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Since it’s founding in 1871, SFAI has been a home for radical, influential leaders of contemporary art. Here are just a few of the revolutionary artists that you may not know went to SFAI!




John Lennon and Yoko Ono, 1980. Photo by Annie Leibovitz. 

1. Annie Leibovitz

Annie Leibovitz became a staff photographer for Rolling Stone while she was in art school. Leibovitz started out studying painting but discovered a true talent for photography while studying art at SFAI. According to Leibovitz, “Lots of art schools teach technique. At the San Francisco Art Institute, they teach you to see.”



Still from The Hurt Locker (2008). Directed by Kathryn Bigelow. 

2. Kathryn Bigelow

Before she became the first woman to win an Academy Award for Best Director for her work on The Hurt Locker, Kathryn Bigelow studied Painting at SFAI. Of her time at SFAI, Bigelow said, “I had an extraordinary experience here. It was really transformative. I had an amazing painting teacher named Sam Tchakalian. … He would dig into the work and pull out of you everything that you had to give and then some, and to this day I think back on those critiques. … Art school questions become life questions. The things that your faculty is asking you, what you’re asking yourself right now, you’re going to carry with you forever. That’s why art education is really vital and unique.”



Tattoo art by Don Ed Hardy.

3. Don Ed Hardy

Most famous for his clothing and accessory brand, Ed Hardy, Don Ed Hardy is also well known for his beautiful, Japanese-influenced tattoo art. Early in his career, Hardy earned his BFA in Printmaking at San Francisco Art Institute alongside artist Bryce Wong. He has published numerous books on tattoo aesthetics but has since retired from tattooing to focus on other art forms and on mentoring developing artists at his San Francisco tattoo studio, Tattoo City.



Kehinde Wiley, Kern Alexander Study, 2011

4. Kehinde Wiley

Kehinde Wiley gained international attention in 2016 when he was selected by President Barack Obama to paint his presidential portrait for the Smithsonian. Before that, Wiley was already making a name for himself in the art world through his Renaissance-style portraits of hip-hop heroes. Of his time at SFAI, Wiley said, “SFAI is where I honed my skills and identity as an artist, and I’ve carried that experience with me throughout my career.”



Richard Diebenkorn, Seawall, 1957. 

5. Richard Diebenkorn

National Medal of Arts winner Richard Diebenkorn is probably most famous for his role as one of the foundational members of the Bay Area Figurative movement, and his abstract expressionist paintings, which he began creating as a student at SFAI in the early 20th century (when the school was still called the California School of Fine Arts!).



Barry McGee at Modern Art, 2011. 

6. Barry McGee

Before gaining fame as a painter and graffiti artist instrumental in developing the Mission School art movement, Barry McGee enrolled in the BFA program at SFAI. In Barry’s words: “A really great artist and influential friend of mine, Ashley Boline, took my hand and walked me through the front doors of 800 Chestnut when I was a very young man. I think about all the weird kids and teachers, how we all came together in SF at 800 Chestnut. It’s one of the strongest art communities I have been involved with. SFAI is steeped in SF art history… the real deal. Its location and relaxed campus make it one of the last great art schools in America.”



Joan Brown, The Dancers in a City #2, 1972. 

7. Joan Brown

Guggenheim fellowship winner Joan Brown was a key member of the Bay Area Figurative movement who had her first museum show at the Whitney annual show in New York when she was just 22 years old. Brown completed her BFA and MFA at SFAI when it was still called the California School of Fine Arts.  



Enrique Chagoya, Crossing I, 1994. Acrylic and oil on paper. 

8. Enrique Chagoya

Enrique Chagoya is a painter and printmaker with work in museums across the United States, including LACMA, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, MoMA, the Whitney, di Rosa, and the Art Institute of Chicago. Before gaining fame, Chagoya received his BFA at SFAI.



Karen Finley, Don’t Hang the Angels, 1985, Performance documentation, St Mark’s Church, New York, Photographed by Dona Ann McAdams.

9. Karen Finley

Since receiving her MFA at SFAI, radical performing artist, poet, and musician Karen Finley has written eight books and released three albums throughout her career, and collaborated with artists like Madonna, Sinéad O'Connor, and Bruce Yonemoto. She’s acted in films alongside Tom Hanks and George Takei, and shown work in MoMA, The New Museum, and The Museum of Arts and Design in New York City.



Paul Kos, Just a Matter of Time, 1990. 

10. Paul Kos

Paul Kos was a founding member of the Bay Area Conceptual Art Movement, incorporating video, sound, and interactivity into sculptural installations at a time when artists hadn’t yet worked across mediums to such an extent. His revolutionary work earned him numerous awards, including five National Endowment for the Arts Fellowships and the Rockefeller Foundation Fellowship. Retrospectives of his work have been held at the Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive and at the di Rosa. Kos received his BFA at SFAI and then later went on to teach in the New Genres department.


Interested in learning more about where SFAI graduates end up? Check out sfai.edu/alumni

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