San Francisco artist Alexis Arnold loves to explore unpredictable three-dimensional sculptures. With previous works centered around everything from training bra nets to faux-lawn upholstered decorations, her more recent Past Of Our Future and The Crystallized Book Series sees Arnold mixing scientific experimentation with everyday objects. Combining Borax crystals with things near and dear to human hearts, like vintage furniture and weathered books, Arnold grows wonderfully organic forms out of objects both malleable and solid, invoking nostalgia all along the way.

As Arnold says herself in the following interview, “Time (and its physical/visual presence) is an ever-present concept in my work, as well as a large factor in crystal growth” — and it is this idea that adds even more importance to the past in her sculptures, as it contrasts with the present.

“Certain things they should stay the way they are. You ought to be able to stick them in one of those big glass cases and just leave them alone. I know that’s impossible, but it’s too bad anyway.” J.D. SalingerCatcher In The Rye


The Crystallized Book Series was prompted by continuously finding boxes of discarded books/magazines, the onset of e-books, and by the recent disappearance of bookstores.” — Alexis Arnold


Science Sidebar

About the Crystal-Growing Process

“I grow the crystals by creating a super-saturated solution of Borax in boiling water. When water boils, its molecules expand. I place the book in the saturated solution when hot and manipulate the book to my liking. As the saturated water cools again, the molecules shrink and any excess Borax crystallizes. Once the solution has completely cooled and the crystals have grown on the submerged objects, I drain the solution and dry the object without disturbing its shape. The objects will hold their new, transformed shape when completely dry.”

About Borax

Borax, also known as sodium borate, sodium tetraborate, or disodium tetraborate, is an important boron compound, a mineral, and a salt of boric acid. It is usually a white powder consisting of soft colorless crystals that dissolve easily in water.

Borax has a wide variety of uses. It is a component of many detergents, cosmetics, and enamel glazes. It is also used to make buffer solutions in biochemistry, as a fire retardant, as an anti-fungal compound for fiberglass, as a flux in metallurgy, neutron-capture shields for radioactive sources, a texturing agent in cooking, and as a precursor for other boron compounds.

The term borax is used for a number of closely related minerals or chemical compounds that differ in their crystal water content, but usually refers to the decahydrate. Commercially sold borax is usually partially dehydrated.
The word borax:بورق is Arabic – the Arabic is said to be from the Persian burah, a word that may have meant potassium nitrate or another fluxing agent. Another name for borax is tincal, from Sanskrit.

Borax was first discovered in dry lake beds in Tibet and was imported via the Silk Road to Arabia. Borax first came into common use in the late 19th century when Francis Marion Smith’s Pacific Coast Borax Company began to market and popularize a large variety of applications under the famous 20 Mule Team Borax trademark, named for the method by which borax was originally hauled out of the California and Nevada deserts in large enough quantities to make it cheap and commonly available.


Alexis Arnold Interview

What first inspired you to work with Borax crystals?

While I have had a fascination with crystals and minerals since I was little, their inclusion in my work happened somewhat by chance. About three years ago, I was force-rusting a metal sculpture using vinegar, salt, and soda ash when I noticed crystals growing on the concrete floor of my studio. Since I was working with concrete at the time, I decided to try and replicate the crystal growth with intention on the concrete and other objects. In addition to my aesthetic fascination with them, the crystals related conceptually to the project I was creating at that moment.

The conceptual and aesthetic functions of the crystals have morphed with each project since. Time (and its physical/visual presence) is an ever-present concept in my work, as well as a large factor in crystal growth. Crystals found in nature generally form over thousands of years. In my studio, I get to play with nature and adjust its time frame.

I mainly use Borax and Epsom salt crystals. This is because of their relatively cheap availability and non-toxicity.
The Crystallized Book Series was prompted by continuously finding boxes of discarded books/magazines, the onset of e-books, and by the recent disappearance of bookstores. Furthermore, I had been growing crystals on hard objects and was interested in seeing the effect of the crystal growth on malleable objects.


Was there a method or goal behind your choice of literature or the ways in they were presented that goes beyond the aesthetics? If so, what is it?

I try to incorporate mostly found books over buying specific titles, but select amongst them for the most conceptually and/or aesthetically appropriate. If I desire a specific title, I will buy it used. For example, the Bible and The Crystal World were purchased for particular conceptual reasons. I take titles from my own library collection as well. I choose certain books, such as The Catcher in the Rye, for the nostalgia people have for them. I have used a number of children’s books for this reason as well. One of my favorite found books for its conceptual tie to the project is a copy of 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea published through the Classics to Grow On series. Dictionaries, encycolpedias, and phonebooks are some of the more commonly discarded books these days, hence they find their way into my work.

The series addresses the materiality of the book vs the text/content of the book. The crystals remove the text and transform the books into aesthetic, non-functional objects. The books, now frozen with heavy crystal growth, have become artifacts or geologic specimens laden with the history of time, use, and nostalgia. The stories included in books often exist in our memories while the book remains a spine on a shelf. I love how just seeing a book can conjure the story contained within. With the addition of the crystal growth, the story within the book remains in memory, but new stories can be created by viewers as well. The series also illustrates one of the things I love about books or magazines, which is the lingering presence of the reader through the bent and folded pages longer after the book has been read.

FYODOR DOSTOYEVSKY‘S CRIME AND PUNISHMENT (Фёдор Миха́йлович Достое́вский – Преступлéние и наказáние)


Was there anything you learned about the structures of the materials you used that seemed particularly noteworthy or fascinating?

I enjoy how malleable books become when submerged in hot water, even hard covers. This allows me to transform the books into new shapes that reference geologic specimens or artifacts.

I find the structure of crystals fascinating. Each type of crystal shares the same molecular formula that repeats in a three-dimensional pattern, yet they present themselves in a myriad of shapes and sizes depending upon impurities, rates of formation, and environment.


Are there by chance any quotes or passages during your creation of these borax-crystallized books that seemed appropriate to the project itself?

While no particular passages or quote come to mind, I came across the book, The Crystal World, by J.G. Ballard while creating this series. The book is about a mysterious disease that crystallizes everything in its path from plant to animal to man, and certainly holds some inspiration for me.


Is there anything else you’d like to add?

This may sound odd, but I wanted to let you know I am a woman. I recently had an article written for a Brazilian newspaper (O Globo) where I was referred to as a man, so I have learned it’s best to clarify this.


For the remainder of 2012, Alexis Arnold has work showing in various San Francisco galleries. See it at Alter Space through August 19th and Gallery Hijinks through July 28th. She will be showing collages and Salon Dehon for the month of August, as well as large crystallized book sculptures at Root Division Biblio Babel show in November.


The Past of Our Futures was an installation at Fort Mason as part of the San Francisco Art Institute’s 2010 MFA exhibition, Vernissage. The installation takes imagery from the domestic sphere, such as a set dinner table, to explore the human and natural process convergences and divergences through a narrative impetus tied to family, evolution, time, absence, and memory. In addition to referencing past memories, the work invokes a sense of a future post-human fall to environmental entropy.”


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