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Appreciation: What We Learned From Jeannene Przyblyski

by Laura Hilgers

Illustration by Olivia Wise.

Her artistic eye focused on the fleeting but will be remembered as anything but.

In the early 2000s, Jeannene Przyblyski, an artist, art historian and college dean, sat through a number of San Francisco Planning and Urban Research Association (SPUR) meetings during which planners and architects frequently spoke about “the essence of the City.” It got Przyblyski thinking: What was that essence?

“So I went around the City and started sniffing,” she told the San Francisco Chronicle in 2004. The result was a perfume called Urban Essence, which she described as a mixture of “exhaust from diesel buses, musk from sewers and other people’s bodies, damp wool, leather, coffee, hair — human and animal — wet cement, Chinese food, cigarette smoke.”

Because her art was mostly ephemeral, she decided to keep the perfume in circulation until she smelled it on someone — and she did, later, at a dinner party. But it was a perfect example of the passionate curiosity that characterized her work and life.

Przyblyski (pronounced Shabilski) passed away in Inverness on January 24 of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. The former dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute and provost at the California Institute of the Arts was known for her broad intellect and love of learning. “Her ability to engage in a multitude of theoretical topics was just astounding to me,” says Jennifer Rissler, now SFAI’s vice president and dean of academic affairs. “She had a fierce curiosity, fierce intellect, as well as a fierce wit and amazing sense of humor.”

As an art historian and conceptual artist, Przyblyski was obsessed with elevating a multitude of voices and uncovering the micronarratives that hovered below what most people saw or heard. Her work, says her husband, Eric Jaye, “was both joyous and subversive at the same time.” In 2012, this ethos permeated her K-BRIDGE project, created as part of the Golden Gate Bridge’s 75th anniversary celebration. K-BRIDGE was a fictitious radio station that told stories of the iconic landmark from the 1930s, from people whose voices hadn’t been heard before.

Her Bureau of Urban Secrets, which she described to the Chronicle as “my own unprofitable think tank that practices history as public art,” turned its lens on San Francisco. The Bureau connected the local community with art, and her perfume was just one of its many projects. As for her ability to remain undercover as one of the Bureau’s “agents,” she continued and joked: “Middle-aged women in suits. No one thinks they’re up to anything.”

“Her ability to engage in a multitude of theoretical topics was just astounding to me. … She had a fierce curiosity, fierce intellect, as well as a fierce wit and amazing sense of humor.” — Jennifer Rissler

Przyblyski was born on October 8, 1959, in Norwalk, a working-class suburb of Los Angeles. The first in her family to attend college, she graduated from UC San Diego, where she met Jaye. She later earned a PhD in art history from UC Berkeley. She and Jaye, the CEO of Storefront Political Media, had a daughter, Isabella.

A scholar of photography, Przyblyski started teaching at SFAI in 2000 and taught both practice and theory of art. She became the first chair of the History + Theory of Contemporary Art program. As dean, she set the stage for the institute to offer more degree programs, including a dual MFA/MA degree. In her spare time, she also served on the San Francisco Arts Commission as well as SPUR.

She left SFAI in 2012 to become provost of the School of Art at CalArts, in Southern California. While there, she developed an international MFA program (which is still being finalized) at the China Academy of Art. After receiving a grant from the office of Los Angeles County supervisor Mark Ridley-Thomas, she also led an ambitious public art project with four other artists called Some Place Chronicles, a series of books about the neighborhoods of unincorporated South L.A. The book that she created focused on the Florence-Firestone area, still recovering from the 1992 riots. “It wasn’t a conventional work at all,” says Tom Lawson, former School of Art dean at CalArts, “but a complex bringing together of various communities and groups to find ways to represent the usually forgotten.”

Przyblyski returned to SFAI in 2018 and taught there until the spring of 2020, when ALS forced her to step down. Her legacy was not only her students, but also her devotion to public art. “She brought joy and whimsy to the public art projects she did,” Jaye notes. “Because of who she was and where she was from, she worked very hard to make the work she did accessible to everybody.”

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