A tall lanky woman wearing a white apron stands over a wood countertop. She stands back and fastens a hairnet, running her fingers around her head twice ensuring every strand of her frizzy hair is covered. She smothers her hands with three pumps of soap and lathers and rinses them under a faucet for the full thirty seconds like the sign instructs.
She lets her hands dry in the hot kitchen air and turns her attention to the counter and spots some goat cheese stubbornly ground into the wood.
Digging a fresh cloth into the grooves, she scrubs away the cheese and any other animal remnant left from the last pizza.
Her next pie is vegan and she scours the counter for anything that could make the claim untruthful.
She slaps a mass of unformed dough in front of her, kneads it into a circle and presses it until the dough is evenly cratered with dimples.
The pie calls for a scoopful of sauce and two cups of cheese under a half-cup each of mushrooms, green peppers and tofu. She pours the sauce over the dough and massages the ladle counterclockwise until it is evenly red. She sprinkles the cheese like someone playing a tambourine, her hands filtering a controlled cascade onto the sauce below.
She reaches for a measuring cup packed with mushrooms that bulges slightly more than full. She tosses some mushrooms back onto the line. Now there are too few in the cup, so she drops in one more at a time until it is exactly full. Once satisfied, she does her best Jackson Pollock impression and paints the mushrooms on the pie.
I stand and watch her work from behind a pane of glass. I ask her name.
Alexa, she says smiling. I come to find out her name is Alexa Stabe. She is a working artist in Duluth and was born and raised here.
The armory on London Road across from Leif Erikson Park is her studio, in the old Perkins building. She shows me around the place and leads me to a collection of metalwork. She picks up a couple utensils and hands me a knife. It is solid and heavy but the dull metal is wavy with handmade imperfections.
"It's actually harder to make the smaller things," she says, pointing to a four-foot spearfishing javelin behind me. It takes a blacksmith two to three hours to make a small fork or knife that they sell for $9. "The blacksmiths know they couldn't sell it for much more," Alexa tells me.
Her and ten others use the armory studio for pottery, metalwork, painting and photography, but lately Alexa has worked mostly with clay. She makes functional pieces like bowls and cups, but her creativity flourishes when sculpting without a pottery wheel, which is called hand building.
Her current project focuses on human consciousness. It is a head with two holes behind the temples, incomplete and still wet with freshly dotted thumbmarks. She plans on putting blinders over the eyes and crafting intricate nerves to emphasize the power of the mind's eye, which she calls the 'third eye,' a term she got from The Mind and Beyond (Mysteries of the Unknown).
"I'm quite a reference book gal," she says. One of her favorites is the Encyclopedia of Symbols. "I have a lot of mysteries of science books and books about different cultures."
Her compensation is free clay and glaze.
"So yeah, it is totally enough payment for me. Tonya is very chill in the way she says, 'hey, if you feel like I'm shorting you let me know or if you need some cash, let me know."
Another artist named Tonya Borgeson owns the studio--the Snoodle Ceramics Studio at the Armory--but is currently living in Arizona.
Alexa and Tonya visited Arizona for a month last summer. They stayed at a friend's 'earthship,' a home made entirely out of recycles materials like used tires, discarded pipes, hand-blown cement, old stained glass windows and bottle caps.
They were so remote that they were instructed to stomp their feet when they walked back to the earthship to scare away predators, like black bears and coyotes.
The earthship is self-sustaining and collects rainwater from an abandoned swimming pool on the lot. Alexa visited during summer so the white sandstone pool was empty, but her and her new friends transformed the mini-reservoir into a lounge and hung out for hours into the cold desert nights under skies crowded with stars.
During the day Tonya and Alexa would head into Bisbee to give pottery lessons and show their work. Bisbee, a town of 5,000 people, with tight winding streets tucked between steep hills.
In Bisbee, Alexa and her friends took advantage of lax public gathering laws and wandered the streets listening to music echoing from around street corners.
Her boyfriend, a musician, played at several open mics during her month-long stay and gave the older Bisbee crowd exposure to electronic music.
With time devoted to her music and her mind freed in the hot arid air, Alexa hand molded the desert clay into works ranging from maracas to jembe drums.
It was here that she first gained real confidence as an artist. "A lot of people out there had 20 or 30 years on me, and they were really moved by my work."
Alexa found similarities between her desert home of Bisbee and her native Duluth.
"I don't know, man, it's like an energy," she said, also adding that the openness of the locals contributed to the energy.
Despite fond feelings towards Bisbee, she could not stand to be away from the Lake.
"The lake took something--like a breath--from me. I don't think I'll ever get it back. There is something you can't touch or see, you just feel it. I left the desert after a month of camping, and I love the desert, man, but I need my trees and the water."
Once back in Duluth, she continued working for Pizza Luce as a chef and worked in the studio when she found time. The two often complement each other, and often her students or patrons come to Luce to enjoy a handmade pie.
You can see some of her work at the armory, or stop by Luce for one of her pizzas any day of the week except Mondays and Tuesdays.
You can contact Alexa at email@example.com or the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.