SUNNYVALE -- Morgan Richardson looks like a recruit straight out of a punk-rock garage band. His slicked-up brown hair ends in swooping sideburns; on his chin sits a tuft of brown hair. Competing with the pumping music around him, he bounds to the mic stand at the front of the room, tilting it like a seasoned performer thanking the crowd.
"Smock on!" he said, raising his fist in the rocker's ubiquitous, devil-horned salute.
In the mundane world of summer camp craft tables, Richardson's art class demands attention. The room is decked out like a variety show stage: banners cover the walls, ceiling-mounted flags swoop downward, the sunlight streams down from a north-facing sunroof and backlights the rocker on stage. On this day, it doesn't even have chairs, giving kids more room to run around and interact while completing their projects.
Richardson, a Bay Area artist, is the lead art instructor for third- to fifth-graders at Camp Galileo's summer day camp in Sunnyvale. His classroom's ever-changing look is inspired by medieval castles, dinosaurs and ancient Greece -- rotating based on Camp Galileo's weekly theme. For theme park week, Richardson, an entertainment technician at California's Great America, actually brought the park into the classroom.
"I literally jumped into the Dumpster and brought the banners here for the kids," he says, pointing to the sun-faded sign that used to hang in Great America's main square. "I got these big fiberglass pterodactyls, from a ride called Flintstone's Flyers. They trashed them, so I saved two, because I knew I wanted them in the classroom."
It's been a long road for Richardson, who two years ago found himself graduated and "adult" after an unfulfilling college career. Armed with a degree in studio art concentrating in photography -- in his words, "a degree in nothing," -- Richardson set out looking for places where he felt most at home. Early on, he discovered the cathartic magic of amusement parks and sought to recreate it for others.
"Where I find my release is at Disneyland. I go to that park ... and feel like it's my home," he said. He says he's sometimes more attached to his studio or his kids at Camp Galileo, but theme parks always transport him to a special place. Recreating that place -- his own park -- may yet be a distant goal. But Richardson has long been designing spaces fit for the wide-eyed wonderment of children.
At Galileo Learning, a science and art-driven design program with 38 locations throughout the Bay Area, Richardson goes out of his way to imagineer a little world for his campers. This rambunctious crew of 7- to 10-year-olds follows him around, tugging at his shirt with questions instead of raising their hands. Richardson, whose voice becomes raspy from hours of talking, soothes it by occasional swigs from a Teddy bear-shaped bottle of supermarket honey. Campers aren't students doing exercises in Richardson's art class: they're newly hired theme park employees designing the day's entertainment and need to know what it takes to keep a show on the road.
"The classroom kind of becomes a home for the kids," Richardson said. "It's more of an immersion environment if I can transport them to another time or place. If they're in that mindset, their artwork can really reflect it."
Today's project? Stage makeup, Richardson announces, to groans from the class's boys. He's prepared for the reaction, listing off an all-star cast of macho characters that were caked in makeup for their big roles: Superman, the cast of The Avengers, the villainous Joker. By the time he's done explaining, everybody is climbing over each other for a mask and a paintbrush.
Richardson describes his teaching as putting emphasis on the artist's personal style. "In third grade I had a teacher tell me that my art was terrible because I colored outside the lines and in crazy, bright, neon colors" he said. "She was like, 'that's not the way it's supposed to be.' That was a decisive moment for me, when I thought, 'well, forget you. I'll do what I want.'"
His independent, creative streak is exactly what Camp Galileo's organizers hope to instill in their campers. "We teach for our students to be courageous, to imagine something, to bring it to life," said Dawn Riordan, the program's director of marketing. "They test it, redesign it, and share the idea. It's the process that matters."
Throughout this process, of course, campers and teachers alike make mistakes that would dampen the spirits of most children. But at Camp Galileo, failed trials are celebrated as much as successes. "We have a wall where kids would put up their mistakes rather than feel ashamed," said Juli Ashdown, a community marketing specialist at Camp Galileo and herself a former art instructor. It's an attempt to give children the courage to tackle ambitious projects and look for ways to improve their own work.
Most importantly, the Galileo approach challenges kids to hold up a past failure and create from it something bigger, better and beautiful.
"We see mistakes," said 7-year-old Madhav Lopez, one of Richardson's campers. "Morgan sees opportunities."
In the chaos of art class, a little boy walks up to Richardson clutching his mock-up of a theme park monster's face. It's a green and gray mask. "Morgan, is this OK?" he asks.
"Well, tell me about it," Richardson replies.
The boy looks down at his page, studying his work. "It's a zombie," he says. "No, it's a vampire." Suddenly, his eyes shoot upward, struck by inspiration. "It needs fangs," he declares, wandering away.
Richardson smiles. With hardly any prompting, the student created, reflected and identified room for improvement. If Camp Galileo's core concepts are the courage to make mistakes and the perseverance to achieve one's full potential, Richardson has already been bringing them to life in each of his campers.
"Sometimes kids say 'You've changed my life,'" he said. "How are you supposed to feel after that? It's the greatest feeling I've ever had."
Edward Ngai can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.