In the basement of the Southern Oregon University's Education and Psychology building, at the end of a quiet, empty, mostly beige hall, an explosion of color and eclectic ideas greets anyone who glances into Room 012.

In the basement of Southern Oregon University's Education and Psychology building, at the end of a quiet, empty, mostly beige hall, an explosion of color and eclectic ideas greets anyone who glances into Room 012.

"It's an installation," SOU Associate Professor Wilkins-O'Riley Zinn says, sitting in her small office filled ceiling to floor with toys, gadgets, stuffed animals, Christmas trees, colored lights and works of art collected over the years and carefully placed among academic books and files.

The objects have been purchased at secondhand stores, kept as gifts from students, friends and coworkers or savored as keepsakes from her childhood. Her choices and placement come together in one large art installation — her office.

"The uniting factor is things that make me smile," Zinn says.

And she's not the only one smiling.

"I see a lot of reactions," she says. "One man stopped as he was walking by and said, 'Can I just come in here and relax?'"

The room fits with one of her many interests — the institutionalization of public space.

"In the effort to make sure space is not bad for fewer and fewer people, we often end up with spaces no one likes," she says.

Zinn teaches teachers, and a primary focus is helping them develop students' ability to learn through fun.

Her approach is stitched together from a lifetime of experience both inside and outside the academic world.

One of her first jobs was sewing pockets onto blue jeans for a company in Georgia in the 1970s. She was fast and made enough money to support herself and her first husband. But the job was not challenging her mind and her creative drive, so she took a job doing advertisement design and layout for a newspaper. She moved from that to an editor's position when her English skills were noticed.

Zinn came to the West Coast and got her teaching credential at SOU, then worked as an adjunct professor while teaching at South Medford High School for seven years. During that period, she kept her interest in the artistic side of life, filling her classroom with odds and ends designed to make a more fruitful learning environment for her students.

"The fire marshal came in and said it was the most dangerous fire hazard he'd seen in 30 years," she says.

Zinn also has worked as a manager of a print shop and on and off in the radio industry for years.

She received her doctorate at Oregon State University and returned to SOU to teach in the education department.

During all this she kept up with her lifelong love of art and words. She blogs daily at wilkinsorileyzinn.wordpress.com on a range of topics, including education, creativity, popular culture and responsibility. Popular culture also figures prominently in her artwork, including her contributions to the Jega Gallery show this month "Breast Wishes: Exposing an American Obsession," which is curated by Zinn.

The show ties into a lifelong interest in how popular culture shapes adolescents — sometimes literally.

"I had a ninth-grade student who told me she was getting breast implants," Zinn says.

Concerned, she contacted the student's mother, who said she thought it was a good idea.

What grew out of that was another ongoing Zinn blog by the same name, which is a collection of quotes and thoughts on breasts, body image and the influence of popular culture.

But she's not simply raving against the influence of pop culture on kids. Zinn believes there are learning opportunities as well.

"I use popular culture and try to teach students using it," she says. "It's important and can be used to explore other things."

It's also a valuable tool to teach students how to learn.

"You can research anything," Zinn says. "You can research Rock-Paper-Scissors or toilet paper."

While the knowledge students gain may not be considered useful in some academic circles, the research skills gained are invaluable, according to Zinn.

Through her own experience and research, Zinn has boiled the most important keys to learning down to six aspects: Choice, relevance, engagement, active learning, camaraderie, and — most important — teacher attitude.

For good or ill, people remember just a few of their teachers in life, and the lessons taught by those teachers stick the deepest, Zinn says.

"I had an art teacher who threw my collage on the floor, stomped on it and said I would never be an artist," she says. "And I thought I wasn't for years."

Her pieces today are collage-like, with complex patterns of images and words put together with a geometrical yet organic flare.

Zinn hopes through her education of teachers to save other students from similar experiences. While not all examples are as harsh as hers, there are still forces within the education system that tend to force students into specific paths in specific ways. Zinn shows teachers how to help students find the paths that work best for them. And she wants her own story to be an example, rather than a template.

One day a student yelled down the hall to her, "I want to be like Zinn!"

"They don't really want to be like me," she says. "What they want is permission to be who they are."

Zinn's first name is one she chose for herself, combining the names of her mother and grandmother. She delights in a secret acronym formed: WOZ, which for her stands for her favorite movie, "The Wizard of Oz."

With all her education and experience, it serves as a reminder not to get too full of herself.

"There's a humbug behind the curtain," she says, referring to the "great and powerful Oz," the charlatan wizard in the film.

"I don't want to ever become that humbug."

Reach reporter and editor Myles Murphy at 541-482-3456 ext. 222 or mmurphy@dailytidings.com.