Our City, Their Words: Jenny Murphy, Founder of Perennial

Endless potential.

That’s why Jenny Murphy, Founder and Executive Director of Perennial, stayed in St. Louis after moving here from Dallas in 2005 to study Sculpture at Washington University. Fast forward ten years, and endless potential is still the way she sees our city and the way she views things that many of us would throw away. Broken window? She can make stained glass out of it. Worn out t-shirt? Watch her and the rest of the Perennial team make a woven rag rug using t-shirts and bed sheets.

Keep reading to learn how at age 23, Jenny pursued her passion of building a culture of sustainability and creativity to found the Perennial that exists today.

What is Perennial?

Perennial is a nonprofit that’s all about creative reuse. We make new stuff out of old junk and we teach people how to do the same thing. We offer classes to the public and provide outreach programs to women in transition. Our classes range from making rag rugs to woodworking with salvage materials to natural textile dying. Anything that combines a DIY skill with a reused material. We also have a retail arm that sells DIY kits to support our outreach programs.

 

Who would you say Perennial is for? 

So it’s sort of a wide range of people, especially in our outreach programs. Even in our public programs we’ll have a 65-year-old retired woman, a 10-year-old girl and a guy who just moved into his first house and wants to learn to build stuff all in the same class. Programs are open to anyone. A lot of time it’s folks that want to learn new skills or have a creative outlet. We also get to sneak in how to live more sustainably.

With our outreach programs we work with women in transition. Those are targeted to former prisoners, survivors of domestic violence and homeless women. We teach them the same skills but for free. Your creativity can be a powerful tool resourcefully, sustainably and self-sufficiently. That’s really impactful for those women that are maybe transitioning into independent living after living in a shelter or transitional house. But it’s also really impactful for someone from the neighborhood who just wants to learn a new skill. 

Does the sustainability portion just come from reusing old materials? 

It’s not only the straight up reuse but also giving people the skills to transition away from careless consumerism. Making people more aware of how things are made can be really impactful. When they go the store to buy something, they’ll start thinking a little bit differently about it and then thinking differently about what they throw away. After taking a class here, like a stained glass class but we’re using all old window glass, maybe the next time they break something they’ll be like, “Oh, should I throw this away or should I keep it and maybe create something else?” Beginning to see those things as useful. Not only keeping things out landfills, but keeping people from buying crap stuff that they’re going to throw away anyway in a couple of years. 

What drew you to focusing your outreach programs towards women? 

We always wanted to work with former prisoners. There had been some programs that I’d done before Perennial working with former prisoners. When we started offering classes to the public we found that the majority of the people that came to them were women. Then we started focusing and working with women in our outreach, as well. We just found that it’s an opportunity that isn’t being addressed in terms of teaching women these making skills. They often don’t get to learn them, just in the way our culture works. Even if we do something simple like thread art (nailing a pattern on wood and threading it)- it’s a simple artistic project- but even just the fact that they’ll be using a hammer, that then if they needed to hang something in a new apartment they would know what tool to use and feel more comfortable using it. Those skills, like using a hammer, can apply to more life skills.

I feel like there’s a really important therapeutic arm to that, too.

Oh yeah, definitely. We talk a lot about that with our outreach programs especially because the population that we’re serving is more vulnerable and doesn’t have access to those opportunities. The same thing happens in our public programs, too. People will come in and maybe they’re stressed from work maybe they had a bad day, but by the end of a 2-hour class, they learned a new skill, they’re making something new and they transformed something that would have been thrown away into something. You can just see the difference in their personality and how they feel and that pride that comes with, “Oh my gosh, I made this.” It’s just very powerful for anybody.

What’s something that people should know about sustainability but don’t?

A big thing with sustainability is that it is very accessible. I feel like one of the reasons we started Perennial was because a lot of the movements that were like “go green!” were using wording that makes you feel like you’re buying something sustainable but you don’t actually know if it is. I think the idea of living sustainably and living green seems inaccessible sometimes because you feel like you need to get solar panels on your house or start a whole new recycling system or whatever. So many of the things we can do to live sustainably are things that we used to do as a culture even 50 years ago. And a lot of that is being more resourceful with what you have. Living more self-sufficiently and being conscious of what you use and how you use it makes a big impact. Really small actions can make a big impact but we want to help compile those small actions into a lifestyle change.

What was your inspiration behind starting Perennial?

The idea for the organization came out of a proposal for a piece of public art that I made while I was in school at Wash U. I was going to collect old trash and fix it up and have a resale, and then just redistribute items back into the community. I worked on that for a long time and got really interested in the idea, but it didn’t get funded and then I just continued exploring it. I met some other folks that were interested so that’s kind of how the organization was formed. I met this woman Lisa Harper Chang who just graduated from the social work school at Wash U and was really interested in art impact on social change. I started working with her and she was the one who kind of brought in the idea of working with former prisoners and that metaphor of like fixing up an item and fixing your life. It kind of just organically developed from that proposal and then also I’ve just always been really interested in stuff that people throw away ever since I was little. It was always really fun to find stuff in alleys and make stuff out of it. My background is in art so I think that creative training allowed me to see potential in that stuff. It just got to a point where I was like there’s so much stuff out here and I can’t take it all in and help it, you know? Perennial kind of came out of that want to teach other people so that stuff didn’t get thrown away in the first place.

What’s your favorite class you guys do?

Rag rugs is one of tne of the classes I love because I took it and learned a new skill. When we first offered it, I took the class and learned not only how to make yarn from bedsheets and tshirts and turn one sheet into a single strand of yarn, but also how to crochet, which I didn’t know. Now I have a rug that’s probably 5-6 feet wide that I’ve crocheted from bedsheets in my living room. That’s like my example of how those classes not only teach you a few skills and how to reuse a material but it applies directly to my space now and my home. There’s some classes that are more regimented and project based. We made coffee pour over stands last night. It was basic woodworking and creating a U-shape but also how to drill out material, file down to create a hole for the pour over coffee maker to sit in, so they learned all those skills but it was very like, “This is your next step everyone.” “Now do this, now here’s how to use this tool, now do this.” There’s papermaking, which is how to make paper from scraps that we find. Then it’s a 20-minute demonstration and an hour and a half of blending pulp and experimenting. There’s always different flows and feelings, especially based on the materials that you use and the projects that we can accomplish. It is always a different salvaged material and a different skill. We always try to make “Fun” one of our values as an organization. The point is for people to enjoy these processes and want to continue doing them, so it’s a pretty low stress environment and a lot of our instructors are really entertaining to learn with.

 

What does St. Louis mean to you?

Endless potential. I love talking to my friends that live on the west and east coast, even just about the ability to start an organization like this when I was 24 or 23 or whatever. I didn’t have any capital or anything to do that. Not only the kind of space and accessibility that exists here to start a project, to start a business, start a nonprofit, but also the support of the community. I think people are really excited when you’re just doing something positive, so you can just like get a lot of support from folks here. I feel like in other places sometimes it’s more competitive. Whereas when you tell someone here about an idea they’re like “Oh my gosh, I want you do that!” One of the reasons I stayed here was because of that potential to do whatever I wanted.

Why do you call St. Louis home?

Because I started this freaking nonprofit and I can’t leave now. Just kidding. I really fell in love with the city. During my time in school I got some internships at different art organizations, jobs that I worked, like City Sprouts a baby shop in the Loop (it’s not in the loop anymore). Just having jobs and internships and meeting people and getting kind of into the community here, it was just a very positive feeling. There’s just so many interesting characters and establishments. Even in the 10 years that I’ve been here, so much has changed. When I think about in 2005 just the neighborhoods I would drive through, and driving through them now they’re just completely different. Just seeing that growth in that small amount of time. From the outside just looking at stats about St. Louis sometimes it can come out very negative but I think just the actual physical stuff going on is so positive. People ask me if I’ll ever move and I like the idea of doing artist residencies somewhere else for a period of time, but I just love the idea of having this be home.

What are some of your favorite activities in St. Louis?

I feel like Civil Life Brewery is a good default, you can eat, drink, hangout. It’s great because you can go with friends and we’ll bring a board game. My favorite place to shop is probably in the alleys of St. Louis. There is so much good stuff, which is another reason I think Perennial works well in St. Louis. There’s such great stuff to find in bulk trash here. I think it’s really nice here in the city how there are those different pockets, so being able to go to the Central West End or The Grove. I live in South Hampton neighborhood so even walking down Macklind there’s a bunch of new stuff popping up. I also love our greenways and parks. Being able to bike around, there’s so much to explore. 

Does all this talk about creativity and sustainability have you itching to get involved? Check out all of Perennial’s classes on their website and sign up for some! I’m ready to learn how to salvage all of my old denim by taking their Boro + Sashiko Mending class and dress up my new apartment with a Crocheted Rag Rug.