A physicist, biologist, Nobel laureate, CEO, and now, artist
SOMERVILLE — Wally Gilbert unpacked a thin glass plate from a cardboard box and held it up to the light, eager to see the results of his latest experiment.
The image on the glass, “Broken City,” had started out as a rather conventional pair of photographs that Gilbert snapped of a building in New York City. But then he digitally distorted the shots, and superimposed them atop one another, to produce a disorienting, kaleidoscopic piece of art.
The bold work reflects the creative spirit of the 82-year-old physicist turned biologist (turned Nobel Prize winner, turned entrepreneur, turned venture capitalist, turned artist) who has rarely allowed himself to be hemmed in by traditional boundaries — whether it is the question of what a photograph should look like or the propriety of a theoretical physicist studying DNA.
Gilbert’s life neatly demonstrates, in a series of remarkably productive career stints, the potential benefits of wandering deeply through different fields: Before launching a photography career that is gaining attention in art circles, he shared a Nobel Prize in chemistry, cofounded a Fortune 500 company, and ran a laboratory at Harvard University.
Gilbert trained and mentored many other scientists over his long career, but he also set an example beyond the laboratory.
“He’s had a huge influence on me and made me feel it’s OK to be that curious about that many things,’’ said George Church, a genetics professor at Harvard Medical School who was one of Gilbert’s graduate students in the late 1970s and early 1980s. “Most scientists make you feel terrible if you don’t have blinders on and nose to the grindstone.”
As science has become an increasingly specialized and narrow pursuit, getting people in different fields to work together has become a major goal at research institutions. Long before it was trendy, Gilbert did it naturally.
“One of the great dangers, one of the great problems, is as fields grow they stultify. They get drowned in the knowledge,” Gilbert said. “People often make contributions by simply moving into a different field because they don’t know what isn’t possible.”
Gilbert’s life has been full of change: He started out as a chemistry and physics major at Harvard, but then earned a doctoral degree in math from Cambridge University. When Harvard hired him as an assistant professor in 1959, it was as a theoretical physicist. But he rapidly found himself absorbed with big questions in the young field of molecular biology.
In 1976, Gilbert invented a method for rapidly sequencing DNA. Four years later, he shared the Nobel Prize for his work. The following year, he took the unusual step of leaving Harvard to run Biogen, then a small biotech company based in Cambridge and Switzerland that is now a global biotechnology firm.
He returned to Harvard in 1985, but still refused to live the life of the traditional academic. In 1992, he cofounded Myriad Genetics, a company that develops gene tests to predict disease risk. When he retired from Harvard in 2001, he joined a venture capital firm. And then, in 2002, he turned seriously to art.
Gilbert started out carrying around a two-megapixel camera and taking pictures of scenes from his travels. An early example still hangs in his studio — a photograph of a windmill from Sicily. But quickly, he began to play with scale, blowing up images very large and creating abstractions.
“The impulse that I have in science is to create new science and be fascinated with something new. The impulse I have in art is to create new imagery, something that I like, and I find it beautiful,” Gilbert said. “If I’m successful, other people will find it interesting and beautiful.”
Helen Donis-Keller, an artist and scientist who earned her graduate degree with Gilbert, recalls his incredibly quick scientific mind. He was totally engaged with science and would offer frank, sometimes critical feedback that she always appreciated.
She remembers no inkling of his artistic ambitions from her days working in his lab, but said his willingness to immerse himself in a new area was completely in character.
“He just learns everything there is to learn just by himself,” said Donis-Keller, now a professor of biology and art at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering. “Wally has this supreme self-confidence which has taken him a long way.”
Despite his background in developing new methods and technology in science, Gilbert seems to care little about the technical aspects of digital cameras and instead obsesses over the trickier question of whether his images evoke an emotional impact in the viewer.
At one of his studios at Somerville’s Brickbottom Artists Association, the evolution of his style is apparent: A corner is full of photos he took of the Boston Ballet. Nearby, there are scanned images of vegetables and close-up photographs of marzipan. Other images are highly distorted and photoshopped.
But is the scientist accepted by other artists?
Jan Kubasiewicz, professor of design at Massachusetts College of Art and Design, who curated one of Gilbert’s shows in 2004, thinks he should be. But he noted that the art world doesn’t always know what to make of outsiders.
“The community of artists, it’s a very hermetic group of people who are trying to protect their territory, and he is an example of a free spirit who invaded that territory, without asking anybody their permission,” Kubasiewicz said.
To some, Gilbert’s successes may seem to come without the risks that other artists take; he does not need another day job to support his photography.
But in other ways he is also a profound risk-taker who has repeatedly stepped away from a world in which he is an unquestioned authority, to move into another where no one necessarily knows to pay him respect.
Kubasiewicz was making a pitch to a biotechnology company to design its website when he first encountered Gilbert’s work. At the end of the meeting, Kubasiewicz asked who had taken the photographs on the boardroom wall — simple shots of a sailboat, cropped just so. Something in them spoke to him.
He was surprised to learn the photographer was a member of the company’s board and set up a meeting.
“Do I like all of his pictures? No, of course not. . . . But there are some which speak to me, and that’s why I like coming back, going back to see his studio,” Kubasiewicz said. “When I visit him today, I’m always ready to be astonished by his work.”