Life: VAI's Glass Sculpture by Dale Chihuly


Following the death of his wife Betty on January 18, 2004, Van Andel Institute (VAI) founder Jay Van Andel commissioned world-famous artist Dale Chihuly to create “Life,” a 14-foot glass sculpture reminiscent of the DNA double helix, to memorialize Betty's life and all she did to enrich the lives of the people around her. Following Jay’s death on December 7, 2004, the piece was unveiled and dedicated by their son David on October 27, 2005, at the fifth annual “Celebration of Hope” gala.

The 1,200-pound work spirals from the ceiling in VAI’s lobby. The sculpture was crafted over several months by a team of more than 70 people from the Chihuly studio in Seattle. Supported by the artist’s custom steel framework, it is comprised of 1,100 hand-blown glass globes and shapes in several shades of blue - turquoise, ice, cobalt, lapis – with amber, citron, yellow and red accents.

VAI engaged architecture, engineering, construction, and consulting firm Progressive AE to design the structural steel additions to the existing overhead beams to support the unit and provide a connection point for the four wire ropes that suspend the sculpture. The sculpture was assembled in Seattle for final approval, then disassembled and sent to VAI. Each of the glass pieces was separately packed for shipment to Grand Rapids. Chihuly’s own team of installation specialists spent three days at VAI conducting the meticulous assembly and installation.

This one-of-a-kind sculpture celebrates the 1953 discovery of the DNA double helix which ultimately led to the mapping of the human genome in 2000 just as Van Andel Institute was launched. This discovery was a driving force in creating the field known as molecular biology and led to the understanding of the genetic basis of disease revolutionizing the search for drugs and other therapies.