From our interview with photographer and natural builder Kelly Brown.
As I drove past sandy dunes to the quaint home perched atop a rocky hill, I spotted Kelly and Bryce outside their Yucca Valley home, soaking up the desert sun with their pup Sunny. It had been a hectic drive from Los Angeles via the city’s infamous mess of surrounding highways — and I was glad to be greeted by three kind, unassuming faces.
The first time I talked to Kelly was roughly two years ago. I had reached out over Instagram, and asked for permission to repost one of her photos on our profile. Coincidentally, the photo was a capture of the desert in Joshua Tree. Little did we know, Kelly would eventually set up a second home here, and that I would one day meet her in person in this very same land.
Kelly is a talented photographer. Thinking back, I was surprised when Kelly thanked me for eliciting permission to use her photo. It was something I considered common etiquette. Kelly and I revisited this topic over campfire, and she shook her head. There had been too many incidences where others used her work without permission, or worst — claimed it as their own.
Yet, artists have no time to bother with forgery. When copycats believe they have caught up, the artists have already moved onto their next project. With Kelly, she is constantly creating. On the photography front, she has plethora of work in weddings, travel, lifestyle, editorial and portraits. Despite the varied categories, her work always follows her distinctive style: a natural, organic aesthetic that is not easy to copy.
On top of a full fledged photography business, Kelly also worked with her husband Bryce in natural building. Together, they have formed CRÉ, an initiative to bring back the art of natural building to create a more resilient future.
The Earth House, built by Kelly and Bryce.
Kelly and Bryce led me to the Earth House — an abode they built for guests. It was a space that utilizes their own natural building methods. I immediately admired the pretty blend of colours: rusts, umbers, and flaxen beige. The earthy colours were not just pretty design, but also functioned as clues that revealed the raw materials used. There were unique wooden fixtures around the room, most of which were handcrafted by Bryce. I glanced at the texture of the walls. It was unlike anything wall I have ever seen before. Before I stepped in for a closer look, I turned around and asked —
“What exactly is natural building?”
“It is a building style,” Kelly slowly explained, “that relies mainly on locally sourced, natural materials in their raw form. For example, cob, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and dry stack stonework. Most of the work that Bryce does uses building styles that utilize sand, clay and straw — just like the walls in this room.”
I stepped forward for a closer look and saw glints of golden flecks lodged in the earth-coloured walls. This must be the mix of straw Kelly just described, and the resulting effect created a very pretty pattern.
“Natural building is like sculpting a house right from the earth,” Kelly said, as she trailed her fingers down the textured wall.
The answer not only satiated my curiosity, but added a spark of thrill. The wall was charmingly different, but its construction was also gentle for our environment. Beauty, function, sustainability — all the checks had been ticked for a good design.
The caramel shade of our Praxis Jumpsuit complements the tones of the Earth House.
“How did you come across this field, this practice of natural building?” I asked.
Kelly first discovered natural building while working on a documentary photo essay on alternative communities in rural Ohio. The experience not only enriched her craft and artistry, but also led her to find true love.
“Many of the homes I saw in Ohio were made from straw bales they had built themselves.” Kelly described, “The buildings were so beautiful but so was the intention behind them. Years later, I met my now husband, Bryce, who was teaching a natural building workshop in Mexico. I fell in love with both him and this type of building and have been getting my hands dirty ever since."
Bryce had been building naturally for the past 12 years. After picking up the craft from other seasoned builders, he honed his own techniques through trial and error. Inspired by indigenous and ancestral knowledge, his goal for CRÉ is to strengthen communities and educate others on this “new-old” way of building.
Reflective of such natural techniques, the Earth House was a personal project that Kelly and Bryce spent the first half of last year creating. They would normally build their structures from start to finish, so that the entire building was natural. Yet, unlike their past projects, this home was a renovated space. To Kelly and Bryce, the Earth House presented a different opportunity.
“For this space, there was an already existing house that was totally functional but needed some love. So, we created an earthen plaster mix using local clay and sand from our yard and it totally transformed the space. It is a great example how you can take a conventional home but add natural elements without having to build something new.”
There were other signs of “new-old” within the Earth House. A beautiful wooden sink was planted on the mirror wall by the bathroom entrance. The basin had an unusual and unique shape.
Kelly explained how the sink was once an old dough trough they found at an antique shop.
It was abandoned, and deemed to have outlived its usefulness. When she laid eyes on it, Kelly knew it would make a marvellous sink. When Bryce installed it onto the wall, both felt this corner had became very special. With just some clever upcycling, they had created something truly one of a kind.
Special was how I felt during my entire stay at the Earth House. From meeting Kelly in these foreign desert lands to learning about natural building to savouring ribs at a local saloon to our campfire chitchats under a blanket of stars, this was an experience to remember.
Our experience at the Earth House doesn't end here, as we will go on to observe Kelly and Bryce’s creative journey, to see the compassionate “new-old” future they hope to sculpt with their crafts.