Sculptures by Mary McChesney installed at The Astro motel in Santa Rosa
For more than half a century, Mary Fuller McChesney lived and worked atop Sonoma Mountain, creating her distinctive sculptures, many of which were inspired by Mayan and Aztec mythology.
Now, some of those pieces have been brought back from the mountain for a two-month installation at The Astro motel in Santa Rosa.
“We view the Astro as a museum of mid-20th century furniture, architecture and art,” said Bob Guffanti, general manager of the motel. The former RV on Santa Rosa Avenue, which was renovated and reopened in 2017, has a distinctly retro style, down to its mid-century fixtures and cinderblock exterior.
Led by Santa Rosa arts advocate Spring Maxfield, a team moved from Sonoma Mountain 15 McChesney works sculpted in concrete and vermiculite, a mixture that is easier to cut than pure concrete but can be fragile and requires preservation and conservation.
“We are grateful to the Astro for allowing us to show these pieces. Many have not been seen by the public and they are incredibly delicate,” Maxfield said.
Maxfield broached the idea of an art exhibit with McChesney during a lunch meeting in 2016, she recalled.
“I wanted to have an exhibit of his work on Sonoma Mountain,” Maxfield said. This plan never materialized.
McChesney died May 4 at an assisted living facility in Petaluma. She was 99 years old. Her husband, Robert McChesney, a prominent painter known to friends as “Mac”, died in 2008.
“I only knew Mary briefly, but I always had an exhibition of her work in mind because I realized what an amazing postmodern sculptor she was,” Maxfield said.
Maxfield and her husband, local artist Todd Barricklow, knocked down some of the many sculptures McChesney made and kept in his Sonoma Mountain home. Created over the last 50 or 60 years, some sculptures weigh up to 200 pounds.
“We believe a lot of these sculptures were created where we found them on the property, where they were,” Barricklow said.
Maxfield manages this project through the nonprofit partnership Santa Rosa Urban Arts, which is dedicated to strengthening the local arts community.
The installation also includes three bronze sculptures by McChesney from the collection of Dennis Calabi, owner of the Calabi Gallery in Santa Rosa and a longtime friend of the McChesneys.
“Spring Maxfield called me and said the Astro was fixing the place up with a lot of mid-century arts and crafts, and I thought it would be great to have some of the work done. of Mary there,” Calabi said. “It’s good for Mary’s legacy and for potential sales.”
Calabi hopes to have a special exhibition of the two McChesneys’ work later this fall. He previously helped mount an exhibit of his work at the Petaluma Arts Center in 2009.
“I’ve always had a display of Mary’s art in my gallery, usually eight or nine pieces,” he added.
Some of McChesney’s statues are currently on display at San Francisco International Airport, and there are permanent installations of his work scattered around Sonoma County and the Greater Bay Area. His sculptures can also be found across California in parks, private gardens, and public plazas.
Mary Fuller was born in 1922 in Wichita, Kansas. Her family moved to California when she was a child and she grew up in Stockton.
Largely self-taught as an artist, she studied philosophy at UC Berkeley. During World War II, she was a welder at a shipyard in Richmond.
In 1949, she married Robert McChesney, artist, engraver and teacher. As left-wing artists, they came under pressure from anti-Communists in the early 1950s. Mary was fired from a job teaching adult 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.
It was there that she learned about Mayan and Aztec mythology which became the subject of her carvings, Calabi said. After the McChesneys settled on Sonoma Mountain in 1952, Mary continued to pursue these themes. Before that, she had been influenced by the contemporary abstract art of her time.
Built in 1963 during the heyday of America’s motor lodge, the Astro was transformed into a 34-room city motel in 2017 by Spinster Sisters restaurant owners Eric Anderson and Lisa Hinman and professional cyclist Andy Hempsten.
The Astro served as a residence for the homeless during the COVID-19 pandemic, from 2020 until last March.
You can reach editor Dan Taylor at [email protected] or 707-521-5243. On Twitter @danarts.