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Art and Science Inspire Community to Celebrate Institute's 50th Anniversary

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 between April 22-28 during sold-out day and evening tours, experiencing Chihuly's magnificent glass sculpture set against the Institute's stark architecture. The scale and magnitude of the event was a first for the Salk, yet fitting for its 50th anniversary celebration, said Inder Verma, professor in the Laboratory of Genetics.

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."

Some of the community guests had the chance to experience the process during the installation tours, which took place on April 22-23.

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'."

Black Tie Gala, Chihuly at the Salk Raise $350K for Basic Research

Chihuly Gala

Chihuly at the Salk underwriters Irwin and Joan Jacobs at the Black Tie Gala where guests enjoyed an evening of first-rate entertainment and superb food.

The who's who of San Diego and beyond gathered at the Institute for a glorious evening of beautifully sculptured glass, first-rate entertainment and superb food during the Chihuly at the Salk Black Tie Gala on April 24.

Graciously hosted and generously underwritten by Joan and Irwin Jacobs, the entire Chihuly event helped raise more than $350,000 (netting $235,000 from the Gala alone) in unrestricted funds in support of the Salk Institute's groundbreaking basic scientific research.

Guests of the Gala were greeted by the celestial sounds of String Theory, a Los Angeles-based ensemble best known for its signature handmade harps featuring long wires that are clamped on elevated points of the venue where the group performs. On this occasion, the golden wires stretched from the instrument to the top of the Salk's East Building, while guests enjoyed the elegant al fresco reception.

Gala Committee

Joan Jacobs (Chair)
Wendy Brody
Linda Chester
Olivia Farrell
Robin Parsky
Mary Jane Salk
Darlene Shiley
Sheryl White
Faye Wilson
Marsha Chandler
Rebecca Newman

As the music played in the background, guests mingled and freely strolled through the Salk's eucalyptus grove and the Theodore Gildred Courtyard admiring the wildly colorful and expressive glass sculpture by artist Dale Chihuly, who was also in attendance.

Chihuly's gorgeous glass pieces weren't limited to the grounds of the Institute. Each of the 20 tables in the elegantly decorated foyer where the dinner took place featured a Chihuly Macchia as a centerpiece. Gala attendees promptly purchased 19 of them.

Salk Institute Executive Vice President Marsha Chandler served as the evening's emcee, sharing the stage with Salk President William R. Brody and Salk Professor Ron Evans, who each addressed the audience.

The Black Tie Gala featured a delectable meal catered by Pamplemousse, and entertainment by Daniel Reichard, a member of the original cast from Broadway's Jersey Boys. He was accompanied on piano by Cris O'Bryon as they performed old standards, and songs from the 1960s and '70s.

Art and Our Brains:
Recognizing the Familiar is Key to Visual Perception

What is it about art that draws our attention and stirs our emotions? The beauty of the piece itself is only part of the answer. The familiar patterns we recall when we look at the artwork provide a context that deeply influences our reaction, says Thomas Albright, professor and director of the Salk Institute's Vision Center Laboratory.

Art and the Brain

Members of the President's Club admire images from the Chihuly at the Salk Photo Exhibit.

Albright spoke to nearly 100 members of the President's Club and other friends of the Institute who attended a Chihuly at the Salk Photo Exhibit and Lecture on June 17, featuring 34 vivid photographic images of the renowned artist's glass sculpture taken by Salk staff members. Albright's presentation followed the reception.

Although for centuries artists have been known to use certain techniques in their work to manipulate perceptual experiences, Albright said discoveries in neuroscience over the last 50 years help better explain how the brain processes the information it receives through our eyes.

Vision begins in the retina, which breaks down the incoming signal into smaller elements of information (color, motion and form), before sending it down the optic nerve to the visual cortex area of the brain. Here, the information is processed and reconstructed to achieve an internal representation of what is being perceived.

But the story doesn't end there. Albright's lab discovered two years ago that the brain's memory banks also contribute to the perceptual process. This is best illustrated when we observe abstract forms or art that is not precisely representational.

A Renoir Impressionist painting or a Chihuly glass sculpture may not be an exact representation of a particular object or scene, but the colored dots, or the tangled glass may provide the impression of that object or scene, Albright explained. The impression serves as a spark for recognizing patterns stored in our memory that help us, individually, complete the picture.

"This is the nature of all visual experience. As you go around the world, your perceptual experience is a combination of the stimulus and memory," Albright said. "As we look at magnificent Chihuly images around us, what we do is take the impressionist patterns of light in the retina and we complement them with a life's worth of experiences that are stored in memory.

"The undeniable pleasure that we get from looking at these Chihuly pieces is an example of what the 19th century psychologist William James called, 'The victorious assimilation of the new,' meaning we interpret the art in the context of things familiar. This is in essence why we find these things so appealing."

The beautiful collection of photos of Chihuly at the Salk in the Foyer will remain on display through the month of August. Visitors are welcome, weekdays, during normal business hours. Call Geña Hamme at ext 1262 to arrange for parking.

Photographs from the Salk Community

  • 01
    Grand Prize Winner: Mo Li, Gene Expression Laboratory
  • 02
    Sandra Guerra, First Runner-Up, Peptide Biology Laboratory
  • 03
    Andrea Carrano, Second Runner-Up, Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory
  • 04
    Florian Sweeney, Third Runner-Up, Transgenic Core
  • 05
    Ann Kuwahara, Honorable Mention, Purchasing
  • 06
    Debby Latterich, Honorable Mention, Animal Resources Department
  • 07
    Derek Joyce, Honorable Mention, Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory
  • 08
    Jesse Vargas, Honorable Mention, Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory
  • 09
    Leo Kurian, Honorable Mention, Gene Expression Laboratory
  • 10
    Michal Krawczyk, Honorable Mention, Regulatory Biology Laboratory
  • 11
    Mo Li, Honorable Mention, Molecular Cell Biology Laboratory
  • 12
    Reuben Rodriguez, Honorable Mention, Laboratory of Genetics
  • 13
    Reuben Rodriguez, Honorable Mention, Laboratory of Genetics
  • 14
    Stan Helms, Honorable Mention, Facilities Services
  • 15
    Stan Helms, Honorable Mention, Facilities Services
  • 16
    Sunnie Yoh, Honorable Mention, Regulatory Biology Laborator
  • 17
    Ullas Pedmale, Honorable Mention, Plant Biology Laboratory


Experience Chihuly All Over Again

If you didn't have a chance to experience Chihuly at the Salk in April or want to see it again, you can still do so. Several pieces of the glass sculpture from the installation will remain on display at the Institute through September 2010.

Art and the Brain

Chihuly poster

White Tower, the two Chandeliers, and a variety of the Garden Glass (including the Cattails and Spears) are among them. Standing 16 feet tall, White Tower features blown-glass pieces ranging from white to light and neon pink and was personally chosen by Dale Chihuly to serve as the introductory sculpture for the installation.

You can also view a dazzling Chihuly photo exhibit and several of the artist's macchia, large bowl-shaped glass pieces, in the Salk's foyer. For more information, contact Geña Hamme, 858-453-4100 x1262 or email:

The outdoor installation can be viewed for free Monday through Friday from 8 a.m.-5 p.m. You can also register online for a free architectural tour that includes information of the Chihuly pieces on display. To register, visit The Salk Institute's gift shop, which sells several Chihuly at the Salk items such as tee-shirts, books and DVDs, is open daily from 11 a.m.-2 p.m.