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Sunday, April 14
The Indiana Daily Student

arts

Power of the pen

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The nearly complete seam ripper is suspended on the lathe, waiting for its final seven layers of liquid grit. It took hours for Alexis Pruitt, a Bloomington native, to chisel down the original block to its necessary shape. Her previous 15 sandpaper layers acted as preparation for the last stage, each pushing the object to reach its highest, smoothest potential.  

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Alexis Pruitt stands at her lathe to add final layers of liquid grit September 6, 2023, in her workshop. Twenty-one layers of sandpapering took place before this next step. Carolyn Marshall

She conducts this same process with many different tools, such as lamp pull chains and old-fashioned razor blade handles. However, her pens have especially left an impact on her community.  

Alexis stands in her workshop, the same garage she grew up in, connected to her childhood home. A framed picture of her parents hangs on the back wall and

wood paneling covers a mural her mom painted, which has a preserved piece of it framed and hung on the wall.  

“To me, art is the paintings on the walls,” she said. “I used to paint but it wasn’t like the other art.”  

When asked if she considered her craft an art, she admitted, “I’m getting to where I can see it as that.” 

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Working with tools has been a part of Alexis’s life since her dad, who was an engineer for the Radio Corporation of America, would take her out to that very garage to teach her how to change the oil of their car. He also showed her how to fine-tune a color TV at the dinner table. Other times he would simply say, “Here’s a hammer, do what you want.”   

Later, as an adult, she would use these kinds of skills to make a wooden table on her own and explore the world of woodworking.

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Alexis Pruitt shows a photo of her parents September 6, 2023, in her workshop. Her dad played a major role in helping her learn how to work with tools. Carolyn Marshall

Crafting and learning more about what she could do with these tools became something that helped slow down the pace of life for Alexis. However, life continued its pace and for a time, she worked a variety of jobs.  

Her dad enlisted in the Army Air Corps, which would come to be known as the Air Force, and her two brothers served in the Navy. She followed in their footsteps and enlisted in the Air Force during her college years.  

She became a meteorologist, then worked 19 years at Indiana University in library data analytics, before retiring. As she explored these different careers, she had little time to pursue her artistic endeavors.  

Once she retired, her wife, Ellyn, encouraged her to find a hobby to fill her newfound freetime. Eventually, she began to hone the woodworking skills she’d had a love for since her early days in her family's garage. 

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“I lasted about 30 days after retirement,” she said, laughing softly. She explained how amazed she was at the wide-range of artwork that could be made while taking a week-long course at Marc Adams School of Woodworking in Franklin, Indiana. There, she rediscovered her ability to find peace in her ever-changing life.   

Alexis said the workshop is where she claims her sanity, particularly now that the fantasy football season has kicked off, and she reluctantly agreed to act as co-manager on a team with Ellyn.   

She discovered the world of transforming hard blocks to smooth shapes doesn’t stop at wood. Blocks of resin, compressed wood, stone and types of hard plastics now fill drawers in her workshop as she continues teaching herself how to best create a variety of tools.   

She has gone on to create items like toothbrush handles with three heads, letter openers, wine stoppers and cigar holders. She has also made miniature wooden crosses for the United Methodist Church her and her wife attend.  

In creating these pieces, Alexis says the shapes present themselves.  

“I stand there and ask, what are you going to be?” she said while showing a block of Acrylester from one of her workshop’s drawers.   

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Alexis Pruitt shows a similar resin block that the seam ripper was sculpted from on Sept. 6, 2023, in her workshop. She said that the shapes emerge as she chisels and then sands for hours. Carolyn Marshall

The shape presents itself through what Ellyn calls “sculpting by reduction,” or shaving down the object's original exterior shape to reveal the shape that lies within.  

“She loves working with these resin blocks and seeing the story in the middle,” Ellyn said, as though each block and design has a specific purpose in Alexis’ workshop.  

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Many people within the Bloomington community have custom pens made by Alexis to reflect their personalities. Ellyn said Alexis made her two pens and, since she tends to mix up the caps, Alexis made them with similar color design schemes so that they still look nice, even if they’re mixed up.  

Various people in the Bloomington community have been impacted by Alexis’s craftmaking, specifically with these pens.  

Gladys DeVane, IU professor emeritus, storyteller, scriptwriter and playwright, said  “Her craftmaking is like taking what you know about a person and having it reflected in the pen that’s made.”  

DeVane met Ellyn after she wrote her first play, “One More River to Cross,” in which Ellyn had a role. Over time, DeVane met Alexis and said she came to admire her kind spirit and willingness to take a stand whenever the time presented itself.  

A friend of DeVane’s commissioned Alexis to make a ballpoint and a fountain pen for DeVane, which she uses at book signings, to write letters or to copy down already finished compositions. The material is a fossil resin with moods of dark orange and light brown. DeVane expressed a deep appreciation for fountain pens, sharing her admiration for how smooth they write and how the ink falls gently onto the page. Alexis also made a nautically inspired pen for DeVane’s brother because of his love for boating.  

“The pens know their owners,” Alexis said, sharing that fountain pens carry an imprint of their owner because the nub, or point at the end of the pen, wears down differently for each person since everyone holds their pen at a different angle. 

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She agreed it’s like how wizards find their own wands in the well-known series “Harry Potter.” Alexis makes of her own wands as a nod to “Harry Potter” as well, with different designs ranging in colors and patterns similiar to her pens. This Christmas, she plans to gift them to her and Ellyn’s godchildren.  

“Things about this business are so personal,” Alexis said while she coats her seam ripper with another layer of liquid grit.  

Her workshop contains hospital-grade ventilation since the dust particles from the materials she sheds can be damaging to lungs. She also wears a vapor mask, bifocal goggles and a thick apron to protect her from the possiblility of a material shattering as she works with it.  

In the front corner of the workshop sits a carved wooden owl with small yellow eyes. Its name is Artemis Aliver and it accompanies Alexis whenever she attends arts festivals. Artemis was carved by a close friend of hers, and connects to her company's logo of the owl. On her right forearm is also an owl tattoo, the animal is symbolic of a close friend of her and Ellyn’s who passed away a couple years ago.  

“You have to have fun in life,” Alexis said. “I’ve had too much pain in my life.”  

As she continues her craft, customers of varying ages and life stories continue to connect with the pens she designs.  

Alexis said she travels to the Retreat Hickory Hills campground Flea Market in Quincy, Indiana once a year to sell her creations. One boy she met fell in love with a dragon pen which had shades of dark blue and green. After pleading with his parents and getting a talk from Alexis about the importance of this kind of pen, the boy took it home with him. When COVID-19 first hit, the boy fell ill with the fast-spreading disease, and was admitted into hospital care. There, he clutched onto his dragon pen as he struggled to regain his health.  

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Another friend of hers, who is a cancer survivor, is a part of the “Pink Dragon Ladies” dragon boat racing team. Alexis plans to donate a pink pen with gold trim to the Pink Ladies’ team. 

She also made a pen for a friend’s dad who enjoys archery. The pen consists of a bow as the clip, with the ends of arrows as the clicker, and an arrow point as the tip of the pen. 

One customer ordered a pen for their friend who has a love for white tigers and elephants, which Alexis represented with her skilled craftsmanship. 

Many of her commissions are gifts and customers include hobbies and specific personality traits about the recipient of the pen in their orders. These descriptions end up being chanelled into the pens that emerge from Alexis’s blocks.  

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A mickey mouse pen is pictured amongst other pens on September 9, 2023, at "A Fair of the Arts." The mickey mouse pen was one of Alexis Pruitt’s favorites. Carolyn Marshall

“You never know who you’re going to touch with these,” she said. 

Each time Alexis thinks she’s made her favorite pen, one she may finally keep, she sells it, Ellyn said. Then, a different one is made that becomes Alexis’ new favorite, continuing the cycle. 

“These end up becoming her babies,” Ellyn said.  

Back in the workshop, Alexis pressed the finishing touches into the seam ripper. 

“That turned out real nicely,” she observed aloud, checking over the finished product.  

After inspection of the ripper, she gently put Artemis back in its plastic wrap.  

“There ya go buddy, until the next show.” 

Last Saturday, Alexis, Ellyn and their owl Artemis set up at A Fair of the Arts in Bloomington. People asked questions about her work to which Alexis shared her craft. One even bought a favorite pen of Alexis’s, an original Mickey Mouse emblem from Disney World embedded in a shimmering, light blue casing.   

“You have to pay life forward,” she said, the cycle of creating a new favorite pen beginning again.    

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