“Teaching has given me the confidence to draw what I feel is right, in my own way, and then share it with the world.” Brenna Quinlan on being thrown into the deep end of permaculture teaching and illustrating.
PA member Brenna Quinlan is an illustrator and permaculture educator, and has been living and working at Melliodora with David Holmgren and Su Dennett for the past three years. Her illustrations have been published in various permaculture texts, including David Holmgren’s RetroSuburbia and Kirsten Bradley and Nick Ritar’s Milkwood. She is a member of the Formidable Vegetable teaching team for the School Permaculture Tour program, which tours schools teaching permaculture principles and playing concerts. She is currently making illustrations for the picture book version of Retrosuburbia for kids. You can find and purchase her illustrations on her website at www.brennaquinlan.com and her instagram @brenna_quinlan (and is often featured on Permaculture Australia’s social media pages!)
We talked to Brenna about her permaculture background, the symbiosis of permaculture teaching and illustration and the role of kids in the future of permaculture.
Brenna Quinlan (Photo by Mara Ripani)
You’re both a permaculture educator and talented illustrator. Which came first? Did one lead to the other naturally?
I was always an artist in some respect – I grew up drawing, studied art at school and uni, went to Italy to study life drawing in my gap year, and exhibited my watercolour portraits and still life work in galleries around Wollongong where I used to live. It wasn’t until I went overseas in 2010 (aged 24) without a return ticket that I started to learn about permaculture. I was away for six years, and in that time I cycled across the Americas, wwoofed at permaculture projects, did my PDC in Chile, and ended up as part of a permaculture teaching collective in an Argentinian ecovillage. Teaching permaculture in Spanish and Portuguese wasn’t something I’d anticipated when I started out on that trip, but I was drawn to the creative and fun learner-centered education that permaculture courses have at their centre. I’d also asked my PDC teacher Grifen Hope what was the best way to make positive change in the world. He said that out of the thousands of PDC graduates that he had taught, 90% of them had gone on to do amazing things and inspire others in turn. I decided that day that I wanted to teach.
I only began illustrating once David Holmgren brought me on board as the illustrator for Retrosuburbia. To be honest, at the time I wasn’t even sure what the title ‘illustrator’ really meant. But I found that my training in fine art and my passion for representing complex issues in a digestible way was a really exciting overlap, and it’s kept me busy ever since.
Have you found that your experience as a permaculture educator, working with renowned permies, has added a little something to your illustrations?
I feel like I really jumped (was thrown??) in the deep end with illustration, teaching, and permaculture in general. Sometimes I feel like the chicken that grows up with a bunch of puppies and thinks it’s a dog, because I live, work and play with people who have a lot more life- and permaculture- experience than I do. At Melliodora, there are always so many amazing people coming round to chat and wander the property with Dave, or to join Su for a meaningful discussion over lunch. Teaching residential courses is also an amazing experience because of how well you get to know your co-teachers. I spent a week as a bunk buddy with Rowe Morrow, and the students said that every time they walked past our tiny house, all they could hear was giggling. She referred to my top bunk as ‘the penthouse’.
It’s been so great to be able to step into PDCs and other courses and teach alongside people who I look up to, and feel respected and encouraged in that space. So I guess in that way, teaching has given me the confidence to draw what I feel is right, in my own way, and then share it with the world.
Does a picture really tell a thousand words when it comes to permaculture and sustainable living illustrations? Is this the way to get the word out?
The internet and social media have drastically changed the ways that people consume, consider and access information. There is so much out there vying for our attention that the clearest way to get an idea across is the one that will prevail. Images have this power. An image can be shared millions of times almost instantaneously. On top of this lies the fact that images are less prescriptive than text – they allow people to interpret their content in a way that makes sense to them.
A lot of the work that I do is for people and organisations that want to make complex issues more digestible – local councils that want to explain what their Climate Emergency Declaration entails, or the Red Cross wanting to show what a climate resilient community looks like. Most people are visual learners, so images resonate on a level that words simply can’t. Images can also suggest positive behaviour change without sounding preachy or judgemental – the power of an image to actually inspire change is really unique.
I notice you’re an educator with the Formidable Vegetable teaching team for the School Permaculture Tour program in Victoria. Could you tell me a bit about the aims of this program? What do you want the kids to get out of this?
In the school tour, Fo Veg, the team from Resource Smart Schools Victoria and I went to 9 or so different schools over two weeks, with a suite of different permaculture-themed classes on offer. We’d teach a set of classes in the morning, and then in the afternoon Formidable Veg put on a big concert for the whole school (which was, as you can imagine, ridiculously popular). We’re interested in school tours because we can see that young people are growing up with an unprecedented awareness of the climate emergency, and that without an equivalent discussion around climate solutions, they end up feeling despondent and disempowered. We met a lot of young people who felt helpless in the face of the task at hand, and parents and teachers don’t necessarily have the answers. Permaculture offers hope and concrete solutions that, being ethics based, can be offered to children as easily as to adults, no matter where they live or what they fill their days with.
We’ll be off on another school tour after the APC this year, this time in the N.T. and W.A. We’re also putting together some resources for teachers, starting with a permaculture card deck and poster that is currently being trialled by a select group of school teachers and parents who home school.
Could you describe what Melliodora is like at the moment? What should we look out for there in 2020?
Currently, I’m looking out my window at the sun set behind the hazelnut orchard, and the dam is full because we’ve just had a February thunderstorm. Melliodora is a wonderland on so many levels, and I feel so grateful to have been able to share in its magic for the past three years. After the Retrosuburbia Roadshow tour, that had David and Su away for four months last year, they’re really focused on being home, preserving food, attending to maintenance jobs, and really just giving Melliodora the attention that it needs this year. I’ll be drawing like mad and milking goats in my spare time.
Anything else you’d like our readers to know about?
We’ve got the Teacher Training with Rowe Morrow, myself and Michael Wardle coming up in the week before the APC. Rowe’s actually retired, so if you’ve ever wanted to see her rock out at what she does best, this may be the last chance. Rowe and I are also looking for a bunk bed to share for the duration of the course.
I’m also half way through illustrating the Aussie St kids book, which is a picture book version of Retrosuburbia written by Beck Lowe with contributions from David Holmgren. It’s been an epic project, but we’re starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Watch this space.
I have stickers, permaculture-themed greeting cards and other goodies for sale through my website www.brennaquinlan.com, all ethically and locally printed, and distributed by the fine folks at Permaculture Principles.