Jeannene Przyblyski, S.F. art school dean who saw expression in everything, dies at 62 – San Francisco Chronicle

Jeannene Przyblyski, professor, vice president and dean of academic affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, saw expression in everything and was inspired by the world around her.
Jeannene Przyblyski’s career as a conceptual artist defied easy categorization. But one might distill her style and approach to her craft by looking to a potion she created of San Francisco street smells — one that included the mingling scents of fog, wood and street — that she sold as a perfume called Urban Essence.
It was one of many acts of conceptual and performance art that Przyblyski created as part of the Bureau of Urban Secrets, which she once described as “an unprofitable think tank that practices history as public art. It asks people how the stuff of the city can be art if you look at it the right way.”
She had business cards designed to look like something a private eye might carry. Her work with the bureau could have been a full-time job, except that she already had one as 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 these jobs until she started experiencing muscle weakness and other symptoms that turned out to be amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, an incurable neuro-degenerative malady also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. She died at her home in Inverness on Jan. 24. She was 62.
“Jeannene was first and foremost an explorer of ideas, places, times and eras, and the natural world around her,” said her husband, Eric Jaye, a political consultant in San Francisco. “Her practice was driven by that exploration. She was able to boil things down to their essence in a way that made them approachable to her audiences.”
Among her projects was a phantom radio station, KBRDG, which carried the sounds of the 1930s and was broadcast from Fort Point during International Orange, a group show at the brick fortress to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the Golden Gate Bridge in 2012. Another was “A Stroll through Time on Lovers’ Lane,” which involved people dressed in Victorian costume walking along the famed footpath in the Presidio on Valentine’s Day in 2009.
In her spare time, Przyblyski served terms on the San Francisco Arts Commission and the San Francisco Bay Area Planning and Urban Research Association.
“You had the ‘above-ground Jeannene’ as a professor, academic and civic leader, and you had the ‘subterranean Jeannene,’ excavating untold stories and histories of San Francisco and the Bay Area through the Bureau of Urban Secrets,” said Art Institute colleague Jennifer Rissler. “Her loss leaves a huge hole in the Bay Area Arts ecosystem.”
Jeannene Marie Przyblyski (pronounced as sha-bil-ski) was born Oct. 8, 1959, in Norwalk, a working class suburb south of Los Angeles. Her father, John, worked in the aeronautics industry and her mother, Mary, was a teacher’s aide. At Cerritos High School, she was involved in theater before graduating in 1977.
She became the first member of her family to attend college, at UC San Diego. She lived off campus in the beach town of Del Mar, and one day, while riding back there from campus on a city bus, she was introduced to Jaye, a fellow student, by a mutual friend who was sitting next to her. Jaye stayed on the bus past his stop to walk Przyblyski home. “We struck up a conversation that lasted for 40 years,” Jaye said.
Przyblyski earned her 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-Church line in Noe Valley. They were married in 1987. In 1992, Przyblyski got her doctorate from UC Berkeley and landed a teaching job at Mills College. Their daughter, Isabella, was born in 1993.
After years of commuting to Oakland from Noe Valley, Przyblyski got a faculty job at the Art Institute on Russian Hill, teaching art history and art practice, and was later named the first chair of a program teaching the history and theory of contemporary art. After starting that program, she was elevated to dean in 2009. The higher she rose in academia, the more creative her own art interventions became.
The goal was always to see how far she could take the art, and that was the case with Urban Essence.
“I determined that the perfume would be available until I actually smelled it on somebody, and then it would go out of circulation,” she told The Chronicle in 2012. “One evening I was at a dinner party and I was talking to the woman seated next to me. I took a big whiff and said, ‘You’re wearing Urban Essence,’ and she said, ‘Yes, I love it.’ No one has worn it since, because I pulled it out of production.”
When asked how the special agents of the Bureau of Urban Secrets maintained their cover, Przyblyski answered that they were “middle-aged women in suits. Nobody 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 dark room and worked the dials on an old tube-radio console until they could hear swirling fog and foghorns, mixed with voices from the past, in an attempt to re-create the sounds of the 1930s when the bridge was being built.
“You wanted to be a part of anything Jeannene had her fingers on,” said Rissler, who provided voice-over for the radio.
In 2012, Przyblyski left the Art Institute to become provost at California Institute of the Arts, a prominent 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, who flew home on weekends. She also developed an interest in bird watching and, as an all-in type, she studied species online and took birding trips both in L.A. and throughout the Bay Area. She would get up early for an annual bird count sponsored by the Cornell Ornithology Lab.
“To me, Jeannene was like a present-day female version of Thoreau, a lover of nature and birds, but also keen observer of human nature,” said close friend Lokelani Devone, a San Francisco attorney and neighbor. “She had a playful artistic awareness that allowed her to see things that others missed or just overlooked — like knowing where to find the marker for the end of the Lincoln Highway and other urban secrets.”
In summer 2017, Przyblyski traveled to Hamburg, Germany, for the 250th celebration of its famous art school. By then she had decided to leave her job as provost at CalArts, and when she ran into her old colleague, Rissler, Przyblyski informed her of the decision. Then and there, Rissler invited her to return and teach at the Art Institute.
“She still had the passion to teach, 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 spirit, and was reading and bird watching until the end.”
She was buried at 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; daughter, Isabella Jaye of San Francisco; mother Mary Przyblyski and brother, John Przyblyski, both of Santa Rosa.
Donations in her name may be made to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, 159 Sapsucker Woods Road, Ithaca, NY 14850, and the San Francisco-Marin Food Bank, 900 Pennsylvania Ave, San Francisco, CA 94107.
Sam Whiting is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter:@samwhitingsf
Sam Whiting has been a staff writer at The San Francisco Chronicle since 1988. He started as a feature writer in the People section, which was anchored by Herb Caen’s column, and has written about people ever since. He is a general assignment reporter with a focus on writing feature-length obituaries. He lives in San Francisco and walks three miles a day on the steep city streets.