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Home Maverick Identity Curtis Tappenden - a self portrait

Curtis Tappenden – a self portrait

Picture is an original Curtis Tappenden, published with permission

On a wet December day, and in reflective mood, artist, author and university senior lecturer, Curtis Tappenden, sat down in a quiet corner of his favourite Brighton café, and interviewed himself as the best way of his introduction to readers of this magazine.

Best, because he could address key issues concerning what it means to be a maverick, discuss deeper thoughts and vulnerabilities and build through a linear ‘question and answer’ interview format, a profile of the varied expressions of his life and how they define him and his work.

It is hard to answer questions that you know are coming, but it means being more prepared and considered. Being invested at the heart of a self-interview, focuses identity and authenticity, an honest expression of oneself to others. Curtis uses this method as a tool of what is known as an auto-ethnographic methodology, for his completing PhD on mavericks in higher education. In identifying as part of a group, permission is granted to explore the lives of similar others.

The interview was conducted using computer voice recognition software which translated Curtis’s conversations with himself into the following text. Curtis the interrogator is marked with an ‘I’ and Curtis the interviewee is marked with a ‘C’.

(Poised, and with the sound of coffee cups chinking on saucers. Jazz is softly playing in the background )

I. When I asked you how long you had been a maverick, you seemed to pull a wry smile. Do you have a problem with me calling you a maverick?

(Pauses and chuckles)

C. No. It makes me laugh, because this is for a magazine devoted to exploring mavericks and their thoughts and behaviours, but I only agreed to self-identify as one, having been called maverick, (in a derogatory sense, I assume), by a teaching colleague about 14 years ago. I really don’t like labels. I recognise that we all need to be categorised to be defined and for our place in the workplace, in society, to be established, but I let others tell me what I am. If they say I am a maverick, maybe I am.

I. So you teach, what happened when you were called a maverick and how did your behaviour affect things?

C. Yes, I am a senior lecturer in Further Education at the University for the Creative Arts, Kent, UK. I decided to introduce songwriting and performance poetry into a creative session (which was co-written with my colleague) to enable students to deliver painting and some critical writing.

So it became a bit more mixed media with a strong element of performance, where our art and design course is mostly involved with drawing, painting and making. Although my colleague was a performance artist by training, my changes were not as we had planned, just too flexible, and the student outcomes might have been hard to mark.

Realising potential difficulties with trying to work with me, my colleague left the session, and reported me to the head of department, as the art tutor who is hard to work with, a ‘maverick!’ I think it was my creative urge and willingness to change what we had arranged to do, without discussing it, that led to the response. On reflection I think I should have discussed it, but fearing a good idea might be quashed, I went ahead with my plan.

I feel a compulsion to do what I need to do, and this is most often as a result of reflection, calculation or a direction I am moving in with my own artistic work. I assume a level of autonomy in it, and this was reflected in my actions. I think this is what the colleague referred to as ‘maverick’.

I. Why did you change the joint lesson plan?

(sighs deeply)

C. I am an artist and consider that things need to change and move on. I work in creative and flexible environments, where students are expected to develop their creativity. But it seems that education can become very formulaic, and ends up largely serving the needs of the curriculum, which was originally designed to support creativity in learning and knowledge acquisition. I have always enjoyed taking risks and adopt levels of autonomy in the content and delivery of my creative teaching. We are always talking about developing student skills for the workplace. Getting students to take responsibility for their lives and pushing boundaries is what it’s all about. The world is full of cultural shifts and changes in working procedures. I don’t think it is maverick to readily respond to change, we all need to embrace change and develop what we do within altering parameters. I just felt that the lesson we had planned was a bit staid. If I’d done otherwise that day, I’d not be having this interview now!

I. So are your students mavericks too?

C. Good point! I think our contexts define us. In a creative environment it is hard to be a maverick, where I believe we are meant to be encouraging our students to push boundaries, do things differently, with intent and a strong will.

This is normalised behaviour and not contrary to expected practices within the world of art and design. If we all flexibly decided how we might change our working roles within, for example, the banking system, and constantly changed how we transacted and transferred money within the world’s standard banking practices, serious questions would be raised and confusion and mistakes would occur!

Not that I’m saying banking structures should not be developed with creativity and flair … But creative practitioners are openly encouraged to seek new ways of doing things, share them, test them, and continually develop processes to enhance and improve skills, knowledge and outcomes. Open approaches taught in art schools should be considered as standard, so I don’t think in the context of our working environment, that students are maverick, but when they challenge the status quo, and work in a way which differs from the norms in society and culture, even after being advised not to, perhaps this is maverick. A change in expectation by others, and their response to that expectation might redefine them.

I. Browsing the internet I noticed that you are very involved in the world of circus and that the Victoria & Albert Museum in London has acquired 39 drawings you have made at various circus’ for its national collection. Is there a link between this involvement and you being a maverick?

(Raises eyebrows, takes a sip of coffee, then smiles with a glint in his eye)

C. I have always loved the circus, from childhood days when I toured my own created toy circus around our garden lawn during the summer, and to be honest, I cannot explain why! The circus has always been an outsiders theatre, the transience of travelling showmen and women beholden to eclectically formed traditions, they have only ever answered to rules of performance set within their own circus communities.

The circus contains archetypes which sometimes make visitors feel uneasy. The clown, for example, is a deeply historical and subversive figure and we tend to identify the clown as behaving with an autonomy which is subversive and very foolish. I believe clowns mirror the most foolish aspects of human nature and present them from behind a very explicit mask. Most people do not wish to reveal their weaknesses to empower others, but I recognised this in clowns, and adopted it into my methods of teaching.

It is considered by other colleagues to be risky and not standard practice. I show vulnerability because I am comfortable to do so, and experience has taught me to use this as a skill to help others to learn. So, I have many clown friends in the circus and they have taught me so much about how to live and express my identity, and help others to feel comfortable with theirs.

I. Interesting. So do you encourage other teachers to work in this way, too?

C. Yes. When I am team-teaching with others. I wrap my thoughts inside academic theory to endorse it and make it more palatable, and this sets it within the context and rules of educational development. In my PhD I look at the work of Russian theorist, Mikhail Bakhtin. He took bawdy, medieval stories by Rabelais and established a theory which he called the Carnivalesque. He presents the metaphor of a procession where all performers have different roles, but all have equal voice. Bakhtin’s Carnivalesque proclaims subversion as a norm within he context of the carnival.

I ask myself how far this theory might carry in the classroom where equality is not fully possible, but understand that students as individuals and a group respond positively when they realise they have some say in their education. They love to test their boundaries.

(hums a circus march)

I. It sound risky to me, destabilising structures of authority and governance!

C. Maybe, but creatives have to be handed the responsibility to take some authority or they will not innovate with new designs or art. Again, in an artistic context I am not sure it is especially maverick, but I’d be willing to transfer it to a less creative environment. Bakhtin’s work was silenced in communist Russia. His ideas were not made public until 1987; that’s how dangerous they were considered to be in the Eastern Bloc.

Power games are interesting though … If you allow your subjects to enjoy a ‘sense’ of power through Bakhtinian-style subversions it keeps them happy, stops any potential uprising! In Japan, I think it’s Japan, some companies set a day aside for workers to humiliate their bosses. This keeps boss-worker relationships sweet. Now that’s quite a maverick idea I’d love to roll out in the UK.

Imagine?!

I. As a maverick are you on a journey of discovery into greater maverickness?

C. I don’t know if I see it like that. I’m on a journey, no doubt, but don’t see myself as a trouble-maker, wielding deliberate maverick behaviour, neither do I think of myself as living in daily resistance to the system. I am very aware that I am definite in my choices, and hope that those around me see things the way I do, and join me in making similar choices. I understand what it is to compromise when it suits, to get things done or to get people on-side. This is an apparent paradox where some think that mavericks are chaotic, out of control, and steam-roller over everyone and everything to get their own way.

It isn’t so for many of us, and I concur with Judith Germain’s definition of people like me, being ‘Socialised Mavericks’. It suits me and my place in the world, and I hope that I am able to encourage others to make decisions and do things in ways that change lives in a positive way.

If this is maverick, count me in!

I. Thanks for your time Curtis.

C. My pleasure. I’ve barely scraped the surface, but I hope it offers you some insight into what maverick means to me.

(knocks back the last of the coffee and opens his sketchpad to draw an unsuspecting customer on a nearby table)

Curtis Tappendenhttp://www.curtistappenden.com/
Curtis Tappenden began to question the identity of mavericks having been labelled a maverick by a work colleague twelve years ago. His belief in autonomous, wilful self-expression is deeply embedded in his vocations as university senior lecturer, editorial artist at a national newspaper in London, performance poet, painter, illustrator and author. He is currently completing a PhD entitled Explorations of ‘maverick’ educators within the institutional Arts and Art and Design Higher Education, an autoethnographic-constructivist study of self in relation to other similar educators, which seeks to define maverick identities and their impact on arts higher education. Curtis is also a renowned circus artist, visually recording the life of international circuses; their performers and performances, from a ringside view! The Victoria & Albert Museum recently acquired 39 circus drawings for the nation, for their importance to the theatre and circus collection. His V&A collection can be found here: bit.ly/2LzgnlJ

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