Words & Photos By Mararipan
A much-loved permaculture illustrator and educator, Brenna Quinlan’s drawings guide communities away from consumerism and towards living a life brimming with meaning, beauty and community connectedness.
Brenna lives at the idyllic Melliodora property established by the co-originator of permaculture David Holmgren and his partner Su Dennett, where she practises, educates and illustrates permaculture. Her articulate watercolour paintings have been used in numerous books including Holmgren’s newest Retrosuburbia, as well as Milkwood: Real Skills for Down-to-Earth living and Farming Democracy: Radically Transforming the Food System from the Ground Up, and in just three short years has cultivated an Instagram following of more than 25,000.
Values As Beacons
Every illustration Brenna creates is completely different. What unites her work is her hand-drawn style and the ethics which guide her. She loves the freedom she has to support conservation and ecological education by offering not-for-profits accessible pricing for her artwork, while sticking to regular pricing for those who can afford it.
‘I love that my drawings can make a positive difference in some way,’ she says. ‘If a big company came along whose practices were destructive, even if they offered me a million dollars, I’d say no and explain the reasons why.’
Brenna has found it is an approach which has encouraged her clients to think more broadly about their contribution to ecological sustainability. And it’s an outcome she believes she and other artists have a responsibility to uphold.
‘We are in a climate emergency and as artists we are in an excellent position to use our skills to bring about change,’ she says.
A Thousand Words
Brenna’s foray into permaculture started in her teens when she was researching which environmental and social justice cause to support. She came across the permaculture principles and discovered they tied many of her passions into one single and meaningful package.
She travelled to Chile, where she enrolled in a Permaculture Design Certificate at El Manzano Ecoescuela, and it was here her teacher Grifen Hope showed her education can change the world. And now, as a well-established artist, Brenna believes art is an extraordinary tool to encourage positive social change.
‘The power that artists have today is unprecedented,’ she says. ‘The internet and social media have given normal people a bigger reach, a bigger voice and influence than ever before. An image is powerful and can be shared, talked about and distributed infinitely.’
|Classically trained, these days Brenna uses her art as activism||With partner Charlie McGee in the garden at Melliodora|
It was only after Holmgren asked her to illustrate Retrosuburbia did she consider illustration as a career.
‘I was exhibiting works and selling commissioned portraits but doing technical drawings, or drawings that explain a concept, wasn’t something I even thought of,’ she recalls, before going on to describe her invitation to join the team as a ‘really exciting’ day. ‘I’d been working as an intern at Melliodora for four months and that whole time David had been working on the finishing touches of his book. There were all these people over and they had this big meeting, but I was not allowed in because I was not part of the book team.
‘I so wanted to listen in, so I kept bringing vegetables in for Su to use for our communal lunch. At the meeting the illustrator said he couldn’t stay on and recommended David choose me. David came and asked me that afternoon and I couldn’t believe it!’
Live And Breathe
At Melliodora, Brenna divides her time between drawing and growing food in the shared permaculture garden. ‘This year I’m really interested in growing lots of our vegies,’ she says. ‘We like to have enough food to feed the people living here, for catering for permaculture courses, for trade and gifting, as well as preserving to get us through the leaner months.’
She’s always wanted to live as part of a community, in a shared space and feels that she has hit the jackpot at Melliodora. Once a week she milks the resident goat, collects eggs and helps with weeding and harvesting. Each week begins with her and her partner Charlie walking around the property with the other residents, Amy and Fernando, ‘where Dave checks out what’s happening in the gardens and we list jobs that need doing,’ she explains. ‘Wednesday is our main farm day where we all work together, and this is how Charlie and I pay our rent.’
During her time at Melliodora, Brenna has become the resident fermenting queen.
‘A big part of being here is just being friendly; we share meals, we hang out, we visit each other and chat and laugh. This way of living is what I love.’
In The Beginning
Brenna likes to think she was born drawing. As a child she found it to be her means of expression, a way to explore concepts and break apart ideas people had shared with her. She was five when her mum started art sessions and Brenna asked if she could join in.
The youngest member in an otherwise all-adult class, she was called ‘little Brenna’ and graduated a few years later from a traditional life-drawing class. The class was a foundational experience, its members supported her and even entered her work in teen art shows, despite her age. It made her feel she was part of a supportive community and, most importantly, gave her a sense of belonging.
It never occurred to Brenna to think of her drawing as a pathway to higher education and future work. She enrolled in journalism but within two years realised she was not satisfied – something was missing. Not long afterwards, she enrolled in a double degree, arts and journalism, and her relationship with drawing was rekindled, her art practice accelerated. Seeking classical training, she travelled to Italy and enrolled in the Charles Cecil School in Florence, which she looks back on fondly, describing it as a ‘really beautiful experience.’
Over a short period of time Brenna’s illustration work has exploded in popularity. Together with her musician partner Charlie McGee, she has created an online Grow Do It community offering permaculture and sustainability education tools for teachers, students and ‘permies’. She recently completed what she calls ‘an epic year’ of illustrating a children’s version of Holmgren’s Aussie St presentation called Our Street, secured work on a CSIRO book called Bee Detective about native pollinators, and is currently illustrating Costa Georgiadis’ new book about how gardening can change the world.
Paying It Forward
‘I get a lot of people asking if I do apparel,’ she says. ‘I let them know I’d love to, but that there is already so much clothing in the world, and so much being sent to landfill, that my preferred option is to share my images (for free) so that people can have them printed on a second-hand shirt. Everyone so far has been delighted.’
The other benefit of Brenna’s approach is the people who go out of their way to give back. Some have planted trees on their properties in lieu of payment, others have shared seedlings with neighbours, or given food away.
As she sits in her north-facing tiny house, with a full view of the gardens and visiting geese, she can see all the seasonal changes that she’s illustrating in her work.
‘That’s the thing,’ she says. ‘I don’t want to just draw about changing the world, I actually want to live the change. And living at Melliodora enables me the opportunity to do both’.
This article represents the permaculture principle CREATIVELY USE AND RESPOND TO CHANGE.