Jenny Murphy: 2012 Riverfront Times MasterMind Award Winner


"I will live here forever," Jenny Murphy says with a wide, contagious grin as she offers a tour of her studio. The Texas-born artist is referring to her adopted hometown of the past seven years, but it's easy to imagine the sentiment applying specifically to the cozy workshop where she spends her days crafting trash into practical treasures. A fluffy orange tabby cat with boundary issues begs for attention, slinking among the tables made with abandoned windowpanes and pouncing onto rescued chairs.

The 25-year-old founder of Perennial, a nonprofit that upcycles discarded items into useful and beautiful objects while teaching others to do the same, looks effortlessly stylish in the way that only someone with minimal time and a surplus of creativity can. In January Murphy moved her operation from her one-bedroom apartment in Tower Grove South to this space on South Broadway in the Patch neighborhood. Applying the same ethos she'd later pass along to others within those very walls, she renovated, decorated and filled the new HQ solely with rehabbed rubbish. "When we moved in, it was just a white box. We built the entire space out of stuff we found in alleys in St. Louis," Murphy says. "Everything in here was going to be sent to a landfill."

She and her team of volunteers dumpster-dive, raid curbs and prowl estate sales for an indescribably broad range of discarded goods. Murphy sees belts, brass tacks, busted tables and chairs — and envisions a bike trailer, hanging planter or leather wine-bottle tote. And while her immediate, daily goal is to teach people to create a specific piece from a particular set of found items, the big-picture mission is to expose those protégés to a new way of thinking about and looking at objects, thus improving the way they purchase, salvage and utilize goods.

"She has mastered the art of being exceptionally handy and paying attention to her creative self on a daily basis," says Regina Martinez, a friend and fellow artist. "She makes you want to make better use of time and the resources around us."

"We're trying to get over really careless consumption," Murphy elaborates. "On one end there's Wal-Mart, and on one end there's really high design. [We plan to] put something in the middle, more towards the accessible side, that can fill that void."

Perennial's success has everything to do with its founder's idealism-meets-pragmatism philosophy. "It's kind of a mind-fuck, because we're talking about changing this consumer system to make people consume less — but we're also trying to sell them stuff," she acknowledges. "We're looking at items that are the difference between survival and living, and what it means to live compared to what adds to that to make"

In June Murphy's work with Perennial became a paid day job, allowing her to quit an evening gig waiting tables at Bridge Tap House & Wine Bar and freeing up time for beloved hobbies long neglected, such as hiking and sleep. With this new (relative) surplus of time, Murphy set and met some personal summer goals, among them leaving the city limits once a month and spending Mondays (her day off) visiting as many public pools as possible. Her favorite: Fairgrounds Park. "Pool culture is really interesting," she insists. "There are people at the pool who would never talk to you on the street who'll just come up and dunk you! And then you're friends."

Acceptance of and affection for life's incidental pleasures, an inclination to seek out (and welcome) new people and experiences, confidence to act on an impulse and persistence to follow through on a glimmer of an idea — these are the qualities that shape Jenny Murphy's life and work. Of course, the Venn diagram of her personal and professional worlds is a single darkened circle, where one never quite manages to not influence and inspire the other and both are the richer for it.

It's an approach that Claire Wolff, another personal friend and a member of Perennial's board of directors, describes as "resilience, and some special kind of magic."

In the summer of 2010, Jenny Murphy aired up her bike tires, packed a bag and joined two friends on a westward cycling trip that ended in Portland, Oregon. A blog memorializes the "giant mega adventure," replete with photos of three audacious, grinning twentysomethings emboldened by an increasing number of daily miles logged and friendly strangers met along the way.

"I always tell people in the story of starting Perennial that although it seems unrelated, it's a very important component of how the organization began," Murphy says of the odyssey. "I was able to really think about what I was doing. I was just riding a bike and camping for two months. I devised a plan."

Piece by piece throughout the last two years, the plan has come to fruition. But the plan was never a means to an end.

"In our culture, fast and right is what you want to do. But knowing that there's not a right answer, and there's not an end—" Murphy trails off, then, as she's wont to do, moves along. "We have this workshop, and this is the first sketch I made of this idea: a little workshop with retail space. And it happened, but there's so much more to do now."

Murphy intends to expand Perennial's mission through classes and outreach programs that target people in transition, such as women who've recently served prison sentences. And she has no intention of taking it away from St. Louis.

"I think opportunity is just abounding here," she says. "I feel really lucky to have been in St. Louis, to have had this idea. I don't know if I would have been able to create this in another city. There's so much space for things like this to happen — and by 'space' I mean physical space, entrepreneurial space, community space. People really support folks who want to do something and want to bring something cool and new to the city." — Chrissy Wilmes

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