Sasha Duerr and the Art of Permacouture

Sasha Duerr is a CCA alumna (MFA 2003), a member of CCA’s Textiles and Graduate Fine Arts faculty, and the founder of the Permacouture Institute, an educational nonprofit that works to encourage sustainable design and education (“from the ground up”) in fashion and textiles.

When you think of the color red, you probably imagine a bright, saturated red, like a Crayola crayon. Yet when Duerr thinks of red, she imagines a living, breathing, mottled red -- the red that comes from a fern, or a pinecone.

Just like the cloth she dyes by hand using what she calls a garden-to-garment process, everything about Duerr radiates passion, a generous investment of time and hand labor, and a deep respect for history.

She focuses her teaching and research practices on organic dyes, alternative fibers, and the creative reuse of materials. She has written and lectured extensively, becoming a well-known authority in these emerging fields over the last 10 years. Her artworks have been exhibited in galleries and museums across the United States and in Japan, and she has taught at artist residencies, colleges, and community and school garden programs.

In 2009, Duerr and fellow alumna and Graduate Fine Arts faculty member Susanne Cockrell (MFA 1993) established a community garden on CCA’s Oakland campus. “The intention was to have a way to integrate ecological hands-on experience into our CCA curriculum, and to have someplace to grow a variety of useful plants and connect the community around food, fibers, and dyes,” says Duerr.

Cockrell adds, “There are more and more CCA students interested in sustainable design, food, and the confluence of rural and urban values and aesthetics. This piece of land that is used to grow food and dye plants right on campus enables CCA to engage students in a conversation about farming, composting, recycling, reuse, lifestyle, and sustainable fashion. It also links them to larger, very topical cultural and social movements. We want to build bridges between sustainability and art, social engagement and urban design.”

Understanding Permacouture

According to Ecouterre permacouture is a slow-steeping, hands-on process that involves the use of sustainable plant-based dyes and recycled fibers to create textiles and clothing that are not only environmentally sound but also community minded.

Duerr makes a direct connection between permacouture, her area of specialization, and the better-known term “permaculture,” explaining that both are inspired by principles of regenerative design, a systems- theory approach that focuses on sustainable processes. The slow food movement has been a huge influence.

“A ‘slow’ perspective is about true care and stewardship for both nature and culture,” Duerr says. “‘Slowness’ doesn’t refer to how long it takes to make or do something, but awareness, accountability, and responsibility for our everyday actions.” At the heart of permacouture is a desire to support a more fulfilling experience through a participatory process. As with slow food, slow fashion and textiles engage us in the practice just as much as the product.

Benefits of Living Color

Plant-based dyes are not only sustainable and organic, but they also offer colors that are varied, vibrant, and alive. They harmonize in a way that only botanicals can. For example, a natural red will include hints of blue and yellow, whereas a chemically produced red contains only a single pigment. It lacks complexity. “Even when you mix chemical dyes,” Duerr says, “it is nearly impossible to achieve the same glowing range of shades as with ‘living color.’”

A Growing Interest in Growing Color

Growing up between two very diverse ecological systems—the coast of rural Maine and a rainforest on Hawaii Island -- Duerr spent most of her childhood outside and got interested in plant-based colors at a young age.

“I would spend countless hours on our family farm in Maine grinding granite rocks to make pink eyeshadow. And in Hawaii my friends and I would go the tropical/volcanic rainforest on our school grounds to gather plumeria, awapuhi ginger, and gardenias to make some luxe and experimental shampoos. You could say that my career as a practicing alchemist goes way back!”

Studying as an undergraduate painter at Middlebury College in Vermont, she began to realize how dangerous most mass-produced oil paints are. The toxins in them made her sick, and she sought out alternatives. “As I started to investigate how to make my own plant-based paints, I realized that the textiles field already held a lot of that knowledge, and in fact that the fashion and textile industries were suffering from the same issues with toxicity but on a much bigger level, from the factory worker to the consumer.

“It also started to occur to me that, as with food, the problem originates with overconsumption and a lack of knowledge about where things really come from. The more I experimented in my San Francisco kitchen and backyard, the more I realized how accessible the art and craft of creating healthy, beautiful color actually is.”

It is tragic but true, she says, that we are on the brink of major losses in both cultural memory and biodiversity. Many of the problems of our modern lives relate to having forgotten how to connect with nature. “We are often out of sync with our natural environment. Learning to identify plants of this world, the pleasure of growing one’s own food, or how to create a color palette ‘from soil to studio’ are concepts of ecoliteracy that we are seriously lacking.”

Coming to CCA

Duerr came to CCA for graduate school in 2001. While earning her MFA she carried out work related to a two-year material studies grant with teachers at the Edible Schoolyard, a nonprofit one-acre garden project in Berkeley that teaches middle school students to grow their own food and make delicious meals, all in the context of a public school curriculum.

At first, the connections between food, fashion, and sustainability that were so apparent to Duerr were difficult to define to her CCA teachers. “A lot of them wondered if I was doing performance art . . . and if not, what the heck was I doing?”

She eventually found a strong ally in Lia Cook, her graduate advisor. “Lia was so supportive of my work with textiles and sustainability in the community, even though there wasn’t an official ‘social practice’ program yet.” Another huge inspiration was Deborah Valoma. “Her true and deep love for textiles and textile history encouraged me so much.”

Call to Action: Permacouture Institute

After receiving her MFA in 2003, Duerr worked more and more with edible garden initiatives, adapting their educational and exploratory platforms for her purposes, until finally in 2007 she founded the educational nonprofit the Permacouture Institute.

“It’s about encouraging systems thinking in textiles and fashion: looking closely at how environmental leaders, textile and fashion designers, and consumers dialogue with one another through symposia, think tanks, and hands-on grassroots activity.” Headed by Duerr and fellow alum Katelyn Toth-Fejel (Textiles 2007), the institute works closely with local movements and communities to strengthen cultural and environmental connections to food, clothing, and shelter.

Past projects have included Seeds to Sew & Fiber and Dye Mapping, and the Living and Dyeing Project.

"Handbook of Natural Dyes": Dyes for the DIY-er

In 2011 Duerr published the Handbook of Natural Dyes, an incredible instructional manual for the DIY-er in all of us. Aimed at a lay audience, she conceived it as a complement to her more organizational-level efforts.

“I wanted to create a visually alluring book that would get people excited about the alchemy of plant dyes. Readers will feel empowered to create their own natural colors, or at least to realize where and how they could, and they will definitely come away more aware of the ecological footprint of the material choices they make.” The book focuses on organic color recipes from Duerr’s own kitchen, garden, and community. “Obviously, dye-producing plants and color recipes differ from region to region.”

Bringing Permacouture to CCA

At CCA Duerr teaches a course called Soil to Studio. Students gather plants from the urban landscape and learn hands-on dyeing techniques. Duerr also taught the graduate Craftlab course in fall 2011: a cross-pollination of textile, fashion, and environmental systems thinking. The class looked at various landscapes across California, and collaborated with fashion “hacktivist” Otto Von Bush on a project at Green Gulch Farm at the San Francisco Zen Center.

“With chef Kelsie Kerr we also tasted a biodiversity of flavors directly from the Oakland campus community garden. It was about reviving lost seasonal colors in just the same way as we learn to savor new tastes.”

Duerr reflects that she has learned more at CCA, first as a student and now as a teacher, than she ever thought possible. “I have always conceived of my art practice as a tool to connect to deeper sources of experience and meaning,” she says. “I feel so fortunate to have found a profession that connects directly to the wonders of the natural world, whole-systems thinking, and the surrounding communities and cultures.

“I love what I do. And I am excited to know that I am still at the very beginning of my explorations.”

Related Links

Sasha Duerr’s Tumblr Blog video feature
New York Times: “A New Generation Discovers Grow-It-Yourself Dyes”
San Francisco Chronicle: “As Foraging Gains Ground, Ethical Issues Emerge”
Ecouterre: “Recipe for Success: Permacouture Stirs Up Bold, Plant-Based Hues for Mr. Larkin”