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Chairs-To-Art Program Helps Transform Lives Of Former Female Prisoners In St. Louis

A local program re-purposing broken chairs helps heal women with criminal convictions as they prepare to re-enter society.

The hit TV series “Orange Is the New Black” explores the lives of women behind bars. But even after their release, orange remains an important color to some of St. Louis' former female inmates. So do purple, green and the entire rainbow.

Using color and creativity, these women convert discarded chairs into works of art. The transition takes place through the Center for Women in Transition’s (CWIT’s) Restorative Justice program in connection with Perennial, an organization dedicated to creative re-use. The resulting work can be seen at a one-night event, a Wednesday evening auction at the Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd.

The exhibition is called “Before/After,” referencing the project as well as the differences in women’s lives before and after they complete the program. As they transform chairs, they’re also restoring their self-esteem, according to Perennial founder and executive director Jenny Murphy.

“It gives them an opportunity to express themselves,” Murphy said. “And you can see them find a meditative solace in the work.”

Inside And Out

Murphy recalled working with a former inmate named Miranda, a mother who claimed she didn’t “have a creative bone” in her body. As Murphy watched Miranda turn a seatless dining-room chair into an a whimsical, asymmetrical bench, she saw something shift in Miranda as well.

photo of Jenny Murphy
Credit Provided by Perennial
Jenny Murphy

“Not only did she impress herself, she blew me away,” Murphy said.

An older woman named Dawn, who lives with serious health issues, saw decorative promise in a throw-away chair. Cutting and painting the worn rods and dowels transformed them into a wind chime.

“She ended up creating something truly beautiful,” Murphy said.

The five-week ReCreate program requires the women to learn about design and color, thoroughly study their assigned chair and come up with 25 different ideas about how it might be re-purposed. It also includes a journaling project.

“We write about things such as color and layers, topics about the process but that also have parallels to their lives,” Murphy said.

Not all the pieces will be auctioned. After investing five weeks’ worth of care and creativity into their projects, about half the women decided they couldn’t put a price tag on their labors of love.

Something else of untold value emerges from the undertaking.

"We have them make a list of steps, from start to finish," Murphy said. "It helps them become confident that they can make a plan, work the plan and be creative in that process."

Until They Love Themselves

Women come to the Center for Women in Transition with a range of criminal convictions from shoplifting to violent crimes, according to CWIT executive director Laura Toledo. Some were behind bars for a decade, others were able to report to CWIT in lieu of serving time. The nonprofit center offers them housing, food and other physical comforts.

photo of hands at work
Credit Provided by Perennial
Women working at Perennial

But tending to their self-worth and emotional life is also paramount. Women face a host of gender-specific issues in their return to the outside world, according to Toledo. Many are single mothers, struggling to feed and care for children. Others are working to regain custody. Substance abuse is not uncommon.  

“A lot of that is based on self-medicating after a history of physical and sexual abuse as children,” Toledo said. “Not that men don’t have that, too but in women, it’s much more prevalent.”

CWIT measures its success rate by the percentage of clients who return to prison. That number is a low 5 to 7 percent, Toledo said. The ReCreate program and other efforts to build self-worth and self-love play a big part in the women’s progress.

“A lot of clients say that we love them until they can love themselves,” Toledo said.


Where: The Regional Arts Commission, 6128 Delmar Blvd., 63112
When: 5:30-8 p.m., Wednesday, Dec. 18
Cost: Free
Information: Perennial website

Nancy is a veteran journalist whose career spans television, radio, print and online media. Her passions include the arts and social justice, and she particularly delights in the stories of people living and working in that intersection.

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