by Dan Cross
Suppose you want to build some barnwood cabinet doors with recessed hinges, but you can’t afford a table saw, a jointer, a drill press, and a complete set of Forstner bits. Or maybe you want to create a funky sculpture out of recycled windows, wire, and broken glass, but have no space in your apartment to store everything (or a spouse who just won’t let you). Or Perhaps you want to explore your creative side but need some guidance from more experienced artists to get you started. What do you do?
Go check out Perennial on South Broadway in St. Louis. It’s a combination workshop space, art classroom, and warehouse of repurposed materials, just waiting for you and your creative ideas. And even if you don’t have an artistic bone in your body, just looking at the rows of brightly colored string, buttons, swaths of fabric, beautifully weathered driftwood, and bins of stained glass – and watching the other people who are there making cool stuff – will really get your creative juices flowing.
The idea for Perennial began ten years ago with local artist Jenny Murphy, who always had an interest in salvaged and repurposed materials. While in school at Wash U, she developed a proposal for a public art project in which she would collect bulk “trash” (i.e. raw materials), convert it into useful or decorative items, and then have a free sale to distribute everything to good homes, thereby saving piles of potential garbage from the landfill. She applied for a grant, but to her (and her professors’) surprise, the project was not selected for funding. “So many people really liked the idea though, so I decided to figure out how to do it anyway,” Murphy told me at the shop recently. “But I also wanted to teach others how to reuse things, instead of, you know, making everything by myself.”
In 2011, Perennial became an official 503(c)3 nonprofit organization and has continued to grow and expand their mission ever since. They now have a spacious workshop/classroom/store on South Broadway and Chippewa Street, where they offer 20-40 classes per month in all kinds of creative arts: like textiles, woodworking, painting, and more. Recent classes included such things as making recycled wooden planter boxes, shibori fabric dyeing, and upcycled stained glass terrariums, as well as recurring classes on how to use power tools and hand tools for woodworking.
Perennial also offers “community workshops,” usually once or twice a week, which are like open labs where people can come in and use all of the power tools, sewing machines, blenders, soldering irons, and raw materials for their own projects. They even provide storage space in the basement for art projects in progress.
Walking through the shop, I was astounded by how clean and organized everything was, considering that the place was packed full of every kind of art material and salvaged object imaginable. There were cardboard boxes labeled “shoelaces,” “bike tubes,” “belts,” and “nylons,” big wooden drawers labelled “soda cans,” “coffee bags,” “string, yarn, and twine.” Plus tin cans full of X-Acto knives, hole punches, scissors, knitting needles, palette knives, compasses, markers, and skewers—all labeled in Jenny’s impossibly perfect handwriting—a boundless supply of everything, yet so well-sorted and arranged that you can easily find whatever you need. It’s worth a visit to the shop just to get ideas for how much better your house could be organized!
Best of all, all the materials are for sale for the same amazing low price—one dollar per pound. Whether you want broken tiles for a mosaic, fabric for a sewing project, reclaimed windows, or wine corks—a buck a pound! It’s enough to make anyone want to get building.
“Our classes are geared towards adults, but they are open to everyone, so we’ve had 8-year-olds and 65-year-olds in the same class, carving wood spoons from old banister rails,” Murphy explained. “We try to make our programs super-accessible. We even provide scholarships, so that way, we can have someone who lives down the block and someone from West County in here on the same day.”
What impresses me most about Perennial is not the benefits they provide to individuals (even though that is amazing), but the benefit they provide to the community. This is not simply art for art’s sake, but rather, art for people’s sake. Murphy explains:
“The seed for Perennial was looking at art as an agent for social change, and the big one is environmental social change, so people think differently about the resources we have and how to use them effectively, but the other aspect of that is changing not only the way the community interacts with stuff, but also with each other.”
Perennial really lives up to this ideal and puts it into practice. They have partnerships with several social service agencies, like Lydia’s House, which serves women and children recovering from domestic violence, and the Center for Women in Transition, which helps formerly incarcerated women to become self-reliant and independent. The day before my visit to the shop, Perennial held a private furniture-building class for members of Covenant House, a facility for homeless youth. Other outreach programs at Perennial serve homeless adults, immigrants, refugees, and former victims of sex trafficking.
“We help empower people by teaching them how to use power tools, build things, and to express themselves,” Murphy said. “That inspirational act of making something with your hands, but instead of just going out to the store and buying materials, you get that extra layer of creative problem-solving and how good that makes your brain feel. We see that a lot in the people who come to the shop.”
Here’s what one Perennial outreach program participant wrote after the experience: “I have learned to plan and execute projects, I have learned to express my thoughts, ideas, and emotions via art. I feel an immense freedom, and power to be and do anything.”
Another thing that makes your brain feel good is considering the impact this “community garage” has had on the environment. In 2018, Perennial STL, through their classes, workshops and store, rescued an incredible 9,500 pounds of material from the landfill, turning it instead into useful and beautiful works of art. St. Louis is fortunate to have such a great organization working to make a difference in the environment and the community at the same time!
Photo images: Dan Cross