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Alyssa Dennis: Healthy Buildings, Healthy Bodies

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The cultivation of an artist’s career can be a winding journey, and in some ways Alyssa Dennis’ path has come full circle. The Baltimore-born artist first established her palette as a painter and architectural illustrator with an interest in permaculture and sustainable building while still an undergrad at MICA. After graduating with a BFA in General Fine Arts, she traveled. From New Orleans, then to Mali, New York, and Peru, she discovered a through line to herbalism, and established a practice of “restoring the human soul in its integral presence with the vital powers of the earth.”

“I had a teacher once who told me, ‘All we are is our patterns.’ It was really profound, and my response was,‘Okay, how do I make the right patterns?” says Dennis.

“I’ve always had this curiosity for what was ‘other,’ and I felt like art was a way to see what was secret about life.” Dennis discovered some of those secrets during her formal art studies at George Washington Carver Center for Arts and Technology, MICA, and Tulane University, and still others working in green construction, but the pieces all came together while completing a certificate program at New York’s ArborVitae School of Traditional Herbalism in 2020.

“Art and herbalism are my chosen vehicles to understand and express systems of oppression upon the planet, those that negatively affect our health and the environment,” says Dennis. “I call this the ‘overculture,’ where we only see reflections of ourselves in the world. Architectural interests and imagery have been a big part of how I visualize and express the overculture.”

 

Gardens at the artists home
Urban Artemis, Mixed Media on Paper

After seven years away in New York, Dennis returned to Baltimore in 2020 and began establishing her practice as an herbal clinician under the name Eclipta Herbal.

“Art gave me the tools to build my own awareness, especially being an observational artist, observing the object and painting what you see. I feel that way with a client,” Dennis says. “How can I see this person for who they are and how they’re presenting? It’s building your aware- ness, and thinking conceptually about what’s going on in the world.” Dennis is quick to cite the architects, designers, and thinkers who have influenced her practices, from Lloyd Kahn and Buckminster Fuller to Vandana Shiva and Sigi Koko.

“One thing that Buckminster Fuller said has always stuck with me: ‘I look for what needs to be done. After all, that’s how the universe designs itself,’” Dennis says. “Art, architecture, herbalism—it’s all related. What do we surround ourselves with? What are we putting into our bodies?”

Although herbalism has become a central focus, Dennis’ illustration practice continues for a client roster that includes the National Aquarium, Pricewaterhouse Coopers, and Architect Magazine. In 2023, Urban Systems Lab and The New School will publish a book about nature- based initiatives in cities, featuring sixteen of Dennis’ commissioned drawings.

“I gravitated towards architecture because it was like a ‘how to live’ guide. It’s a reflection of ourselves.” Dennis says. “What herbalism teaches you is that whatever’s going on in your body is reflected in the landscape and whatever is in the landscape is reflected in your body. The 19th-century herbalist Samuel Thomson also uses the house as a metaphor for explaining metabolism, and even Jung talks about the psyche as the different levels of ‘the tower.’” Over the past twenty years, Dennis has punctuated her academic studies working in green construction, including building straw bale and adobe structures.

“I became interested in straw bale and adobe building because of this but also becauseI wanted to build my own straw bale house,” says Dennis. “The building and construction industry is one of the largest polluters on the planet, and studying these other forms was breaking apart what I had known about how you can live in a building in this overculture. And by breaking the buildings into layers, I can visualize them in new ways.”

Soon after Dennis finished her undergraduate studies at MICA, she traveled to Mali where she lived in adobe dwellings for two months.

 

“I realized then how ingenious this form of shelter was; they just made so much sense to me,” she says. “All buildings are living systems, and I wanted to live in a building where the builder ⁄ designer knows and feels this in their bones.” In exploring the contrasts between permaculture practices and the American urbanism in which Dennis has lived most of her life, she’s begun to see structures differently.

“I often ponder, is it shelter we build or barriers? Cities are a kind of old English castle fortress, a disengage- ment from the complexities of the forests,” she says. “I strongly believe that learning how to live in the right relationship with our non-human kin is the solution to climate change and ecological destruction. We are liter- ally made up of earth, air, water, and fire just as much as all other life and [this has implications] for our own health, vitality, and ultimately our survival.”

As more architects and builders turn their attention to green construction practices, Dennis remains both skep- tical and hopeful. “I do meet architects that are thinking in that way, and there can be a little bit of greenwashing. But how do people get exposed to these ideas, and how do we create a market for it so that people are more and more exposed?” she says.

In September, Dennis’s collaboration with Richmond- based architecture firm Quinn Evans, included a showcase of her current work, including what Dennis calls a “pseudo-apothecary.”

 

“This show is digging up all of the stuff I have done and looking at it through this herbalist lens,” Dennis says. “I’ll get to highlight some things I’ve done in the past that I haven’t been able to share publicly, and ask questions like, what does it mean to have a healthy building, and how can we live in a right relationship to our bodies, and to the earth?”

Meanwhile, Dennis is focused on reconnecting with Baltimore and continuing to develop her Eclipta Herbal practice, as well as starting a small herb farm of her own. Moving back to Baltimore during a pandemic proved challenging to find like-minded connections, and she was reminded that there is an opportunity to teach.

“I’m still trying to find my community,” she says. “There are lots of people in my neighborhood that are doing a little herb growing, but in contrast to New York there’s a big difference: so many more herbalists, so much more acceptance. So I’m teaching classes, and recognizing that I really have to start with the basics.”

 

Loft room with cozy design

This story is from Issue 14: Environment, available here.

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