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A Conversation with Jenny Murphy and Brie Cella of Perennial

Perennial is a community workshop and store located in the Patch neighborhood of south St. Louis just within walking distance of the Mississippi River. Founder Jenny Murphy cultivated the idea for the social enterprise that employs creative reuse to divert cast-off items from land-fills while still an undergraduate in the sculpture program at Washington University in St. Louis. Jenny and I became better acquainted at Wash U, where I was also attending as a graduate student in studio art. We were both native Texans and Dallas-ites who had found their way to St. Louis and had actually attended the same high school at different times in the early 2000‘s. Where as most days, it was amazing I could even tie my shoes let alone know what I was doing in my studio, Jenny had an immediate cohesiveness to her project that has carried her through all the way to the established non-profit Perennial is today. I interviewed Jenny and her public programs and retail coordinator, Brie Cella, at Perennial over mini hand-made pumpkin pies in belated celebration of Pi Day.


Amelia-Colette Jones: Jenny, you had the idea for Perennial when you were an undergrad at Washington University in St. Louis, what is the rough timeline of events from “Perennial the idea” to where you are now as a realized organization with a brick and mortar space?

Jenny Murphy: I had the idea in 2008 when I developed a creative re-purpose public art project for the City of University City. I was still thinking about it at the end of 2008-2009 after I graduated from Wash U. I started trying out different reuse arts programming with different organizations. I worked on the Urban Renewal program with the Pulitzer in 2010. The same year the board came together and Perennial became incorporated. In 2011 Perennial received 501c3 status, competed and won in the Skandalaris Center for Entrepreneurial Studies YSEIC Competition and in 2012 we moved into our current space. Its been FUn FunFUn since then.

AJ: Brie, at what point did you come in? Can you talk about coming back to St. Louis after going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, why did you choose to move back to St. Louis?

Brie Cella: I started volunteering with Perennial about 2.5 years ago. Coming back to St. Louis after having lived in Chicago for three years was really refreshing. Chicago is a really vibrant city and I am really grateful for that experience, but I had a nagging urge to move back to my hometown. I still had lifelong friends living in St. Louis and I couldn’t see myself really making a home in Chicago. Plus, it seemed Chicago was already established. St. Louis has so much potential and is such an awesome small city, that you have greater access to tapping into all the neat projects/businesses popping up. Plus, rent is about 40% cheaper here. 🙂 All in all, St. Louis is highly accessible in a multitude of ways.

AJ: Would you both maybe talk about St. Louis a little and why you guys wanted to stick around and start something like this here vs. another city…like Chicago or Austin or…I feel like any bravery I have or confidence to create now is linked to living in this city – there’s a feeling of necessity that I don’t really feel other places.

JM: I love St. Louis. By the time I was thinking seriously about starting Perennial, I had made a lot of connections and drummed up some interest for the idea here, so it was just the next step to start the organization here. I also think I had opportunities here that I would not have had in other cities. You also feel a lot of support for new ideas from the community here. Folks are really excited you are doing something in St. Louis, because there are these gaps that need to be filled with innovative and creative ideas!

BC: Thin crust pizza. Enough said. (I’m joking, but serious. I think I answered this in the previous question)

AJ: Jenny, did some of the initial mixed feedback you received on your project while you were still in school inform how you frame Perennial today?

JM: I think it helped me learn to take criticism and also believe in crazy ideas.

We still struggle with the “is this art?” question. Our organization is so seeped in the arts, it’s the basis of everything we do, but it is a conversation/convincing we have to continually have/do with folks. I think my experience in academia help me understand that it’s important for me to not take it personally if someone doesn’t see Perennial the way I or our supporters do. I just see those conversations as an opportunity to expand people’s idea of ‘what is art?’ and if we walk away still in separate camps I know it’s not that big of a deal.

I’m sure they will at least understand the fact that we’re diverting waste from landfills. The environmental side is much easier to absorb. Creativity is one of our main values as an organization, but different people are drawn to our organization and mission for different reasons.

AJ: Perennial is a non-profit – what are the pros and cons of being a non-profit art organization?

JM: For Perennial, we have a strong social mission. We want to create a social shift in which we transform consumer culture into creative culture. So for us, all our activities help us work toward that mission. That is the base line of why we became a non-profit. I also think the non-profit structure (in terms of community accountability (board), community support (donors)) are important aspects to create meaningful change. It’s much more difficult to get non-profit status then to start a business (applications, fees, etc.), but it really depends on what your end goal is: individual benefit ($) or community benefit.

AJ: How does having an art background (Jenny: BFA from Washington University, Brie: BFA from Art Institute of Chicago) inform your approach to Perennial?

JM: It helps me solve problems creatively, know there’s not a ‘right’ way to do a lot of things, and also listen to suggestions/ideas and incorporate them into my work (after so many critiques, you get good at this!).

BC: I consider Perennial as much of an arts organization as I do a social organization. Looking at a bunch of junk and being able to not only transform it, but to push beyond its original function, is a highly intellectual and creative process. You have to see beyond the standardization of objects. For me, the creative process has always been something more transcendent than the final piece. Having spent my college years making things, rethinking things, transforming things, and experimenting with things, I see Perennial as an alleyway to finding creative solutions to economic, consumer and environmental challenges. It’s art that makes sense.

AJ: How do you see Perennial growing in the future?

BC: From the moment I found out about what Jenny was doing, I knew this project had major potential. The organization addresses so many issues and so elegantly finds a common solution. Perennial isn’t just about taking alley finds and giving it a new coat of paint; It challenges society’s current lifestyle. I envision Perennial as a community resource. A resource of not only knowledge, but objects/items you might use in your everyday life. When your mop breaks, do you go to Target to pick up a new one? No. You go to Perennial where you either learn how to fix it yourself or you let us fix it for you. Perennial is creating a paradigm shift towards a more conscious consumer. It’s the modern mom and pop store, but just a bit more hip. You’ll know us by name and trust us. Perennial will be a part of the community. You’ll stop by just to say hi. And yes, we’ll need more hands in the shop to get there.

JM: We definitely want to expand our staff as we expand our reach. We want to become a go-to spot for creative, sustainable, fun, and arts-based programming in St. Louis and ideally begin to share our programming nationally as well. We also hope to grow our retail to generate more sustainable income for our programs and operations. Maybe a centrally located St. Louis retail shop? Maybe selling all over the USA? We’re working towards those kinds of goals.

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