We’re all fans of beauty, philosophy, and social progress, but Jennifer Rissler, the Vice President and Dean of Academic Affairs at the San Francisco Art Institute, has built her life around this trifecta. Raised near Quantico, Virginia, where her dad trained FBI agents, she received her masters degree from the University of Richmond. But in 1996, when a statue of black tennis legend and Richmond native Arthur Ashe went up to much outcry, Rissler decided she could no longer take the city’s segregational undertone, and joined her brother in San Francisco.
She got a job at SFAI, where she’s remained for 20 years. “It’s a place where there’s still a belief in unabashed experimentation,” she says, “and a safe haven for confrontational ideas, in a society that doesn’t welcome that kind of confrontation anymore.” She’s also finishing up a dissertation for a doctorate in Philosophy, Aesthetics, and Visual Studies; her subject is “post-studio practice,” art that’s made beyond the confines of the traditional studio.
As for her own confines, Rissler went from Noe Valley to the Mission, always among roommates, and “lived with what I could fit into one room” for 13 years. When she moved into her own home in Bernal Heights, she was able to furnish it in her preferred heavily vintage style—and finally unlock the family treasures that had been waiting back in Nebraska, where both her parents had multigenerational roots.
“Everything was in storage. My uncle hired a truck driver to bring it all here.” Now, she lives not only among her flea market finds and favorite books, but alongside paintings, furniture, and objects that have been in her family for ages. “My home feels like a living museum,” she says. And not in a bad way.
"My home feels like a living museum"
Who are your favorite artists?
My all-time favorite is Joseph Beuys. He believed everyone had the ability to be an artist. He was fired from the Dusseldorf Academy because he believed in universal admission. The first time he came to the US was for a performance piece called I Like America and America Likes Me, a single-person show at a New York gallery. He orchestrated it so he was picked up in an ambulance, brought in on a cot, and spent three days in the gallery with a coyote. Then he left the same way, so he never actually set foot on American soil.
I also love several land artists, who manipulate natural elements like soil, rocks, trees, and use them as a medium. In Walter de Maria’s piece in New Mexico called The Lightning Field, you stay in a homestead with hundreds of stainless steel poles behind you, which the lightning and the light play off. You have to make a trek and sit with the art and engage with it.
Which young emerging artists have you got your eye on?
One I watched go through SFAI was Aaron Young. I bought a piece of his student work before he graduated and went to Yale to get his MFA. It’s rare that you can put your finger on the one person who’s going to make it out of every 400. That’s another reason I love my job: I get to watch the process unfold.
We have a student now, Hutchtastic, who’s done a series of dildos that she’s cast in the likeness of Trump. Playboy wrote about her work. It’s very provocative for sure. That’s the kind of work we want to ensure people can do, critiquing the society we’re all living in. She’s someone I’m watching.
I hear you have a thing for cars.
On my mother’s side, we had the fourth oldest continuously family-owned Ford dealership in the country, started by my great grandfather, Magnus Swanson (Swanson Ford) in Ceresco, Nebraska. I have a car from that lot, a 1948 Ford Deluxe I named “Blondie” that I keep in a garage up in Napa. I also have a 1970 VW convertible that my dad bought for me when I was a teenager. That one has strong memories. I drive it; it’s here at my house.
You seem to be such a fan of old things.
I’m interested in re-appropriating things—furniture, lights, rugs, textiles—and giving them new contexts, rather than buying mass-produced things that tax our environment and are usually poorly constructed. I very much wanted to furnish my house with things that are not new, and I’m probably 90 percent there. It’s my way of critiquing our diminished valuation of artistry and craftsmanship, in my own modest way, through my choices of what I live with every day.