Today we welcome San Francisco-based artist Alexis Arnold to the Tappan artist roster. We first fell in love with her intricate, beautiful crystallized sculptures and learning about her process and inspiration to pursue and continue this series has only made us love them more. Read our interview with her below:
Describe your work in 3 words.
Material, process, transformation
Tell us a little bit about this series on Tappan?
My Crystallized Book series began in 2011 in response to the vulnerability of printed media and bookstores, along with repeatedly finding boxes of discarded books. Books hold a great significance as objects, stories, teachings, memories, and more, so they were ripe for investigation with the process of crystal growth I’d been exploring on different objects. My intent with the series is to contrast the materiality versus the text or content of the book. The crystals remove the text and solidify the books into aesthetic, non-functional objects. I manipulate the books with my hands, water, and salt to transform them into artifacts or geologic specimens imbued with the history of time, use, and memory. The crystals and book shapes spark a sense of wonder akin to a great piece of literature, like some of the titles I use, but certainly not all, such as an obsolete software manual or old phone book. It’s been nice to watch an apparent return to the cultural value of printed media while working on the series over the last 6 years.
Where do you source your materials? How do you decide which book is just right for the piece? Once you do decide, can you tell us about the crystallizing process?
The books I have crystallized have come from the sidewalk, my own collection, my husband’s collection, given to me, or purchased (mostly used) if I want specific titles.
I have crystallized titles personal to me or others, obsolete books like out-of-date encyclopedias, books that play upon the project (such as the Classics to Grow On series edition of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea), classic literature, children’s books, books I like for how they look or simply because I ended up with them for free. For a recent two-person exhibition with Esther Traugot at Napa Valley Museum, all the titles I used were directly related to both the location and Traugot’s work.
To grow the crystals directly on the books, I start by creating a super-saturated solution of borax (sodium tetraborate) in boiling water. When the water boils, its molecules expand, allowing more Borax in. I submerge the book (or other object) in the hot, saturated solution and carefully manipulate the book to my liking before and during the process. As the saturated water cools, the molecules shrink and any excess Borax crystallizes. Once the solution has completely cooled and the crystals have grown on the submerged book, I drain the solution and dry the fragile, waterlogged work without disturbing its shape. When completely dry, the books hold their new, rigid shapes.
What does this transformative process do for you? Some of the pieces are unrecognizably books!
Material transformation is a big part of my practice in general. It’s fun to see the latent potential of materials and bring my ideas to fruition through various processes. I like some works to be completely transformed, where the original material is unrecognizable, and others where the materials are transformed, but still recognizable. With the crystallized book series, it’s important for the viewer to know that they are books, but if it takes close investigation or reading a material list, then I feel I have successfully transformed the object from its original state.
I also enjoy the aspects of chance and time involved in many of the transformative processes I use. I have control, but only to a limit, and it would be impossible to make many works over identically. The element of chance, along with constantly introducing new materials and processes, helps keep my practice fresh and engaging.
Did you start by crystallizing smaller objects?
I ended up experimenting with crystal growth in my work after I found crystals growing on the concrete floor of my studio as a result of oxidizing metal with salt, soda ash, and vinegar. The first crystallized objects I made were concrete casts and antique tools related to a specific project at the time. Other sculptures and installations have included a range of crystallized objects, including bicycle wheels, bundt pans and other used kitchenware, a cactus, insects, eggshells, a wig, crab and mussel shells, copper mesh, steel wool, wood, and more. In addition to the reasons mentioned above, I began crystallizing books as most of the objects I had been using were hard and I was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on porous, malleable objects. The malleability and transformation of soft paper into rigid sculptures, along with the cultural significance of the object, provided the material combination I found most successful out of all the objects I had crystallized.
I’ve recently explored using crystal growth with window screen and other mesh fabric. The crystals provide material contrast and structure for sculptures and installations that explore optically-active moire patterns.
There are interesting references to various laborious tasks - a martha stewart guide, java script. Utilitarian modes of doing things both masked by these crystals… any thoughts on that?
A lot of time making art includes repetitive, laborious tasks, often on things that appear quite simple, but I didn’t intend that as commentary, other than to provide aesthetics and new purpose to otherwise obsolete objects. Many of the more utilitarian titles were selected for their lack of contemporary relevance as a book, like out of date software manuals. My husband had a good collection of unwanted software manuals for me to use and, not surprisingly, it is the most commonly discarded type of book I come across in San Francisco.
Last gallery show you went to?
Mik Gaspay / George Pfau and Tom Comitta / Elisabeth Atjay at Alter Space in San Francisco
Have the cities you’ve lived in influenced your practice? If so, tell us a bit about that, and what elements in particular steered you in certain directions.
The places I’ve lived and traveled to, as well as my communities from different places have influenced my practice both consciously and unconsciously. It would be difficult to isolate my history and my present from my work. Regarding the literal elements, I feel pretty influenced by the nature around me, from geologic formations to California sunshine/light. My time in the Bay Area has had the most profound influence on me as an artist, through grad school, a large community of artists, a strong, but navigable art scene, location in both an urban setting and access to an amazing array of nature, and even financial challenges that push creative solutions.
What is one artist living or dead you feel a great connection to? Someone whose work has inspired your own practice and what you’re creating these days?
It’s hard to pick just one, but a recent Peter Alexander exhibition at Parrasch Heijnen was incredibly inspirational and satisfying to see in person. I love his exploration and celebration of material, simplicity of form, use of color, harnessing of light, and visceral impact. His work is bold yet minimal, timeless, but contemporary - not easy things to achieve and good goals to have. I have been exploring visual perception through light and space in cast resin and other materials, and seeing his work in person made me excited to continue with a greater consideration to minimalism.
Best gift you’ve ever received?
The love and support of my husband. Education and experience up there as well.
What is your favorite quote?
I can’t say I have a favorite quote, but here’s one I came across recently and enjoyed: “Art is about taking the risk of engaging in something somewhat ridiculous and irrational simply because you need to get a closer look at it, you simply need to break it open to see what’s inside.” - Teresita Fernandez
What country do you wish to visit?
So, so many on the list. I don’t think it’s going to happen this year, but we’ve been talking about a trip to Chile over winter. Hiking through the Torres del Paine is something I’ve wanted to do for years, and I’ve never been to South America. I would be happy to go elsewhere is South America, and pretty much anywhere with glaciers, volcanoes, basalt columns, or other fascinating geology. I have long wanted to go to Japan, Madagascar, and Italy and would return to Iceland, New Zealand, or Mexico, among other places I’ve travelled, in a heartbeat.
Tell us about where your community now, is there a strong community of artists there?
I have communities in different places from moving around a bit and others dispersing themselves. My main art community is in the Bay Area, many people I know from grad school or other art-related things. The community is strong, supportive, diverse, and intimate without being insular.
What makes you nervous?
Speaking in front of an audience.
What makes you laugh no matter what?
What's one accomplishment you're most proud of?
My work going in the special collections of SFMOMA.
What's the bravest thing you've ever done?
Maybe moving to Spain on my own at 23. I don’t think i’m the bravest person.
What’s the first thing you do when you begin formulating an idea for a piece?
If an idea comes before material, I search for the right materials to achieve what I’m envisioning. If the idea comes from specific materials, I start experimenting and making test pieces, which evolves the idea through the process. I make sketches, small paintings, or computer mock-ups on occasion.
What work took you the longest to complete?
I tend to not track my hours as I don’t really want to see them totaled. Most recently, considering solo and two-person shows as a single body of work, I spent a while on the work included at State (San Francisco) and Napa Valley Museum this summer, as well as last summer at En Em Art Space (Sacramento). Crystallizing a 40-volume encyclopedia installation cascading from shelves, as well as a large collection of books for Bergdorf Goodman in 2014, are two more extensive crystallization projects that come to mind, along with a large, storefront installation of 40+ crystallized bike wheels and painted u-locks.
Tell us about some of your favorite artists.
The list of artists I like that I keep on my phone is quite long. Some inclusions are Lynda Bengalis, David Ireland, Larry Bell, Thaddeus Wolfe, Ron Nagle, Samantha Bittman, Paul Wackers, Alyson Shotz, Casey Gray, Tara Donovan, Pierre Huyghe, Andy Vogt, Randy Colosky, Diana Al-Hadid, Ivan Seal, Hilda Hellstrom, etc. Of the artists on Tappan, I love the paintings of my dear friend, Anna Valdez, and have been enjoying Kelsey Shultis’s work, among others.
What’s one habit you wish you could break?
I would love to be less of a picky eater and curb my excessive sweet tooth.
Who was your favorite teacher in school?
Another question where I feel it’s difficult to choose just one as I feel fortunate to have had a lot of wonderful teachers throughout my education. My art teachers have been the most influential, including my high school mentor, the art faculty at my undergrad, Kenyon College, and several professors from grad school at San Francisco Art Institute.
What's one thing you still have from your childhood?
My collection of Garbage Pail Kids
What's one thing you've always wanted to try but you've been too scared to do?
Sky diving - I wasn’t always too scared to do it, but may be now.
What else are you working on right now?
I have lots of pieces underway at the moment, including new works and variations in some of my series-based sculptures. Materials I am currently exploring include concrete, resin, iridescent and holographic films, screen, hydrocal plaster, pigment, spray paint, optical glass, and more. Much of the work underway addresses visual perception, light, and space through works that alter optically. While I’ve been dealing with perception in my work for a little while, I’ve recently started having scintillating scotoma visual migraines, which has furthered my interest in perception on a neurological level.
A fun, slightly different project I am currently working on is a collaborative work with my elementary school students for an exhibition in November.
When do you make your best work?
Late morning to early evening hours with reasonable deadlines and just the right amount of coffee.
Regarding your method of making, is it a case of the material or method dictating the idea of the other way around?
Both depending on the project, material, and method.
Is art making therapeutic for you?
Yes, and a physical workout too, though I wouldn’t mind if concrete and large quantities of water weren’t so heavy. There is plenty of stress, often self-imposed, in my art making, but this can motivate me and I wouldn’t do it if the stress outweighed the mental reward in the long run.
What motivates you?
A desire to see my ideas come to existence, innate impulses, a need to create, get dirty, have my hands on materials, experiment, seeing others interact with my work, deadlines, travel, other artists, etc.
What’s your studio philosophy?
Experiment a lot and don’t be afraid to make things that feel like mistakes. Challenge myself. Keep things varied. Make a mess often and clean occasionally.
How many hours do you try and work in the studio per week?
As many as possible. I teach part time and spend more time working on the computer than I would like, but try to maintain a full-time studio practice. I tend to work in the studio from late morning (10 or 11 to early evening (around 7), but I have a home studio in my garage, so it is easy to go in at all hours and varied intervals depending on projects.
Silence or sound while creating? If sound, what?
A mix, lots of npr, some podcasts, music - last three albums played in the studio were Alabama Shakes - Sound and Color, Etta James - At Last, Kendrick Lamar - good kid, m.A.A.d city
Any advice to aspiring artists?
Be prepared to put a lot of work into being an artist, which doesn’t just mean making art. Build a community. You don’t have to always know why you are making what you’re making. Don’t get dissuaded too easily but also maintain healthy expectations. It’s better to be surprised than disappointed.
Studio time! After back to back two-person shows this summer, I am happy to have time to be in the studio developing a bunch of new projects and completing works in limbo. I am beginning a public commission for a clinic in Antioch, CA, and also have work in a few upcoming group shows in the Bay Area.
Explore Alexis' work on her artist page.