Wayne White in his studioWayne White in his studio
Wayne White might possibly be one of the most versatile and celebrated artists of our time. Mention his name at swanky parties in New York or L.A. and you’ll invite accolades over his brand of innovative “word paintings” combining found art with a modern, Southern twist.
Speak of him among entertainment critics and you may just hear about his award-winning work on Pee Wee’s Playhouse and several music videos (back when MTV still played music videos).
But sadly, if you utter his name right here in White’s hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee you’ll likely be met with a response of “who?”
Seems even though Wayne White is considered creative royalty in places on the cutting edge of modern art, with pieces displayed in galleries, museums and even the living rooms of famous hip people across the country, you can’t find one inkling of his work around here.
Not one of our downtown’s many, many outdoor sculptures bears his name, even though he’s famous worldwide for installations of wacky, thought-provoking 3D pieces, including a room size exhibit at Rice University in Houston, Texas. There isn’t a single one of his paintings or puppets displayed in the Hunter Museum of American Art, although his work was recently the focus of a major exhibit at the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia. And if that’s not enough, there isn’t even a tiny plaque commemorating his legacy at his alma mater of Hixson High School, even though he still ends conversations during his brief visits back home with “Go Wildcats.”
“I had to leave Chattanooga to be the artist I wanted to be,” said White in a recent phone interview. “I had to leave Chattanooga to be the artist I wanted to be,” said White in a recent phone interview. “This was not the place to be for an artist in the mid-seventies. I had to forsake my hometown in order to not be embarrassed about the beauty I was creating.”
Beauty Is Embarrassing is a new documentary about Wayne White’s life and work. Currently opening in theaters around the country after receiving successful nods at SXSW in Austin and the Toronto Film Festival, as well as “Best Documentary” awards at the Nashville Film Festival and the nationally renowned Cleveland Film Festival. In fact, just so his hometown friends, fans and family could see the film on the big screen, White is premiering the film in Chattanooga right along with stints in just about every major city in America.
Therefore, Beauty Is Embarrassing will be featured at the Carmike Wynnsong 10 cinema this weekend, October 12-14th, with a special Q&A featuring White himself after the showing on Saturday, October 13th.
The documentary chronicles White’s unique Southern upbringing, which is the inspiration for his art, the struggles he’s encountered throughout his career, and what makes him one of America’s most important artists today. In fact, contemporary artists of note praising White in the film include heavy hitters such as DEVO’s Mark Mothersbaugh, Simpsons creator Matt Groening, Paul Reubens, and designer Todd Oldham, who helped White assemble a substantial coffee table book of his work titled Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve in 2009.
The massive 382-page book features hundreds of images from Wayne’s earliest work as an illustrator all the way up to his most recent fine art and sculptures. Since the book’s release, White has been traveling the country delivering incredibly enlightening hour-long talks where he discusses his life and work, and makes time for a little banjo and harmonica playing.
The newly released film version of the book and those highly entertaining presentations, Beauty Is Embarrassing, chronicles White’s childhood in Chattanooga soaking up Southern culture, his college years at Middle Tennessee State University learning how to apply his inspiration artistically, and his post-graduation jaunt to New York to start his career as an illustrator for the East Village Eye, New York Times, Raw Magazine and the Village Voice. The film explores White’s rise to prominence, the tolls of being in high demand, and how he’s come to find a balance between a bill-paying career and everyday life.
“Like everybody, I’m just striving for that ‘f-you money’,” White says in the documentary. “You know, if you get enough money, you can say ‘f-you’ and do what you want instead of worrying about producing art just to pay bills.”
Narrated by White, the film details his fateful partnership with Paul Reubens (aka Pee Wee Herman) in 1986 to help create the set design and puppets for the hit television show Pee Wee’s Playhouse, which earned White three Emmy awards.
White and wife Mimi Pond relocated to Los Angeles for the show’s last few seasons, where they still reside today with their two grown children. After Playhouse ended due in part to Rueben’s’ unfortunate brush with the law in 1990, White continued creating set designs and characters for television shows such as Beakman’s World, Riders in the Sky, and Bill & Willis. White was also tapped to art direct a few music videos, including the Smashing Pumpkins’ Tonight, Tonight and Peter Gabriel’s Big Time, both of which earned him Billboard and MTV Music Video Awards.
Over the years White has also received great praise for his room size 3D installations including Big ‘Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep – featuring the world’s largest puppet head of George Jones lying on its side in peaceful slumber as whiffs of Jack Daniels emit from its snoring mouth. And, more recently, White took over a large portion of the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia for what he calls an “explosive motif” of “cartoony expressionism” in an exhibit titled BIG LICK BOOM which gives tribute to Roanoke’s transformation from a little town called Big Lick, Virginia into a boomtown during the height of railroad expansion in the late 1800’s.
White has continued incorporating his humorous visual imagery into video formats, including television advertising campaigns for Snapple and Old Spice. The Snapple ad series features its products’ bottles personified in puppet form, as a boy band, skateboarding, break dancing and head banging among other things. And, you may remember the Old Spice spot, where a wise pitchman is pontificating about “how much is enough” as he walks through a room with a seemingly never ending painting of a ship created by White.
Maybe this gig inspired White in some way, because for the past several years his focus has been renewed on painting. Trips to thrift stores to buy old cheesy landscape reproductions just for the frames turned into a new creative direction – painstakingly incorporating three-dimensional text into the existing paintings.
Adding a sense of humor to the sensibility of Southernisms, White’s “word paintings” feature Escher-style lettering stating such off the wall phrases as “NASCAR Sugar Tits,” “Fanfuckingtastic,” and “You’re boring the shit out of me” among many, many others. And, much to White’s pleasant surprise, West Coast art critics and gallery owners took to his uncanny style with enthusiastic fervor.
“I was amazed at the reception these paintings received, both from admirers to actual buyers and collectors. It made me feel really good to be recognized for yet another medium besides puppeteering and illustration,” White said. “Finally, in my mid 40’s I was able to focus on the painting career I always wanted. It was a long time coming.”
Speaking of a long time coming, White is finally being recognized right here in his hometown. With the help of the Shaking Ray Levi Society, he’s in negotiations with Chattanooga city officials and private investors to have a large-scale outdoor sculpture of one of his word paintings permanently on display along the Riverwalk.
“The greatest compliment I ever received was when my first grade teacher, Mrs. Stoddard at Hixson Elementary, told the whole class that she knew I was going to be an artist someday,” White said. “And now that this city has grown to embrace art and local artists like me it’s very inspiring, which brings me to the second greatest compliment I ever receive – when someone tells me that I’ve inspired them. That’s what it’s all about.”
BEAUTY IS EMBARRASING
Film website: beautyisembarrassing.com
Oct. 11-Oct. 13
Showtime for each day is 6:50 p.m.
Carmike Wynnsong 8
Wayne White will be in attendance for a Q&A session at the Oct. 12 and Oct. 13 screening of the film.