Through art, everything you imagine can be made real.
Perhaps that’s what makes the act of creating art so very appealing for those who seek to transform themselves and their lives.
In a society where things – and even people – are all too often cast aside for imperfections, second chances are not easily won.
That’s why Perennial St. Louis
, a 2016 Spirit of St. Louis Women’s Fund grantee, believes in building a creative culture using found materials.
By teaching students how to transform discarded items into valued and cherished resources, Perennial instructors are simultaneously giving the students themselves a skill – and in some cases, a fresh start.
“For a lot of the women, having a place to come and a place to express themselves is validating,” said Jenny Murphy, executive director for Perennial.
These organizations work with underserved individuals who are seeking to transform their lives, including survivors of domestic abuse and human trafficking, immigrants, refugees and women transitioning out of the criminal justice system.
Perennial provides monthly DIY workshops on-site at these agencies, giving their clients a chance to work on projects such as creating handmade paper from paper scraps, making custom journals from reclaimed books, or crafting unique jewelry from old leather belts.
Each workshop teaches participants a new handy and artistic skill, such as sewing or glass cutting, and shows them a new use for an item that might otherwise be thrown away, such as an old shirt or plastic bag.
Perennial works with “women at a point of personal transformation or transition, giving them a chance to learn new skills and develop confidence in their ideas, abilities, and gifts through a positive and creative outlet.”
Perennial also provides the partner agency clients with the opportunity to work once a week on self-identified re-use projects in their ReCreate Studio, a structured open-studio environment.
Perennial’s teaching artists help participants develop ideas, set goals and teach any skills they might need to complete the project.
The grant from SOS allowed Perennial to take their outreach programs a step farther.
“We recently created a new position, and now have an art therapist on staff,” Murphy said. “It has allowed us to serve our clients better. Having an art therapist on staff is really helpful with the emotional and other issues. We don’t provide art therapy but we provide an art practice that is therapeutic.”
The impact of the outreach programs is visible in the women themselves.
“One of our clients who is a client for the Center for Women in Transition, she is definitely someone who struggled with being independent with her projects,” Murphy said. “But the more she worked through her projects you could just see this change in her ability to feel comfortable and confident in working with tools.”
The client made such a transformation, in fact, that her social worker visited the Perennial workshop to watch her in action.
“It helped her social worker understand that she can figure things out. It will even help her professionally,” Murphy said.
Though it has evolved over the years, the original concept for Perennial started back when Murphy was a sculpture student at Washington University.
She submitted a public art proposal for a recirculation program for collecting bulk trash and restoring it for later redistribution back into the community.
Though her submission wasn’t selected for funding, her idea caught the attention of her professors and peers.
“The core of the idea was how to teach people to see potential in things they were throwing away – how to encourage creativity in our culture as an alternative to just consumption,” Murphy said.
When Murphy was still a student, she met Lisa Harper Chang. Chang, who then worked for the Pulitzer Arts Foundation,was very excited by Murphy’s concept.
“She saw this as an opportunity to give new life to items but also as a way of working with people who were working to give themselves new life,” Murphy said.
Chang helped Murphy discover the importance of working with diverse and disenfranchised groups, and the value of teaching others tangible skills.
“The resourcefulness can be really empowering,” Murphy said. “The programs I did with Lisa are what shaped the programs we do for women in transition.”
Perennial also offers classes to the public on a variety of subjects, including textile dying, woodworking, furniture building, bookbinding and much more. They have teaching artists on staff, and also bring in guest instructors to share their talents.
The one caveat for every artist is that as many materials as possible must be found, not new.
“We work with a bunch of different artists from all over the city,” Murphy said. “We’ll sit and say, ‘what kind of alternatives can we find for what you need?’ For knitting and crocheting classes we make yarn from old t-shirts and bed sheets and the hooks and needles from furniture parts like the dowel from chairs.”
Once people begin recognizing the potential of discarded items, they start looking at “trash” in a whole new way.
“There’s instances all the time when we hear, ‘I was about to throw this away but then I think, what else can I do with it,'” Murphy said.
Perennial moved into its new, larger location in October, allowing for more classes to be held at the same time. Up to 14 classes are sometimes held in one week, Murphy said.
“Getting the news that we had been awarded the grant from SOS gave us a little confidence boost in terms of growing our programs and our organization as a whole,” Murphy said. “It came at a time when we were ready to move into a larger building. It definitely had an impact on us and made us feel valid and good about continuing to grow.”
Story written by Bethany Prange of 618 Creative.