Ellen Durkan Creates Forged Fashion in Delaware

Photos by Karen Jessee

Most designers choose their fabrics and grab a sewing machine. Ellen Durkan heads for a forge and starts a fire at her North Wilmington shop.

Ellen Durkan is a blacksmith whose intricate dresses, collars, headdresses and corsets made out of hard metals and leather have been exhibited and have walked runways throughout the US and as far away as Australia. 

 A graduate of The Delaware College of Art and Design where she teaches, Ellen has a BFA from the Corcoran School of Art and Design and an MFA in sculpture from Baltimore’s Towson University, but it was several fellowships from the Delaware Division of the Arts that allowed her to begin several bodies of work and her fantastic exhibits in steel and leather.  Her exhibits are accompanied by giant, intricate drawings of women that are reminiscent of architectural sketches, lace, and medieval armor. 

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“When I applied for an assistantship in blacksmithing one summer, I started out big,” says Ellen.  “My first pieces encapsulated the human body from shoulder to floor, and while not physically balanced or sustainable, they lead to a combination of steel and leather that have become my signature look today.”  

A member of numerous guilds and with Alexander McQueen as her muse, Ellen designs and works at her Iron Maiden Forge in North Wilmington.  “The dichotomy in my work is taking a strong, structurally sound material and finding vulnerability in it. There is a deep contrast between the soft curves of the female body and the heavy, metallic twists of the clothing I create.” 


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During the summer, Ellen travels throughout the US to teach blacksmithing to others where students take very old techniques and make them their own.  Ellen says, “My students find the pieces they make for themselves to be empowering.  Breastplates, crowns, epaulettes and other adornments of their own designs give them a new body awareness they didn’t have before.  One student commented that when she put on the piece she had made she had found her voice again. ”  

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Recently, Ellen worked with a team in Baltimore hired to construct an 8 foot, three-hundred pound version of a sword from a video game.  She is the same woman who has recently forayed into being photographed in retro fashions for a pinup girl calendar which received rave reviews from her fans. “This became a different kind of body awareness, a softer look than what I had been creating.” 

People tend to have visceral reactions to Ellen’s work.  While some think her metal fashions are just cool, others are mystified. Still others find her work to be striking, exotic and scintillating… not so different from the artist herself.    

Related: This Wilmington Artist Paints in Color at The Delaware Contemporary

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