May 15, 2023
An Interview With Blacksmith Artist Ellen Durkan
…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I— I took the one less traveled by, And that has made all the difference.‘The Road Not Taken’, by Robert Frost
Ellen Durkan is a Blacksmith Artist, Entrepreneur at Iron Maiden Forge, Adjunct Professor at Delaware College of Art and Design, as well as a Blacksmith Instructor. When she entered college, her initial plan was to become a Nurse - a more-or-less well traveled path with predictable outcomes. Somewhere along the way, however, she decided to embark on a far less traveled path: Artisan of Forged Metal Wearable Art.
Willing metals, like steel, to take the shape and characteristics you want them to, is often a long and exhausting process. Just watch some of the ‘Forged In Fire’ episodes to get a sense of the process and you’ll understand why. But to have these requisite blacksmithing skills and to create art with it is an entirely different level of expertise.
One thing that I loved learning from our conversation with Ellen - she had a whiff of an idea of doing something in the world of metal working that, at a minimum, had not been done much before, if at all. Forge metallic wearable art. So, she decided to go all-in making her mark on the world by developing an expertise in artistic expression through non-traditional metal working.
That is a pretty badass course of action on many levels, I think.
Her story is a reminder of how having and pursuing big dreams is important to living an authenticate life - if you have the perserverance to bend reality to your vision and desire.
Here are my top five takeaways from our discussion with Ellen Durkan:
Following Your Passion
When seeking career advice, you will often hear people say that you should just ‘follow your passion.’ Well, what if you don’t have any passions, or you don’t know what they are yet? In that case, it would seem there are plenty of well-worn paths one could set-out on to achieve similar outcomes as those who have set-out on them before. In which case, you might consider yourself fortunate.
To those with passions and the willingness to pursue them, woe on them. People with strong passions typically find themselves wandering in unchartered territories doing things other people have not done before. The path can be tough and frustrating, as Ellen relates in our podcast.
So why follow your passion then, especially if things are likely to be interminably difficult? I think in Ellen’s case, the answer is because being like everyone else would be even worse.
In charting your career course, perhaps getting a sense of your internal passion is a good litmus test for what your general direction should be. If you have no passions that you are immediately aware of, pick a well-worn path for the time being. You can always change direction later on.
The key is to make progress in a direction, any direction, and to try things.
Ultimately, there is no easy path as they all have their tradeoffs, so choose your hard path.
Blueprints - The Chicken And Egg Dichotomy
I liken the software engineering process to creating art. I think the ‘engineering’ in software engineering is a bit of a misnomer, but maybe I’m just a hacker. The creation of software, in my mind, is a creative process, which is why I loved how Ellen discussed her own creative process forging wearable art.
She explained that sometimes her forged artwork is drawn-out on paper first. But sometimes too, the blueprints, or designs for her artwork, are actually created after the artwork has already been created.
I have found the same to be true throughout my career as a software ‘artist’ hacker.
Ellen relates how her wearable art may not actually ‘work’ as wearable clothing during the initial development process. The artistic expression of the thing comes first, oftentimes, while making it actually ‘work’ as a wearable item - the engineering aspect of her creative process - is often a secondary concern (but a concern nonetheless, especially to her clothing models, as one might expect).
The artistic process is often fluid and messy as an artist tries to bring her artistic vision to life; however, it can also facilitate engineering beauty together with function, not just boring, efficient function.
We’re gonna do it, I don’t know how. We’re gonna make the thing work…we’re going to make that work! Ellen Durkan on the process of making forged wearable art.
I have found that emotion plays an important role in the creative process of product development. Ellen touches on this as well in her interview where she sometimes has ‘…sheer determination which possibly might be run by rage’ in bringing her creations to life.
Giving ‘birth’ to a product that the world has never seen before can take a great deal of energy. When properly focused on the task at hand, anger and rage can provide sufficient energy to accomplish difficult tasks, helping to keep personal apathy and complacency at bay.
The Art Of Product Design
What makes a thing beautiful? Beauty can be in the eye of the beholder, like a mother’s baby, for example (Happy Mother’s Day!). Beauty can also be universally accepted, like the natural beauty of planet earth. But clearly defining the charactertistics of beauty so they can be easily re-created in things is difficult, if not impossible.
Yet, some people have the aesthetic sense, ability and perserverance to create beautiful things from nothing, like Ellen Durkan does.
Beautiful artistic expression in product design is one important facet in the overall success of a product.
The iPhone, for example, is arguably the most popular mobile phone in the world because of how beautiful it is as a work of art, let alone a piece of communication technology.
Another example is the Lamborghini Hurácan. The Lamborghini Hurácan is not just another supercar, it is a beautiful work of art on wheels.
Perhaps an even better example is Notre Dame Cathedral. Notre Dame is not just another Catholic Church, but one of the most beautiful buildings in the world.
‘Form follows function’ in a world of boring efficiency; beauty supercedes function in the world of elightened souls.
A quick visit to France will help to illustrate this point.
Artistic people seem to have a sixth sense for true freedom; they also have seemingly mystical abilities for seeing life in a broader visible spectrum than most people.
Ellen Durkan is no exception. I appreciate her sentiments on finding your passion in life and ‘struggle bussing’ things sometimes in order to live a more authentic life, a life according to your own terms.
Steve Jobs called the power of living life according to your own terms the ‘Reality Distortion Field’. Artists in particular seem to have an innate ability to change the world according to their own vision through their artistic expression and the way they practice their craft.
The path of trying to create a better world according to your own personal vision and passion is definitely a path less traveled, perhaps a little wild, maybe a bit dangerous, and certainly more beautiful.
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