“What makes you smile?” our photographer asks Françoise Gilot. Her serious expression suddenly shifts into a delighted grin. Everyone laughs. We are in the Colas Engel Art Gallery in North Park, where Gilot’s paintings are on exhibit in advance of Symphony at Salk, the annual concert and benefit for the Salk Institute for Biological Sciences. The internationally-known artist and author has served as Honorary Chair since the event’s inception in 1994, and her strong, dynamic works have been featured as the event’s signature posters. “I paint for me,” says Gilot who began studying art as a child. “It’s a natural thing. It’s a way of expressing both my ideas and also my passions.”
Gilot met Jonas Salk, developer of the polio vaccine and founder of the Salk Institute, in La Jolla in the summer of 1969, and married the following year, a partnership that endured until Salk’s death in 1995. When asked what attracted her to him, she responds, “Put it the other way: what attracted him to me?” Then in her mid-40s and with her own career in New York and Paris, she wasn’t looking to remarry. “California was far away in many ways. Why should I marry a scientist, you know?” recalls the artist. But Salk pursued her. Although from different backgrounds, they shared commonality. “We saw that we were very compatible in the way we thought about life. So that’s what made us come closer and closer.”
“How did you think about life?” I ask.
“Creativity is creativity. He was creative. I was creative. We could understand each other, not in the details of the things we were doing, but in the essence.” So the couple carved out a relationship, often living apart and planning ahead around his scientific symposiums and her exhibitions. “We led full lives before, so we knew exactly what we wanted to share, and when we wanted to be on our own,” says Gilot.
“We also learned how to live harmoniously. Sometimes that doesn’t come the first time,” she says with a laugh. “Sometimes it’s better when you are a bit older and you understand the lessons of life.” The 94-year-old Gilot lived a fascinating life long before she married Salk. She had two children, Claude and Paloma, with Pablo Picasso, and later married the artist Luc Simon, with whom she had a daughter, Aurelia.
Four years ago, the Salk Institute established an endowed chair, the Françoise Gilot-Salk Chair, in her honor. Faculty member Greg Lemke, a professor in the Molecular Neurobiology Laboratory, was named the inaugural holder for his scientific accomplishments. While artists and scientists work in different fields, Gilot believes creativity is the common denominator. “Everything is in the imagination. Whether you use imagination for science or art, it’s the same thing — it’s to envision part of the unknown that you might want to analyze,” noting that scientists are fascinated by music and other art forms, “something that allows you to dream in a less formal way.” Andrea Naversen