “were going to the University of Guadalajara on the G.I. Bill. So– And some of them lived in Ajijic and they would go into Guadalajara once a week to pick up their checks and go in to school and that was about it.” The Scorpion Club was the popular watering-hole for “a bunch of writers, too. Some of them from New York. Some people who ran a bookstore. And they were published writers. And there was a mystery writer down there.” (Oral history interview with Mary Fuller McChesney, 1994 Sept. 28, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution)
Best known as a sculptor, Mary Fuller McChesney was also a writer. Besides numerous short stories, poems and art history articles, she wrote several detective novels, including Stab in the Dark, set in the 1950s’ Guadalajara art scene.
On their return from Mexico in 1952, Mary Fuller and her husband began building their home on an acre of land near the top of the Sonoma Mountain in Petaluma. Largely self-taught as an artist, Mary Fuller McChesney had started to sculpt in the 1940s. She created many of her best-known projects in the grounds of their home on Sonoma Mountain. Many of her sculptures are made from a special mixture of vermiculite, sand, cement and water, which is then carved directly using a knife and rasp.
Much of her work is “reminiscent of pre-Columbian sculpture and African art, which profoundly influence her aesthetic and artistic guides.”
Her unique sculptures of enchanting animals and mythological women have been exhibited at numerous museums and galleries throughout the USA, and in Mexico.Her solo shows include Artists’ Guild Gallery, San Francisco (1947); Lucien Labaudt Gallery, San Francisco (1950); John Bolles Gallery, San Francisco (1961); Ota Gallery, San Francisco (1972); and Santa Rosa City Hall, California (1974).
In addition her work has featured in numerous group shows in San Francisco and elsewhere, including Syracuse Museum, New York (1948); the University of St. Thomas, Houston, Texas (1976); and “Artrium 1976” in Santa Rosa (1976).
Her work can be seen in many public spaces, as well as in museums and private collections. Her public sculpture commissions in California include works for the Petaluma Library, the San Francisco Zoo, the San Francisco General Hospital, Portsmouth Square in San Francisco, Salinas Community Center, Andrew Hill High School in San Jose, Department of Motor Vehicles in Yuba City, and Squaw Valley.
Both Fuller and her friend Blanche Phillips Howard were among the ten sculptors commissioned to produce pieces for the San Francisco General Hospital when the building was under construction in the 1970s. Fuller’s “Dos Leones”, a cast stone aggregate sculpture dating from 1976 was installed in a courtyard at the hospital.
Mary Fuller McChesney died in Petaluma on 4 May 2022 at the age of 99.
This post was updated on 14 July 2022.
- San Francisco Art Commission. 1978. San Francisco General Hospital Medical Center Collection.
- The San Francisco Examiner (San Francisco, California). 1974. “City picks artists for hospital.” 20 Jun 1974, 28.
Comments, corrections or additional material related to any of the writers and artists featured in our series of mini-bios are welcomed. Please use the comments feature at the bottom of individual posts, or email us.
Tony Burton’s books include “Lake Chapala: A Postcard History” (2022), “Foreign Footprints in Ajijic” (2022), “If Walls Could Talk: Chapala’s historic buildings and their former occupants” (2020), (available in translation as “Si Las Paredes Hablaran”), “Mexican Kaleidoscope” (2016), and “Lake Chapala Through the Ages” (2008).