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Permaculture in the Practice


When I first argued in the early 1970s that PA Yeomans could be regarded as an artist it was treated as an absurd proposition yet we now find many artists who use farming, food production and permaculture (developed from Yeomans work) as part of their practice, as just some of the many media available to them. Several artists are featured in the AGNSW exhibition while others will  be seen here in the blog over coming weeks. First is Rhonda Ayliffe, an artist and farmer from Cobargo, NSW.

Rhonda Ayliffe – one sunflower with repaired/ replaced petal and some bees
Rhonda Ayliffe – one sunflower with repaired/ replaced petal and some bees

Can permaculture be used as the philosophical foundation of an arts practice? This was a question I posed in my Higher Degree research project ‘codex infinitum – the infinite book’ that ostensibly investigated the future of books and knowledge in a digital world but incorporated permaculture ethics and principles to guide my studio operations. Permaculture has been used in organic horticulture, small and larger scale agriculture, in relocalisation movements such as Transition Towns, and by individuals seeking more sustainable and ecologically responsible lifestyles. What could permaculture offer to an individual art practice and what changes would the adoption of permaculture’s ethics and principles cause to art making became key questions I wanted to address within my research. My essay Permaculture in the practice is an informal account in part drawing on my MFA exegesis.

I was born, raised and remain in a small community on the far south coast of NSW. Generations of my family have occupied this same small territory, a tight 10km radius around the tiny township of Cobargo; traditional country of the Yuin people. For the past 25 years I’ve lived on my family’s 360 acre beef property at Sams Creek. I married the neighboring dairy farmer and his 800 acres, and inadvertently have found myself a custodian of a significant swathe of farmland nestled at the outer foothills of Gulaga, the mother mountain. The combined farms are bordered to the west by the Kooraban National Park, with its small and highly vulnerable yet genetically significant koala population, and they encompasses Sams Creek, a small waterway that eventually empties to the east into Wallaga Lake, Batemans Marine Park. The farms feature varied productive pasturelands, remnant temperate rainforest, woodland and indigenous grass species, vital bird and marsupial habitats and wildlife corridors. The combined farming properties are of cultural, historical, economic and environmental importance.

This is my place in the world. Connection to place informs every aspect of my creative practice. It was through this sensed connection to place that, two decades ago, I initially became interested in bioregionalism, place-based education, restoration landcare, and permaculture. In 2010, as I commenced my studio-based Master of Fine Arts and completed my Permaculture Design Certificate, I began to speculate about the possibilities of utilising permaculture as the philosophical or ethical basis of an arts practice. This speculation and investigation became an integral aspect of my recently completed higher degree research project: codex infinitum – the infinite book.

Permaculture (initially a contraction of the words ‘permanent’ and ‘agriculture’ but now more readily understood as ‘permanent-culture’) is a form of systems-thinking design that was developed in the 1970s by Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. Initially applied principally to forms of organic farming and gardening, in recent years permaculture has been explored as a potential philosophical and practical model for business and economics,   Transitions Towns,  the reorganisation of politics and society, and a means for moving to a more sustainable lifestyle.  Permaculture grounds decisions on three primary ethics: ‘care for the earth, care for people, fair share’ and twelve principles.

Permaculture Ethics and Design Principles Poster
Permaculture Ethics and Principles poster from permacultureprinciples.com


These principles as proposed by David Holmgren in Permaculture – Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability and referred to in my research project are:

  1.  Observe and interact
  2. Catch and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

The ethics and principles are used together, along with concepts such as guilds,  zones  and layers  to create an integrated, (w)holistic, ecologically sustainable system that is the cornerstone of permaculture design.
Permaculture, in its traditional, utilitarian form, has been used as a basis for ecological artworks including Nils Norman’s Edible Park,  Fritz Haeg’s various Edible Estates,  and Artist as Family’s Food Forest, created as part of the Museum of Contemporary Art’s 2010 exhibition: Balance – Art for a New World. Numerous eco-artists, eco-arts groups/organisations and socially engaged art workers have created work that either consciously or casually relates to the permaculture model. Within my practice and research project I was interested in exploring permaculture not just as the basis of garden or ecological artwork but as a studio methodology and the philosophical foundation of an integrated, holistic, bioregional and permaculturally inclined combination of art, work and life.

Embarking on a life/practice change of this magnitude, the big question of course was ‘where do I start?’ I began with the completion of a Permaculture Design Certificate that empowered me to undertake both a range of practical projects around our 2 acre home/studio garden (this included retrofitting of solar panels, grey water system, reinvigoration of my extensive food gardens and orchard and the construction of an integrated studio/poultry house) and conduct an audit of all studio activities (including inputs, outputs, procedures and business activities).

The integrated studio and chicken housing at Sams Creek
The integrated studio and chicken housing at Sams Creek

Some of my earliest and simplest permaculture initiatives in the studio included a move to eschew toxic materials (in both art making and studio maintenance) and the composting/ recycling of studio ‘waste’. I have maintained an inter-disciplined or hybrid arts practice and my arts background is in the traditional crafts related to book arts – not the usual areas associated with an eco-art or socially-engaged practice. This presented unique challenges, but by building on simple, practical actions I gained the confidence to consider larger issues inherent in my arts practice that encouraged me to reflect critically on what I wanted  as an artist.

A project from 2011 signalled possibilities for an integrated holistic permacultural approach. In 2011 I became involved in the Kooraban koala survey and the Australian National University’s Eden Project Field Study program.  These two independent activities intertwined when I joined ANU field study participants on a koala survey plot near Dignams Creek and was invited to exhibit work in their group show Far Enough: Aesthetic responses to the Far South Coast NSW.  My corollary work, Kooraban Koalas, consisted of photographic documentation of a temporary artwork that acknowledged and commemorated the koala survey site close to my Sams Creek home. The work was displayed in the Bega Valley Regional Gallery along with a copy of ‘Koala Survey of the Kooraban and Gulaga National Parks’.

Rhonda Ayliffe – Kooraban Koalas, 2011
Rhonda Ayliffe – Kooraban Koalas, 2011

Kooraban Koalas represented more than just the exhibited photograph –it consisted of collective physical labour, empirical research, oral history, published and informal texts, along with site-specific art making. The multifaceted trans-disciplined work also exemplified a way of adopting and interpreting permaculture’s core ethics and principles within my arts practice.

I was buoyed by the potentials of an inter- or trans-disciplined approach experienced with Kooraban Koalas and how it signalled a manner in which permaculture could guide choices within my arts practice. For my MFA project I created honestum circuli – the virtuous circle – a small garden constructed from 217 discarded encyclopedias and based on a quintessential permaculture feature: the herb spiral.

Rhonda Ayliffe - honestum circuli, 2012
Rhonda Ayliffe – honestum circuli, 2012

Honestum circuli exists both as a semi-permanent structure in my studio garden and an accompanying artist’s book containing documentation of the garden’s construction, plant lists, plans and incidental notes.

Rhonda Ayliffe – honestum circuli, 2012


Two other works from my MFA project signaled an alternative, indirect way of incorporating permaculture in my practice. Both codex inperfecto – the unfinished book, my long coptic bound ‘book’ structure, and carpe diem, an artist’s book resulting from my ‘art gesture’ series, epitomized how taking a permacultural perspective could influence my art making. The materials utilised in codex inperfecto (40+ volumes of unwanted encyclopaedias) represent a conscious move to ensure that my material choice and purchase proactively assists the environment while simultaneously helping to fund charity work.

Rhonda Ayliffe – codex inperfecto – the unfinished book (detail)

The books used in my work have been sourced from charity shops and book fairs (such as Lifeline, Rotary, Salvation Army and St Vincent de Paul) where they usually remained unsold and then required expensive disposal. My purchases ensured that the unsold undesirables were not sent to landfill while the purchase price actively assisted in funding each charity’s projects. This largely undisclosed social, economic and environmental cycle is an integral aspect of the work and an example of the holistic aspirations of my arts practice.

My ongoing ‘art gesture’ series  is a range of ephemeral artworks based on the interaction of books and site.

These interactions were informed by and created in response to the prevailing local conditions (seasonal change, weather, community and/or natural events) and actively embraced the smart phone and web as both the creative means and destination for the work.

Rhonda Ayliffe – one sunflower with repaired/ replaced petal and some bees


It was my observation that creating and distributing work online apparently circumvented some of the less sustainable aspects of the art business world. The combination of smart phone technology/photography and blogging may initially appear incongruous with a permacultural approach – so I usually clarify this by relating the provenance of my equipment and discuss appropriate technology choices as an active aspect of the work’s story. When provided with the opportunity I like to explain that I generally use second hand and discarded equipment – my computer(s) were rescued just before they were due to be binned at the local school and my smart phone is a clunky old model that’s still operating.

These recent works essentially chronicle the evolution of my methodology as I gradually embraced permaculture in my practice. In summary, utilising permaculture as the ethical/philosophical basis of my practice in practical terms has resulted in a move toward:

  •  using recycled, reclaimed waste product as my primary studio materials and in auxiliary arts business activities
  •  using local, homegrown or gathered ‘green’ art materials and associated methods wherever possible and appropriate.
  •  working ephemerally and recording ephemeral ‘art’ actions in a digital format for sharing digitally and/or online.
  •  avoiding air flight
  •  slow working, small working, humble working, performative working, collaborative and collective working.

I would note that my research project did not progress without difficulties and frustrations. Permaculture operates primarily outside both academia and the art world and the atypical combination of books/knowledge as the subject of my studio work and permaculture as methodology created unusual tension. I addressed part of this problem by looking at connections between pragmatic philosophy and permaculture in my MFA exegesis. Both permaculture and the pragmatic texts of John Dewey emphasised holistic and experiential learning/knowledge, intimate immersion in the environment and knowledge-building through practical application. Similarly, both Dewey and Holmgren reject notions of duality or dichotomy between nature and culture, mind and body, form and content as well as the idea of nature (and experience) as closed and static. The combination of pragmatism and permaculture offered a robust and logical foundation in which to explore the ideas about the site and construction of knowledge, the purpose and potential of art, research methodology and the holistic integration of art and life: the central motifs of my research project. As I noted in my MFA exegesis: permaculture provided both a way and a why for my arts practice.

With my MFA project now complete I am contemplating a more enthusiastic and comprehensive embrace of all things permacultural. Future trans-disciplined projects on the farm, in the garden and the studio include waterways restoration work and wildlife corridor construction in conjunction with Southern Rivers Catchment Management Authority  and the Biodiversity Fund , the establishment of Black Wattle Place Based Education hub sited on the farm, and contributing to the foundation of PIP – Australian Permaculture Magazine. I have commenced construction of stage 2 of the studio dye garden with the spring planting of calendula, woad, Japanese and Australian indigo and I’ve started researching/ experimenting with natural protein based (milk and egg) paint bases from our farm produce.

The adoption and application of permaculture’s ethics and principles within my practice is, and necessarily will remain, an ongoing activity and the creation of a perfected exemplar has not been my prime objective. Instead I am keen to promote the notion that it is possible to achieve positive change by incorporating permaculture within any arts practice and the best way to do this is to start small, build upon success, accept imperfections and adopt the maxim: ‘Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.’ Permaculture in my practice means acknowledging that all the myriad aspects of my life and work are interconnected – so tending the garden, preserving the abundance, assisting a sick animal, remediating farmland, counting koala scat, working beside local school children, making ephemeral art, blogging or binding a book are ALL aspects of my intertwined, inter-disciplined, bioregional, permacultural arts practice.

“It is not the project but the living process that will be the measure of our actions.”              David Holmgren

Rhonda Ayliffe
Sams Creek, Cobargo NSW
November 2013.


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