Salk Meets Picasso: Science and Art in San Diego

Salk Meets Picasso: Science and Art in San Diego

Sam Hodgson

Chihuly's signature piece is at the end of what's known at the Salk Institute as the Stream of Life. It seemingly rests at the precipice of the Pacific Ocean as hang-gliders soar behind.

In 1969, Françoise Gilot, a French painter and muse of Pablo Picasso, traveled from her home in Paris to La Jolla, where she was offered a tour of the Salk Institute by its founder, the polio vaccine pioneer Jonas Salk.

Although Gilot’s two children were some of the first in France to receive the polio vaccine, she knew little about Salk’s work or other scientific studies. Salk, in turn, knew hardly anything about art, including Gilot’s colorful abstract oil paintings. But this knowledge gap did little to deter the attraction between the two; they were engaged a year and a half after they first met.

When Salk married Gilot in a small ceremony at a city hall outside Paris, it brought something larger than their new life together as husband and wife. Forty years later, their union still melds the arts and sciences worlds in San Diego. Through Gilot, Salk came to believe in the importance of using art to stimulate creativity, and he envisioned that his institute would be a place where art and science could merge.

“He understood the appreciation of art, and saw its connection to science,” said Dr. William Brody, Salk’s current president. “That was a very far-sighted vision.”

The Salk Institute celebrated that vision last week during its 50th anniversary with a special twist: Coiling and vibrant yellow, green and pink glass-blown sculptures from Seattle artist Dale Chihuly decorated Salk’s gray concrete and steel. At the display’s hub: one of the artist’s signature pieces, a 15 foot-tall ball of twisting glass tubes called The Sun.

The blending of science and art doesn’t stop at Salk.

Evidence that the local life sciences community values art is everywhere: From the orchestral music flowing from The Neurosciences Institute’s auditorium and the massive bronze figures that sit on the grounds of Amylin Pharmaceuticals to the award-winning painter and biologist who manages a collection of flies at the University of California, San Diego.

Art attracts exposure and makes scientific work more accessible to the public, but there are deeper reasons for the connection.

Science and Art – Images by Sam Hodgson To see these images in full screen mode, click on the bottom right corner of the player.

The primary motivation for San Diego’s medical research institutes is to make people’s lives better and offering access to the arts is an easy way to do just that. Some scientists also have a personal connection to art. They see unexpected similarities between art and their work: both value cohesiveness and simplicity, whether in a painting’s composition or in a scientific explanation, both use trial and error to arrive at their results and both require a certain amount of genius to be done right.

Chihuly’s art has spurred Salk scientists to leave their labs and wander the courtyard to take in the sights, Brody said. But while Salk’s art exhibits are infrequent, The Neurosciences Institute in La Jolla regularly hosts concerts in its auditorium to attract potential donors and to provide local residents with cheap access to good music.

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On top of its current repertoire of performances, which range from Mozart to Benny Goodman, The Neurosciences Institute will begin hosting The Bronowski Art & Science Forum, a lecture series launched by retired Salk biologist Ron Newby.

The series delves into the connections between art and science, including their mutual demand for creativity, insight and a deeper understanding of the surrounding world. The free event was held at Salk for 11 years, but will begin in its new location on May 27.

Newby, who also paints, draws and sculpts, said that he sees many unexpected similarities between great artists and great scientists.

“They both see things other people can’t,” he said. “Most people will just drive down a road on the way home and won’t see much, but an artist will see that there’s a lot more out there. Great scientists are the same. They see more to the world than the average person journeying through life.”

Richard Krauzlis, a neurobiologist at Salk who has been creating large acrylic paintings for 20 years, said the aesthetic principles he sees in artwork also apply to science.

“If a scientific explanation is attractive, if it has simplicity, symmetry and completeness, it’s more likely to be accepted,” he said. “People take special pride if they design an elegant experiment, or do something that leads to an elegant solution, or if they take two things they thought were separate and show they’re part of the same thing.”

Krauzlis said he paints partially for stress relief, but also because his work can show another side of his research — how the brain decides where to focus the eyes to collect information. Using colors, lights and shapes, he plays with how people see things he depicts.

“There’s something about the images that cannot be interpreted right away,” he said. “The image is hard to pigeon hole; it’s hard to be sure what you’re looking at.”

Sergio Castrezana, a biologist who manages a collection of more than 240 species of flies at the University of California, San Diego, also creates paintings that reference scientific principles. Last month he won a competition at the San Diego Science Festival that aims to make science more accessible through art. Castrezana’s painting, DNA Assembling, shows a bald, toga-clad green man throwing together eyeballs and dragon heads to build a strand of DNA.

Although the scientific lesson is not readily apparent in his picture, Castrezana says the man represents an enzyme, a protein that builds DNA.

While Castrezana said he prefers to create pieces unrelated to his scientific research, he also sometimes makes colorful renditions of the flies he sees at work. And he, along with Krauzlis and Newby, said that whether or not their art is related to their science, exposure to art stimulates their creativity.

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This belief in art’s creative stimulation becomes clear in the physical buildings that hold San Diego’s scientists as well.

The Neurosciences Institute was designed to be a “scientific monastery” with an asymmetrical stone courtyard that uses curving walls and nooks and crannies to give scientists private places to think and bigger spaces to congregate.

At Salk’s grounds, which were designed by the famous architect Louis Kahn (one of the reasons Salk convinced his future wife to come take a tour), a narrow courtyard acts as a mirror between the two stone buildings that flank it. A small fountain runs in a straight line down the center of the courtyard to unify the two buildings the courtyard separates.

The La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology uses an interior atrium to create communal space. Employing a similar concept to an open hotel lobby, each of the building’s floors overlooks this central area and its open staircase, which creates “a sculptural effect with people moving up and down,” said Michael Wilkes, an architect at the firm that designed the building.

“We’ve all worked in a space that for whatever reason did not have the right feeling,” Wilkes said. “We hoped to create a building that everyone looks forward to going to each day.”

Some biotechs also aim for eye-catching buildings that will attract talented employees and impress visitors, while also creating an inspiring workspace, said Neal McFarlane, the principal of McFarlane Architects, which has designed for more than 10 local biotech and pharmaceutical companies.

“We try to create spaces that stimulate thinking, and the best way to do that is with visually interesting elements, whether it’s architecture, the use of light, or colors,” McFarlane said.

What those elements look like depends on the personality of the client, McFarlane said, which creates a huge variety in buildings’ appearances.

At Biogen Idec’s offices in San Diego, the walls in the main conference room are covered with paintings of clouds.

The Mira Mesa offices of Gen-Probe feature an atrium with floor-to-ceiling windows and an asymmetrically arched roof.

And outside the buildings that house Amylin Pharmaceuticals, two bare-chested cast bronze figures sit on either side of a turquoise blue fountain. (Because Amylin rents the buildings for its labs, it had no say over these sculptures, which were commissioned by the buildings’ owner.)

But McFarlane said early-stage biotechs look more for practical low-cost designs that will allow them to do their research without spending extra, and none of the scientists interviewed were ready to give up their research to become full time artists.

“I don’t think my wife would like that very much,” Krauzlis joked.

Contact Claire Trageser directly at claire.trageser@gmail.com.

 

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Claire Trageser

Claire Trageser
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