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At top, Ricardo Morris, director of the Green Street Arts Center, is developing classes for the center’s fall semester.

At right, Morris enjoys a snack with participants of the Free Lunch Program inside the center in Middletown’s North End.

 
Posted 08.17.05

Director of the Green Street Arts Center Promotes Creativity in the Classroom

When Ricardo Morris taught English in public schools, he refused to let his students simply read “Beowolf.” The class would feast, dance and listen to 10th century music – all before opening the epic narrative.

His unconventional teaching methods, however, weren’t appreciated beyond the classroom.

“I was sent to the principal’s office far more than any of my students,” he says, smiling. “I was always looking for new ways to teach literature, and although the students loved it, the principal didn’t always like my holistic-approach.”

Nowadays, his avant-garde lessons are encouraged and respected. As director of the Green Street Arts Center, Morris constantly invents ways to bring creativity into the classroom.

Via Green Street’s After School Program, Morris immerses youngsters in the visual, media, dramatic and literary arts and music. During the evening, he ensures adults and families express themselves through acting to the latest hip hop moves.  

“Arts are essential to life,” he explains. “We’re not trying to turn our students into artists, but expose them to the arts, and hopefully that will improve the quality of their life. You don’t know what you like until you try it.”

Morris – a musician, dancer, director, teacher and arts administrator  – was brought on to direct the art center just 12 months before its grand opening in January 2005. The center’s location in the heart of the Middletown’s North End was a familiar environment for the Chattanooga, Tennessee native.

“I grew up in a very similar community,” Morris explains. “It was predominately black, underprivileged, distressed and poor. So working here in a similar neighborhood was appealing. I was excited to start something from scratch while helping to revitalize the neighborhood.”

Morris was responsible for the overall look and feel of the center, sponsored by Wesleyan, the City of Middletown and the North End Action Team. He used his knowledge of feng shui along with Centerbrook architects, feng shui consultant Pat McGrath, and Jerry Zinser to develop the center’s practical layout and powerful color scheme. The Arts Café, for example, is painted in cornflower blue to calm children prior to their art lessons. The visual arts studios are neutral-colored and lit with natural sunlight.

“Initially, they were going to have the administration offices up front, but I didn’t want students coming in and seeing offices,” he says from his rear-corner office. “They should see dance and music activity happening. So I suggested we flip the plan, and put the offices back here, hidden away.”

Morris, the oldest of five children, is the first and only member of his family to go to college. After earning his bachelor’s degree in speech and theater from Tennessee State University in 1985, he returned to Chattanooga and taught school for eight years.

During his summers off, Morris attended summer institutes studying theater and writing. And in 1994, he applied at Yale, graduating three years later with a master’s of fine arts in art administration.

While in New Haven as a graduate student, Morris founded the Dwight/Edgewood Project, collaboration between Yale School of Drama students and children in the Dwight/Edgewood neighborhood.  Before accepting his new position at Wesleyan, Morris was the executive director of the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame and the Carver Theatre for the Performing Arts in Birmingham, Alabama. He also served as director of arts in education for Allied Arts of Chattanooga where he was responsible for the inclusion and promotion of the arts in schools in southeastern Tennessee. 

Pamela Tatge, director of the Center for the Arts, says it took the Green Street Arts Center search committee eight months to find a Green Street director.

“Ricardo is a triple threat: artist, educator and administrator,” Tatge says. “He was the only candidate who had this kind of a varied resume alongside a history of living and working in neighborhoods like the one we have in the North Ends. “He hit the ground running last year and pulled everything together so we could open GSAC this past January. His work at integrating the center into the life of the neighborhood, into Middletown's arts scene, and into the life of our campus has been exceptional."

At Green Street, Morris hired an assistant director, Manny Rivera; an administrative assistant, Rachel Roccaberton, several community volunteers, 40 teaching artists and over 50 Wesleyan-students, which work as teaching assistants and tutors.

“North End parents wanted their students to have contact with Wesleyan students,” Morris says. “They believed that the Wesleyan students’ ‘I can accomplish anything’ attitude would rub off on their kids. That they’ll learn that there are no rules to what you can do in life if you work hard.”

Morris often works a 12-hour day. The center opens at 9 a.m. and the community is welcome anytime. This summer at 11:30 a.m., Morris hosts a free lunch program for community children that also introduces them to a variety of arts disciplines . During the regular school year between 3 and 6 p.m., he helps oversee the center’s after-school program, which hosts 7-18-year-olds for visual and applied art, dance, theater, music and film classes. And between 1 and 10 p.m., Morris supervises the adult and family classes and workshops, taught by visiting and Wesleyan artists.

Classes range from line dancing, sound design and digital photography to playwriting, bomba drumming and Vejigante mask making, and much more.

In fact, he has personally helped out by assisting instructors in ballet, modern dance and recorder classes.

During the facility’s first semester, the GSAC had 52 after-school students and 120 adults. Morris’ goal for the upcoming year is to continue spreading the word about Green Street and enroll 90 students in the after-school program and 250 in the adult evening classes.

“Monday through Saturday, we want these classes filled to capacity,” he says.

To stay in tune with the North End and surrounding community, Morris is a member of the North End Action Team, and discusses public safety, housing, police protection and other issues with the community. He has a plot in the community garden, and helps train working artists to become teaching artists.

“It’s important to be visible in the community,” he says. “I want the community to know Green Street has their best interest at heart and they can trust that we’re not going anywhere.”
 

By Olivia Bartlett, The Wesleyan Connection editor