Chihuly at the Salk

Float Boat, The Sun, Red Reeds

It’s no secret Jonas Salk strongly believed that art and science go hand-in-hand. But would he have imagined the dramatic display of vibrant colored glass in the same iconic courtyard that serves to inspire Salk researchers in search of their next major scientific discoveries?

“I have no doubt Jonas would have been very pleased with the entire event because it was part of his original concept for the Institute,” suggested Tom Albright, professor and director of Salk’s Vision Center Laboratory, speaking of Chihuly at the Salk, the installation of wildly expressive glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly. “It brought such large crowds of people to the Institute, I’ve never seen that courtyard so populated in the 23 years that I’ve been here.”

In all, more than 5,000 people visited the Salk Institute, experiencing Chihuly’s magnificent glass sculpture set against the Institute’s stark architecture.

Chihuly at the Salk

The Sun during installation

“We had an artist at the cutting edge of his field in an institution where the science is also at the cutting edge,” Verma said. “It was a meeting of two superb components of art and science that was a wonderful success. What I particularly liked about it was that the art was very accessible, it wasn’t so abstract that you couldn’t figure it out. It was clear what the artist was trying to do and it was exciting to see that it melded so well with the Salk Institute.”

Chihuly at the Salk featured several signature pieces located in the Institute’s Theodore Gildred Courtyard, where visitors were also awed by the sweeping view of the Pacific Ocean. The stunning items on display included The Sun, a 15-foot-tall sculpture made of 1,100 tentacle-like glass pieces of vibrant yellow, red and orange hues.

Float Boat was also a crowd pleaser. It featured a 17-foot restored wooden craft that had been filled with intensely colorful glass spheres, or Floats, some measuring up to 40 inches in diameter and weighing 60 pounds.

“They looked like candy,” said Senior Director, Information Technology Frank Dwyer. “My favorite Float was the one that had squiggly brown lines. It looked like someone had drizzled chocolate syrup all over it.”

Two Chandeliers, specially designed for Chihuly at the Salk, hung overhead between towers, flanking the courtyard. Each measuring about 6 feet tall but offering two very different color schemes (one with brown, pale yellow and black tones, the other with blue, green and yellow), the pieces were assembled from hundreds of hand-blown glass components.

A variety of red, orange, blue and purple Garden Glass — ranging from 6-foot-tall spears jutting from the ground, and twisted, cylindrical forms called Cattails — was nestled in the Salk’s eucalyptus grove. The crowning jewel of the grove was the White Tower, a 16-foot-tall structure with paleto- neon pink, and white needle-like glass pieces. Bringing their research experience to bear on the exhibit, many of the scientists jokingly referred to the White Tower as the “bottle washer,” a reference to similarly shaped brushes used to clean lab glass.

Like most of the sculpture on display during Chihuly at the Salk, White Tower was assembled on site, which many at the Institute found to be among the most fascinating aspects of the celebratory event.

Chihuly Drawing

kebana Drawing 2008
Photo by Teresa Nouri Rishel

Although he has followed Chihuly’s work for more than a decade (and once spoke at a conference on creativity where the artist was also a guest speaker), Charles Stevens, professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, had never seen the sculpture being assembled.

“I didn’t know how they packed and shipped the pieces. I didn’t know what the armatures looked like,” he said. “So it was really interesting for me to see the exhibit being set up. I was just fascinated by the process.”

Rich Krauzlis, a professor in the Systems Neurobiology Lab and artist, agreed.

“The installation was visually striking, and it wasn’t just that the pieces were beautiful, but there was also the engineering aspect of it,” he said. “It was neat to see the whole process rather than just seeing the finished piece.”

They not only had the opportunity to see how the glass components are individually hand-wired into place, but they had the benefit of asking questions of the installation team from the Chihuly Studio.

One fact Stevens and the others uncovered? The installers normally pack 10 percent more glass than they need for each sculpture in case they break some, which they occasionally do.

As impressive as the installation was during the day, it took on new life and offered a breath-taking experience at night when each of the pieces was lit for the evening tours.

The Sun, for example, seemed to radiate with powerful intensity after dark. It was by far the most photographed piece at night. Jonas Salk’s son, Peter, visited Chihuly at the Salk on several occasions, but none had quite the effect on him as seeing the installation in the evening, he said.

“Seeing people strolling through the courtyard at night and looking at the sculptures in wonderment reminded me of the warm feeling of people walking hand in hand during the evening in European plazas,” Peter Salk said.

“I don’t think a day went by that my father didn’t walk through the courtyard and interact with whoever was there. It was part of his nature,” he said. “So if he could have seen how this event affected not just those who work at the Institute but also those who came to visit, I think he would have been very pleased.”

Chihuly Chandelier

Chihuly Studio team member Thomas Gray fields questions during the installation of the Aqua Chandelier.

For some Salk scientists who have great interest in art, it was the similarity they recognized between their work in the lab and the sculpture on display that drew them out of their offices and into the courtyard.

“People who work in Neurobiology are keenly aware of the relationship between the form of neurons and their function,” said Stevens. “And so neurobiologists like it, aside from its artistic value, because it reminds them of that. To see the way these glass sculptures were designed to give rise to complicated form is very interesting to us.”

Thomas Albright, who studies vision and whose lab discovered in 2007 that the brain’s visual cortex also receives input from memory banks to derive meaning from what we see, compared Chihuly’s work to impressionism.

“Symbols or shapes on a canvas elicit an impression of an image and your brain fills in the rest,” he explained. “That’s the beauty of impressionism. It’s not entirely dependent on the physical stimulus that’s out there in the world. It’s a stimulus that enables your brain to conjure up all sorts of things that can be unique to your own personal experience.

“Chihuly’s tangled-glass sculpture is about as characteristically impressionistic as you can imagine,” Albright continued. “So when you look at The Sun, it’s not veridically like a sun, but it conjures up all kinds of things when you look at it. You can ask, ‘What’s happening?’ The thing that’s happening is your brain, based on prior experiences of the world, is complementing the input that’s coming up from the retina.

“In the end, I thought it was a fabulous event,” he said. “It was definitely valuable for the Institute from a public relations stand point, and I was able to see a lot of my colleagues on the courtyard. I kept thinking, ‘We need more of this’.”