Jeannene Przyblyski, dean of SF art school who saw expression in everything, dies at 62

Jeannene Przyblyski’s career as a conceptual artist has defied easy categorization. But one could distill her style and approach to her craft by looking at a potion she created from the smells of San Francisco street – one that included the blended scents of fog, wood and street – that she sold as a perfume called “Urban Essence”.

It was one of many concept and performance art acts that Przyblyski created as part of the Bureau of Urban Secrets, which she described as “an unprofitable think tank that practices history as art. public. He asks people how things in the city can be art if you look at them the right way. »

She had business cards designed to look like something a private detective might wear. Her job with the office could have been a full-time job, except she already had one as a professor and vice president and dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute.

Przyblyski, who had a doctorate in art history from UC Berkeley, juggled those jobs until she started experiencing muscle weakness and other symptoms that turned out to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. , an incurable neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She died at her home in Inverness on January 24. She was 62 years old.

“Jeannene was first and foremost an explorer of ideas, places, times and times, as well as the natural world around her,” said her husband Eric Jaye, a political consultant in San Francisco. “His practice was guided by this exploration. She was able to boil things down to their essence in a way that made them accessible to her audience.

Among his projects was a ghost radio station, KBRDG, which played the sounds of the 1930s and was broadcast from Fort Point during International Orange, a band show at the brick fortress to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012. Another was “A Walk Through Time on Lovers’ Lane”, which involved people dressed in Victorian costumes walking along the famous Presidio pathway on Valentine’s Day in 2009.

In his spare time, Przyblyski has served on the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.

“You had the ‘Jeanne above ground’ as a teacher, scholar, and civic leader, and you had the ‘Jeanne underground,’ digging up stories and untold stories of San Francisco and the Bay Area through the Bureau of Urban Secrets,” said Art. Institute colleague Jennifer Rissler. “His loss leaves a huge hole in the Bay Area Arts ecosystem.”

Jeannene Marie Przyblyski (pronounced sha-bil-ski) was born on October 8, 1959 in Norwalk, a working-class suburb south of Los Angeles. Her father, John, worked in the aviation industry and her mother, Mary, was a teacher’s aide. At Cerritos High School, she was involved in acting before graduating in 1977.

She became the first member of her family to attend college, at UC San Diego. She was living off-campus in the seaside town of Del Mar and one day, while driving home from campus on a city bus, she was introduced to Jaye, a classmate, by a mutual friend who was sitting at side of her. Jaye remained on the bus after it stopped in order to drive Przyblyski home. “We started a conversation that lasted 40 years,” Jaye said.

Przyblyski graduated with a bachelor’s degree with a double major in political science and visual arts in 1981. Soon after, she and Jaye moved to San Francisco to rent an apartment above a grocery store at the last stop of the J line. Church in Noe Valley. They married in 1987. In 1992 Przyblyski earned her doctorate at UC Berkeley and landed a teaching position at Mills College. Their daughter, Isabelle, was born in 1993.

After years of commuting to Oakland from Noe Valley, Przyblyski secured a professorship at the Art Institute on Russian Hill, teaching art history and art practice and was later named the first president of a program for teaching the history and theory of contemporary art. After launching this program, she was elevated to Dean in 2009. The higher she rose in academia, the more creative her own artistic interventions became.

The goal was always to see how far she could push the art, and that was the case with Urban Essence.

“I determined that the perfume would be available until I smelled it on someone, and then it wouldn’t be in circulation,” she told The Chronicle in a 2012 interview. , I was at a dinner party and I was talking to the woman sitting next to me. I took a deep puff and said, “You’re wearing Urban Essence,” and she said, “Yeah, I love it. No one has worn it since, because I took it out of production.

When asked how the special agents of the Bureau of Urban Secrets maintain their cover, Przybylski replied that they are “middle-aged women in suits. No one suspects them of anything. One such agent was Rissler, who succeeded Przyblyski as Dean of Academic Affairs at the Art Institute.

For the KBRDG broadcast, visitors entered a darkened room and worked on the dials of an old tube radio console until they could hear swirling fog and fog horns, mixed with voices from the past, in an attempt to recreate the sounds of the 1930s when the bridge was under construction.

“You wanted to be a part of whatever Jeannene had on hand,” said Rissler, who provided the radio’s voiceover.

In 2012, Przyblyski left the Art Institute to become provost at the California Institute of the Arts, a major independent college of 1,400 students in the Santa Clarita Valley north of Los Angeles.

But she was never more than a commuter with a cottage in Silver Lake and the schedule memorized for Southwest Airlines, flying home on weekends. She also developed an interest in bird watching, and as an all-in-one, she studied species online and took wedding trips to Los Angeles and throughout the Bay Area. She was up early for an annual bird count sponsored by the Cornell Ornithology Lab.

“To me, Jeannene was like a current female version of Thoreau, a lover of nature and birds, but also a keen observer of human nature,” said close friend Lokelani Devone, an attorney and neighbor from San Francisco. “She had a playful artistic awareness that allowed her to see things that others missed or simply overlooked – like knowing where to find the Lincoln Highway end marker and other urban secrets.”

In the summer of 2017, Przyblyski traveled to Hamburg, Germany for the 250th celebration of his famous art school. By then, she had decided to quit her provost position at CalArts, and when she met with her former colleague, Rissler, Przybylski informed her of the decision. Then and there, Rissler invited her to come back and teach at the Art Institute.

“She always had a passion for teaching, but it was just too difficult as the disease progressed,” her daughter said. “She stayed in touch with her former students and absolutely had her mind, and read and birdwatched until the end.”

She was buried in Fernwood Cemetery in Mill Valley. A public memorial will be held there in April or May. Survivors include her husband Eric Jaye of San Francisco, her daughter Isabella Jaye of San Francisco, and her brother John Przyblyski of Santa Rosa.

Donations in his name may be made to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Rd, Ithaca, NY 14850, and San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, 900 Pennsylvania Ave, San Francisco, CA 94107.

Sam Whiting is a writer for the San Francisco Chronicle. Email: [email protected] Twitter:@samwhitingsf

Kayleen C. Rice