Artist, cartoonist, set designer, illustrator, Wayne White is a Renaissance man in every sense imaginable. Whether you recognize the name or not, you have most certainly grown up knowing his work. White received three Emmy awards for his work in set design on Pee Wee’s Playhouse, and his other television credits include production and set design for Shining Time Station, Riders in the Sky, The Weird Al Show and Beakman’s World. He also received a Billboard Music Award for Best Art Direction for Peter Gabriel’s video Big Time. His world of 3-D paintings and landscapes, gynormous puppet caricatures and self-described thrift store word paintings are the subject of a new documentary Beauty is Embarrassing. I had the pleasure of talking with White about the documentary and being persistent about your passion.
This documentary has been so well received at major film festivals around the world, what’s that been like for you?
It’s been amazing. We did the whole film festival circuit this spring, and now we’re on to the theatrical release across the country, and truthfully it’s been a huge surprise. I never thought it would do this well. This time last year we were still making the film, and I had no anticipation it would be such a huge success. What is really surprising is how everyone says it is so inspirational. I never thought of myself as an inspirational figure, ever, and here I am in this movie inspiring people to go out and make art and dream dreams. It’s a real pleasure.
Where did the title come from?
It was originally the title of one of my word paintings, and I explain it a little in the movie. To me it has three different meanings. Number one, when we see something that is overwhelmingly beautiful and awe inspiring our emotions come to the surface and we feel not worthy almost humbled by it and that sense of vulnerability is kind of an embarrassing situation to be in. Number two, beautiful people who are born beautiful like supermodels, are real self-entitled jerks. They don’t handle beauty too well. Their personalities aren’t so great, and human beings just can’t handle personal beauty, it turns them into people whose behavior is embarrassing. Thirdly, is the fact that artists are people who make beauty. You can really define an artist by that, but you can’t go around saying that. You can’t go around introducing yourself as someone who makes beauty. That would be embarrassing. I keep finding subtle ways of thinking about it. It’s a very provocative title to me.
How you do transition between all your creative and artistic outlets?
I have tried different things and have been lucky enough to have some success at everything I’ve tried. I went to school and majored in painting and I could always draw. I always loved cartooning since I was a little kid. I graduated with a painting major, but I couldn’t make any money doing that; so, I decided to go back to my earliest love of illustrating and drawing cartoons because there was a market for that. You could sell your drawings to the magazines. That led me to New York City. So, I was cartooning to make a living, and at the same time, I had been doing these puppet shows in college in the late 70’s. They were these crazy shows where the puppets would bleed and explode with firecrackers and fire, just really intensely weird and I just did that for a hobby for the fun of it at parties and on the street just to have some fun, I kept a record of it and oddly enough that led to my biggest career move ever and because of those puppet shows, I got the job on Pee Wee’s Playhouse. Something I never would have thought would happen. So, something I did out of love, that everyone thought I was crazy for doing it, turned out to be the biggest money making thing I ever did. It led me into television, got me in the Screen Actors Guild, twenty-five years of set design, performing, puppets, I bought a house and raised two kids. Now I’m back into painting and sculpting again.
What will people be surprised by in the movie?
I think they are going to be surprised that I have done all these different things that they know about, that they’ve grown up with or that they have at least watched starting. They’ll be surprised to learn that I’ve been involved in pop culture for the past thirty years. That’s part of the fun of watching the movie is discovering that and connecting the dots and seeing that the same guy did all these different things. That seems to give people a thrill to find that out.
Finally, what would you say to someone at a crossroads who might be struggling with whether to do something they love or go for the sure paycheck?
Well, I have had to find that balance myself. We all have to make money and survive. We gotta have that paycheck, I’m not going to say you don’t, but you’ve gotta find time to do both, and that’s very difficult. You have to be persistent with your dreams. That’s the number one bit of advice I always give young artists, be persistent. Don’t ever give up on your dreams no matter how hard it is to keep it alive, and just make your money on the side. Eventually that dream, if you really believe in it, will bring you some sort of success. If you don’t have persistence, it’s all over with. That’s the challenge.
A fascinating man with an amazing story. Beauty is Embarrassing is showing in limited theatrical release. Check your local listings for screenings at a theatre near you.