Discovering inspiration in nature
There’s a certain charm to the rolling hills and forests of Southern Indiana that you can’t understand until you’re out in the thick of it. A feeling that nature is still untamed, and anything is possible. This is where Ashley Verkamp was born and raised.
As a child, Ashley spent many afternoons knee-deep in brush with her siblings, discovering the treasures of the forest and learning about the cycle of nature itself. Truly, nature was Ashley’s first friend, teacher, and her closest companion growing up. In nature, Ashley learned what it meant to be a caretaker as she and her mother nursed small animals back to health. She learned imagination—building forts, playing in the creek, and exploring with her sisters. But most of all, she was fascinated by the details and intricacies of nature: speckles on a fluffy feather, the design of a unique rock, or even the texture of a freshly grown bed of moss.
If nature was her first teacher, it taught Ashley design. These details inspired her, moved her, and made her hungry for more. Soon, her collection of forest treasures became the muse for her earliest artwork.
Of course, it was no surprise that Ashley loved design and artwork. Her mother is a calligrapher and artist, her grandfather a published writer and poet, and her other grandmother a quiller. Creativity flows in the veins of the Verkamp family, and Ashley is no different.
“I was basically five when I had the realization that I was going to grow up to make art of some kind. But I would say that I became more serious about my artwork during my middle school years, and that’s when I began drawing regularly as a practice, trying to continually push my limits.”
So, with the first chance she got, she headed off to the School of Visual Arts in New York. Here, Ashley discovered just how much she craved the peace and inspiration of nature, leading her to transfer from New York to the Columbus College of Art and Design. This stark contrast between wooded Columbus, Ohio and New York stirred new appreciation for nature that Ashley would carry her entire adult life.
Pioneering a life of design
“As I grew into adulthood, I carried the memories and feelings of nature with me. They inspired me, and I realized that those experiences had somehow connected me to something extremely vital. There’s a peace that one finds out in nature that you’d be hard-pressed to find elsewhere, and I think a lot of people really resonate with that.”
In Columbus, nature stood just outside the doors of any building, and Ashley felt much more at home. There, she completed her Bachelor of Fine Arts degree, majoring in illustration. Nature provided her inspiration and peace, and art taught her to keep her eyes open to discover inspiration at any moment. “More than anything, art taught me how to be fully present in order to really see the world, not just taking things for granted and looking at life absentmindedly. In a sense, it’s a lot like a mindfulness practice. You absorb the world in a very full way, and it opens all of your senses.”
Graduating college means coming to the crossroads of everything that you have been and everything that you could be. Ashley first launched into the working world as a freelance illustrator and graphic designer with her long-time partner, Tammy, by her side.
As Tammy is a high school art teacher, the two easily connected on a shared love of art and laughter and continued exploring the creative world of nature together. They bought a home and settled near Ashley's childhood home in Southern Indiana.
One winter afternoon, they set their sights on a new project when they received a heating bill for over $350. As two young artists, they balked at the price. This moment got the two of them thinking, both about their imprint on the nature that they both loved so much and on their budget (don’t we all?).
Building a life in-sync with nature
For Ashley, this was the moment that she finally said: “There has to be a better way!”
Together, Ashley and Tammy dove into research, looking for more sustainable ways of living, better ways to support the earth they loved and their family. When Ashley stumbled upon articles about straw-bale homes, it started as a joke. A three-little-pigs joke, to be exact.
Being the curious artists that they were, a straw-bale home didn’t stay a joke for long. Soon, they had sold their ranch-style home in favor of building a sustainable home with their own two hands. Fallen pine trees became posts and railings, plaster and straw waste product became walls and insulation, local straw and cement leftovers became a warm adobe floor. From the ground up, Ashley and Tammy built the home that they imagined, a home both inviting and truly sustainable.
Ashley and Tammy didn’t stop there. Once they had started, they couldn’t stop. They installed a soapstone wood-burning stove to heat their home from the fallen trees in their own woods. They planted an overflowing garden, brimming with herbs, fruits, vegetables, and even a greenhouse to support them during cold winter months. Ashley even transplanted heirloom fruit trees that had been in her family through generations of gardeners before her. Ashley and Tammy created a space where they could be truly inspired, immersed, and soothed in the warm embrace of nature.
Not to mention, they created a space that allowed them to live more in-sync and in consideration of nature. “I’ll be the first admit that it’s easy to feel overwhelmed by the magnitude of sustainability, but action can be as simple as decision-making. I simply try to make decisions that help me act as the best caretaker of this earth that I can be...and I know that the opportunities and decisions at each person’s fingertips are different,” Ashley says.
The straw bale home in and of itself is remarkably sustainable and environmentally-friendly for many reasons: the insulation is simply left-over grains, a locally-sourced waste product, and a cheap, renewable resource—that also provides double the insulation of traditional methods. The adobe floor was also constructed from local materials, but it additionally supports the warmth of the house as it absorbs the sun’s heat in the cold winter months. Even their soapstone wood-burning stove contains a catalytic converter, meaning that for their 2,000 square foot home, they burn only half a cord of wood during the entire winter (that’s about one pickup-truck bed full).
Ashley and Tammy are always working to find more ways to live sustainably. With energy-efficient appliances already in place, they’re now looking at solar panels as a potential new addition to their straw-bale home. They do all of these things because they understand and admire the intricacies and inspiration of nature, and work daily to support the nature they so love.
When we asked Ashley what inspires her, she replied, “I’ll listen to Mozart when I go out for a walk in the spring, just when nature is bursting back to life. That particular music really amplifies the intensity of that whole experience for me, to the point where it becomes somewhat magical and transcendent, like your peering into the symphony of creation somehow.” If you’re lucky, maybe you can join her in her daily immersion of nature and inspiration where nature can teach you design, too.