This story originally appeared in the June 2012 issue of Washington magazine.
For Jenny Murphy, BFA09, developing an entry for a sculpture competition—a rite of passage for students at the Sam Fox School—helped define her future as an entrepreneur and community arts leader.
"My concept for the University City Sculpture Series competition involved a 'University City Recirculation Program,'" Murphy recalls. "Twice a year, residents put all of their unwanted bulk items—furniture, lamps, doors, mirrors—out on the curb for pickup. I wanted to take those items, fix them up, and give them away to people who could use them."
Although Murphy's concept was not chosen for funding, it generated enthusiastic responses from her professors and classmates. The idea found its greatest champion in Lisa Harper Chang, community projects director for St. Louis' Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts, who had come to speak to the class about the Pulitzer's current exhibit and their new community programs.
"Lisa likes to tell people that she practically stalked me because she saw so much potential in my idea," Murphy says with a laugh. While finishing her studies, she kept in touch with Chang by working for the Pulitzer's "Community Light" project in 2008. Murphy also gained valuable experience managing budgets, planning, and organizing as president of Washington University's Art School Council.
A Dallas native, Murphy decided to stay in St. Louis after her 2009 graduation. With the support of Chang, she founded Perennial, which was incorporated in May 2010. Its mission: "Empower people to transform themselves and their communities by providing a place to discover ways to transform discarded goods into objects of worth."
Still holding down several part-time jobs at that point, Murphy took a break before making the leap into running Perennial. She needed to consider how she could make it her life work since she would be serving as a volunteer executive director during the organization's startup phase. "Two college friends and I went on a 51-day bike trek from St. Louis to Portland, Oregon," she says. "It gave me a lot of time to consider my dreams and goals, and I decided to go for it." When Murphy returned from her trip, Perennial's board began to develop the organization, and they received 501(c)(3) designation in January 2011.
Murphy's eco-friendly concept, boundless energy, and infectious smile have garnered a solid and ever-growing group of loyal supporters. Her lone staff member, Brie Cella, volunteers as a part-time programming and development assistant, and Murphy has attracted a board of directors that other local cultural institutions must envy.
"We want to teach people to develop 'do-it-yourself' skills," Murphy says. "In that process, they learn to look at objects and themselves in a new, more creative light."
Murphy and Cella have developed programming for two different audiences. For the first group, who Murphy admits includes "everyone," they offer a variety of fun, low-cost crafting events and classes that teach creative reuse for common household items.
Perennial's second audience consists of people in transition, including former prisoners and homeless individuals who want to learn new skills. In January, Murphy moved Perennial's workspace from her basement into a storefront in St. Louis' Carondelet neighborhood—just down the block from the Center for Women in Transition, a program that offers support to women coming out of incarceration.
A six-week workshop, currently in development, will teach creative and vocational skills in furniture repair, refinishing, and reupholstery to women in the program.
The new shop provides much-needed space for classes and retail sales of repurposed items. Murphy hopes retail sales will help decrease her reliance on grants and fundraising, even though she's had success with both. Last year, the University's Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies awarded Perennial $10,000 for its business plan.
Murphy seems to meet every challenge with an unflagging determination. "I have great community support and resources," she says. "And thanks to my art education, I learned how to problem-solve in creative ways."
Lisa Cary is a freelance writer based in St. Louis.