Interview with Brenna Quinlan

Interview with Brenna Quinlan

June 23, 2020

Permaculture illustrator, educator, mover and shaker; Brenna Quinlan strives to make the world a better place through her art and actions. Now you may be asking yourself, what is permaculture and what does it have to do with drawing? That’s where Brenna comes in. She uses drawing as a tool to speak about permaculture and the importance of living sustainably. 

The word “permaculture” comes from “permanent agriculture” and “permanent culture”. The entire ethos is about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we are developing ethical frameworks that work in harmony with nature. There are dedicated individuals and communities across the globe that champion these values including the eco-conscious individuals who live at Melliodora, a permaculture paradise. It is here that Brenna lives and soaks up her inspiration from the vast grounds, gardens, orchards and animals. 

Interview: Devon Turner in conversation with Brenna Quinlan.

BD: Brenna, thanks for taking the time to speak with us! What’s your background? How and when did you get bitten by the drawing bug? 

BQ: I’ve been drawing obsessively since I first learned to hold a crayon. I remember being transfixed by an artist’s skill when I stopped to watch him draw in Hyde Park when I was a young child. The realism with which he rendered the lions and giraffes was, to me, superhuman. I asked my parents if I would be able to draw like that one day, and they said I would be able to if I practiced. From there on I set to training myself, sketching Lion King characters from paused VHS images, trying to recreate the faces in magazine ads, and making shaky copies of the great masterpieces from my mum’s books on Renaissance art.

I studied fine art alongside journalism at University, and began to head down the path of exhibitions and gallery representation for my watercolour portraits and still life works. But this pathway didn’t sit well with me. It was lacking something. Eventually I turned a corner when I discovered permaculture, and I’ve been devoting my art to that ever since.  

BD: Touching upon our 2020 Festival theme, “The Big Green Draw: A Climate of Change”, can you tell us about your work and how it acts as a catalyst for change?

BQ: I work in pen and watercolour on paper, because I find watercolour to be expressive, beautiful, and also because it is a low waste and low toxicity artistic medium. I touch up my images in Photoshop where necessary, but all of my images are composed, drawn and painted on paper. I love this organic way of working, and appreciate that I can create art without looking at a screen. 

In my work as an illustrator I focus on positive messaging around climate action and people care, and all of my creative efforts are put toward making the world a better place. Artists and other creatives have such a wide ability to spread messages through their networks, and to encourage new and exciting ways of viewing issues and information. For this reason, I find it so encouraging that more and more artists are using their talents to provoke change in the world.


BD: Your illustrations have appeared in several publications relating to permaculture including “Retrosuburbia: The Downshifter’s Guide to a Resilient Future” and “Farming Democracy”. In your eyes, how can drawing have an impact on the environment, on sustainable living?

BQ: In this online world, where we are flooded with information from all angles all of the time, only the most striking and special pieces can cut through the noise. We see this in the ability of images to be shared far and wide almost instantly. In addition, drawings present us with new ways of seeing – they present old information in different ways, and can inspire emotion and action on slow-burning topics. Drawings can show us the big things, like a depiction of a thriving world without fossil fuels, and they can also show us the small steps, like how to make kraut at home. Their power lies in their versatility and shareability. 

BD: Other than in making your killer illustrations, how else is drawing used at Melliodora?

BQ: I keep a nature journal here at Melliodora. It’s been going for a couple of years now, and I haven’t really showed it to anyone…it’s my secret ritual, an appreciation of place. Once every few weeks I go out and record in writing and images what’s going on around me. It’s been a beautiful way to connect with the seasons, and also a practical tool to record what was planted where. In the autumn of 2019 after a brutal summer of heat and fire, the pages show an empty dam, dry grass, hungry geese, and established trees that had died from heat and water stress. I can compare that to this autumn, where the mild summer and early rain had me drawing lush growth, full dams, fat geese, and sapling trees sprouting everywhere.

BD: Tell us more about how you got interested in permaculture and how adopting the movement has changed your work,

BQ: After University I joined the hoards of other clichéd young Australians and saved for a one way ticket out of the country to ‘find my path’. I ended up cycling from Canada over the U.S. and through Central America to Panama, and it was on that trip that I first heard about permaculture. The cycle tour had me living with a simplicity that made my sparse backpacking days look excessive. In my recycled bucket panniers I had one change of clothes, a tent, a bowl, and some basic food. I didn’t pay for accommodation for the entire trip, so I’d take off in the morning not knowing where I’d end up sleeping that night. I camped in some amazing places, and met a lot of wonderful people who offered me a place to stay. Some of those people were growing their own food, building their own houses, living a regenerative lifestyle and activating their communities. This was where I learned about permaculture for the first time. 

I spent the few years in South America learning and volunteering on permaculture projects and eventually living and teaching permaculture with a group of people from all over South America. When I came home, a little older and wiser, I made my way to this permaculture property (the home of David Holmgren, co-originator of permaculture), and asked if I could stay here as an intern with the idea of expanding my knowledge of Australian permaculture. I live here now as a community member, and pay the rent on my passive solar tiny house by helping out in the garden on Wednesdays. We’ve become like family. 

Permaculture makes so much sense to me. It’s a philosophy, a world view, where we acknowledge the damage done to land, soil, biodiversity, indigenous cultures and to people by the extractive economy, and we actively work to turn that around. It’s about growing your own food, but it’s also about protesting in new and exciting ways, and about showing that people can be a force for good in this world.

BD: What advice can you offer to people who want to reduce their carbon footprint but don’t know where to start? 

BQ: Starting is overwhelming. There is so much to learn and try that it can be immobilising. But the exciting thing is that it doesn’t have to be a chore. There are so many people out there who are living a low-carbon lifestyle not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because they love living that way. Check out the Happen Films clip on YouTube about Kat Lavers’ suburban powerhouse The Plummery. The Retrosuburbia website is also full of inspiring case studies of people who are doing their thing in the way that works for them. 

Once you’re feeling inspired, it’s time to find the first step that works for you. For some, this is planting lettuce seeds in a pot of soil on a sunny windowsill and watching the magic of photosynthesis turn sunlight into food. For others it’s making yogurt for the first time to cut down on plastic waste and learn about good bacteria. For others it’s having climate conversations, film nights or book clubs with their friends. For others it’s going flight free or moving their money to an ethical bank. Choose the first step that works for you, and once you’ve achieved that, move on to the next one. The goal isn’t to be perfect over night, it’s to be moving in the right direction. And with so many new things to try and new skills to pick up, it is such a fun way to move! 

BD: A strand of our 2020 festival theme, “The Big Green Draw: A Climate of Change” is highlighting the ways in which we do, and do not harmonise with nature… Can you share something on this from a permaculture point of view? 

BQ: The division between people and nature is a recent one. For almost all of human history, we were a part of nature. We managed ecosystems from within, and the evidence of this is written all around us, from the fire ecology of Australia to the temperate forest species of North America. Permaculture integrates effective means of land care, many of which come from the truly sustainable ways that Indigenous cultures interact with the land around them. Listening to the ways in which land-based cultures celebrate and respect their surroundings is one of the first steps toward liberating us from this strange and separate way that humans have of interacting with the natural world. 

BD: Finally, can you share with us your favourite spot for sketching on the sprawling Melliodora permaculture paradise? 

Right now, in the Australian winter, my favourite place to draw is in the greenhouse attached to the Studio, surrounded by wicking beds full of salad and by our tropical plants that overwinter there.

Thank you Brenna!

If you were inspired by this interview with Brenna and would like to find out more about her work, head to her website here.

For a look at Melliodora, the permaculture property where Brenna lives, check out this Gardening Australia episode.

For blogs, inspiration, free videos and an online course on permaculture, click here.

For music about permaculture, activism and sustainability that kids and their grown ups will love, check out the band Formidable Veg. Their YouTube Channel has some great music clips!

And for an overview of what permaculture is, and for links to an ethical online bookstore which  pays authors more fairly than Amazon, check out Permaculture Principles.

Registrations are now open for The Big Draw Festival 2020: A Climate of Change! Find out more about the benefits of becoming an organiser here and other ways to support The Big Draw's mission here.