Whatever you do, don’t ask Ellen Durkan if she makes swords.
“Next person that asks me if I make swords is gonna get a sword in their throat,” she says with a laugh.
You may have seen some of Durkan’s wearable metal art at this year’s Ladybug Festival, where she had a runway show at The Queen. For her next fashion showcase, she will be collaborating with artist Shannah Warwick, who creates wearable art made from nuno-felted wool. Their show, “Forged of Nature” will be the Delaware Contemporary’s annual fundraising event on Sept. 29 from 7–10 p.m.
The DCAD and Corcoran graduate, now a DCAD teacher for nearly a decade, got into blacksmithing as a graduate student at Towson University. “I had started working in metal with no training,” Durkan said. “One day someone was like, ‘Hey, there are blacksmiths out there,’ and I’m like, ‘What’s a blacksmith?’ ‘They’re those people who are doing the things that you’re trying to do!'”
Soon after, she did a two-month blacksmith assistantship at Peters Valley School of Craft in New Jersey. She was hooked.
“My whole thesis became these big wearable dress cages,” said Durkan. “I had met Shannah while I was doing my assistantship at Peters Valley. She was modeling for a photo class, so I called her and was like, ‘Hey, do you wanna wear this big crazy thing?’ She was wearing two-foot cast-iron shoes, it got really hot, and Shannah passed out. So I almost killed her, but now we’re friends.”
Warwick, who grew up in Factoryville, Pa., discovered a love for fiber arts at the University of the Arts and Moore College of the Arts in Philadelphia.
“When we met, we kind of looked at each other and knew we were on the same page,” Warwick said of Durkan. “We’ve visited fashion exhibits in NYC and always dreamed about when we would do a show together. Our mutual language is very visual and we knew that our work would style well together. When we did our promo shoot for the show it was like ‘Finally!’ We’ve been dreaming about this for years.”
The collaboration is just one of the things that makes “Forged of Nature” different from Durkan’s other runway shows. “Before, I’ve used standard runway models,” she said. “I was waiting for the right opportunity [to use nonstandard models], where I was the organizer. For this show my youngest model is 13 and my oldest model is 71. Most of the models are not models, they’re just women I ask to do it.”
The inspiration for her “all ages” runway show goes back to Peters Valley, when Durkan modeled one of her pieces for a photo class. One of the students, nearing her 80th birthday, asked if she could wear the piece for some photos as a surprise for her husband.
“I was like hell yeah!” said Durkan.
In the years since her thesis at Towson, Durkan’s pieces, created out of a garage studio under the name Iron Maiden Forge, are constantly evolving. “I liked the idea of the pieces being wearable,” she said, “then I wanted them to be more wearable.”
Warwick has been working with an unusual technique called nuno felting for 10 years. “I think what I like about showing our work together are the opposing hard and soft elements,” she said. “We both work in non-traditional ways for the fashion world.”
The Sept. 29 event will also feature aerialists Ascend Flow Arts, the original music of local artist Chris Gordon and DJ Skinny White.
Tickets for the event, which will benefit the Delaware Contemporary, range from $55 to $100.