A St. Louis Nonprofit is Spreading the Joy of Upcycling—One Workshop at a Time
In the early aughts, a St. Louis community artist and educator, Jenny Murphy, was working with women who were at a transitional point in their lives, helping them create beautiful and functional things from found materials and objects. In 2011, that project grew into Perennial, a nonprofit store and community workshop that champions upcycling and creative reuse. Executive Director Katie Carpenter explains Perennial's process.
Perennial offers a variety of classes. How are they typically structured?
Our classes tend to fall into a couple of different categories. One is project-based: You are literally repurposing something into something else. A great example of that was when we hosted workshops where we took old sweaters with holes and turned them into mittens. We also have quite a few classes that are just skills-based. So you come in and take a power saw class, and you're not necessarily leaving with a project, but you then can apply that knowledge to your future projects. The last category is less about the material itself and more about mending and repair. For this we ask, "How do I keep this item functional or change it into something I'm actually going to use?"
It sounds like besides skills, you're teaching a mindset of consuming sustainably. Can you explain more about that?
The first step is realizing that the landfill isn't your only option, even though it's often the most convenient. As people get to know us and commit to changing their habits, they start to think not only about what gets discarded, but also about how they can reduce what they buy or how to extend the life of an item. The next evolution of that sustainability journey is thinking about items at the point that you buy something rather than when you throw it away—How long is it going to last me? How many uses can I get from this item? I think this becomes a natural checklist in our heads where it's not about restriction; rather it's about being conscious. I like to say we transform objects and attitudes. I think the objects are really tangible and practical, and the attitudes come with time and relationship-building.
I'm a student, and hearing you talk makes me think about all the stuff thrown away on college campuses at move-in and move-out time. How does Perennial partner with local St. Louis communities and organizations?
Perennial serves as a connection point through education. We actually host dumpster dive talks, targeting college students and universities in the area, in addition to scavenging for materials as a team to stock our workshop. We work with a lot of social service agencies and nonprofits that serve women at different transitional points of their lives, borrowing from our founding roots with Jenny Murphy. The goal of this is really to solidify our messaging that creative reuse is for anybody and everybody. We provide these women with the time and resources to learn about sustainability and object transformation and then create space for them to work on their own projects that they are excited about! We have also put together some fun professional development workshops for teachers to train the trainer, if you will, to incorporate reuse into their classrooms.
Editor's note: Keep in mind that dumpster diving is not permitted on private property. Read up on safety first, or limit your scavenging to things on the curb.
People can learn to do anything, or reuse anything, on TikTok or YouTube for free. What's the appeal or importance of a hands-on, in-person environment like the one Perennial creates?
A lot of times, we will have students that come in and say, 'Hey, I tried to learn this on YouTube, and I can't figure it out, I just want to talk to someone about it.' I think that people learn and have more fun in person, but also the connections you make with other people in the class and what you learn from the experience is really valuable. You can't get that online.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Perennial's retail shop is open Thursday through Saturday, 11 am-5 pm, and open for an in-person class such as Upcycled Terrarium, Clothing Repair: Zippers or Reclaimed Wood Wall Art. (Check the schedule for availability.) If you don't live in the area, check out its online classes, like Eco-Friendly Furniture Restoration and Sewing Machine Basics, to learn a new skill or create a keepsake project at home.