//Fernanda Durmer stands inside her studio on the top floor of her home on Sept. 23. Photos by Esteban Fernandez | firstname.lastname@example.org
Fernanda Durmer was only three years old when her father left their family home in San Isidro de El General, Costa Rica, for the United States as the first link in a chain of family migration. Two years later the rest of the family followed, leaving everything they knew behind and moving to Georgia to start a new life.
Durmer’s first five years in San Isidro, a lush city nestled beneath the Talamanca Mountains, were spent surrounded by a large extended family: aunts and uncles provided food and care, cousins were reliant playmates. In Georgia, the culture shock and social exclusion left her feeling confused and isolated.
“My parents’ values were those of our family’s in Costa Rica—strict and conservative,” Durmer said. “They didn’t understand the freedom that these kids in our new culture had, and most of my life I have felt like an outsider—not fully Costa Rican and not fully American.”
Her one saving grace was her kindergarten teacher, who noticed her knack for art. With parents who didn’t speak perfect English or allow her to participate in activities with other girls her age, Durmer never quite fit into one box.
Nicknamed Georgia O’Keeffe by her teacher, the positive reinforcement brought to life something inside Durmer that had been sitting idle. From kindergarten through high school she experimented with many art forms, including architecture sketches of buildings, portraits of family members and papier-mâché. Some of her work was even displayed in a gallery after a middle school art teacher entered her in a competition that she won. Despite a challenging childhood living in the American South and roadblocks like struggling to get a driver’s license due to her immigration status, art provided her with both solace and motivation.
“[My teacher] saw something in me and encouraged me to blossom in a way that no one else had,” Durmer said. “I continued to create through life and use [art] as an escape from the reality of my home life.”
It wasn’t until 2018 when she married her husband that Durmer felt a creative shift. With the acceptance and support she felt in her relationship, her art became something she created out of love and not survival. She began drawing and painting, putting ink and gold leaf to canvas in a stark Art Deco style, branching out and expressing parts of herself that she hadn’t been able to put into words.
When she and her husband moved their family to Denver from Georgia in 2019, they finally felt like they had found their home. She further honed her skills and style, which gave birth to her Universal Deco brand. Denver’s art scene allowed her work to flourish, exhibited around the city since the brand’s inception.
“Denver has been so accepting of me with all of my differences,” Durmer said. “There is no box to fit into because here we feel like we create our container, and our differences are more celebrated.”
Some friends thought the fine details of Durmer’s artwork would translate beautifully into a necklace pendant. Inspired by the support of her friends, Durmer took a jewelry-making class in January of this year. Having experience using gold leaf in her artwork, and despite some initial hesitation, she fell in love with gold-crafted jewelry.
Today, Universal Deco is a full-blown gold jewelry business based in Denver. Durmer offers custom options, and no two pieces are exactly alike.
Durmer says she “fell madly and deeply in love” with gold crafting and that working with the precious metal opened something up in her that she didn’t know she had. After receiving the wax carving back for her very first ring design, she felt a corner of herself reawakened.
“My craft is an expression of myself, an outsider, a strong-willed woman, a survivor,” Durmer said. “I’m not afraid to stand out and be different, and I think the rawness of my work shows that. It also shows the love and magic that flows from me.”
For National Hispanic Heritage Month, which began on Sept. 15 and ends on Oct. 15, Durmer wants to bring people both feelings of hope and freedom of expression. She hopes her story will remind people that they are not alone, that there are many like her who have struggled and had things turn out better than they ever thought possible. Like little Fernanda, the 5-year-old immigrant, who would be “blown away” if she saw what her life was today. Some of her canvas pieces are currently on display at the Eco–Retreat & Immersive Art Park in Everland.
Durmer’s success reflects her years of hard work and the love and happiness she has found. She urges people to remember that they are not the struggles or the trauma that they’ve lived through, or that of their ancestors.
“We are more; we are love; we are happy; we are successful,” Durmer expressed. “Life can and does get better. We are more than the box others try to put us in. Break through that glass ceiling; break out of that golden cage.”
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