Durand Van Doren II made a name for himself in the Ithaca area by putting his own twist on the old craft of blacksmithing. With a big open house and sale on the first weekend in July to mark the occasion, Doren, 65, recently announced he is retiring from his profession and from ownership of Durand’s Forge, which he’s passing on to a successor.
A resident at Carmen Road Artist Quarters in Mecklenburg for the last 15 years, Van Doren moved to the Ithaca area 40 years ago when sheepdog trails brought him and his wife to the Cornell Campus (his neighbor was in the market for a sheepdog, so they tagged along). They wanted a rural home where they could keep their goats, so they moved from Cooperstown.
After a 10-week course at a blacksmithing school in 1972, Van Doren decided he would try to make a living as an artist blacksmith, and after several decades of hard work he is able to look back at a long list of accomplishments.
In conjunction with other metalworkers, Van Doren lent his artistic style to a bee that he forged for a gate to the Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The gate features ironwork from around the world, and each piece represents an animal mentioned in Shakespeare’s plays.
Years later he got to see the gate in person. “With all the animals there were very many different things going on,” Van Doren said. “I finally saw it two years ago. I went with my brother-in-law. It was neat.”
“Shakespeare,” he added, “was very verbose about bees.”
In addition to being displayed proudly oversees, Van Doren’s work is prominently featured on many local landmarks. About 10 years ago he made the 14-foot-long gate in front of Cascadilla Gorge; one time when visiting the Gorge he ran into a man who was part of the maintenance team that oversees the gorge and Van Doren’s gate.
“They take good care of it,” Van Doren said. “He said there were a couple people—citizen volunteers.”
Van Doren also crafted the lanterns in front of Willard Straight Hall on the Cornell Campus and the arched entrance to the Inn at Taughannock.
His work also graces three entrances to the garden at Cornell’s Mann Library. At the one dubbed the “Apple Gate,” Van Doren depicts seven apples from throughout history: Eve’s apple, Newton’s apple, William Tell’s apple, Johnny Appleseed, Sleeping Beauty and the Big Apple, as well as one for teachers with a worm coming out of it. They all have something special about them; Eve’s apple, for example, has a snake on it. He said he always tried to do his best work for the university.
“I am very grateful to Cornell for giving me work,” Van Doren said.
The Apple Gate is indicative of his trademark style. “It’s kind of whimsical,” he said. “It’s plain iron, and I try to make it more fun somehow.”
Van Doren has also enjoyed teaching and taught about 30 students from the Ithaca Youth Bureau as well and other apprentices.
“Anyone who was interested, I had them come over and talk,” he said.
He is modest about his talents and encourages others to try their hand at his craft.
“I was not that smart and interested in working with my hands,” he said of his early days as an ironworker. “Blacksmith art, I thought I might be able to make a success of it. Not that many people were doing it at the time. There were, but there’s not that much competition. If you have a specialized thing you do, one job sells another.”
He said he needs “a change of scene” after so many years on the job. He plans on having Christopher Langenburg, younger ironworker from New York City, take over; it hasn’t been decided what the name of the forge might be changed to. “I have young people who are interested,” he said, “and to get them involved, why not?”
A testament to the locals’ love of his work, almost every piece was purchased at his sale earlier this month.