Wayne White’s life story reads like the story of a classic American hero.
An artist leaves his small Tennessee town to find his dreams in the bright lights of New York City. Tremendous, enviable success ebbs and flows through his busy hands, helping him to eventually realize his true calling: aiming a giant metaphorical middle finger toward a too-serious art world.
A college-trained painter and a self-taught puppeteer, White paved his way into the American zeitgeist as one of the lead designers of the children’s show Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. Despite the show’s relatively short run on network TV, White’s kitschy home made aesthetic became an indelible marker of playful hipness for a generation.
Other claims to fame include the science-themed Beakman’s World, a series of memorable Snapple commercials, shorts on MTV’s Liquid Television, and music videos like Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and the award-winning, eternally awesome Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight Tonight.”
After utterly exhausting himself as a one-man animation studio in the Hollywood machine, a burnt-out White retreated to his home studio and forged a new path for himself with his now-iconic comedic painted word stories. In the second half of his already impressive career, White now finds himself among the company of the nation’s top visual artists.
White’s condensed story is a refreshing and inspirational portrait of the artist as a hard-working rebel. As told in vivid detail by keen-eyed director Neil Berkeley, White’s hero’s journey pops to life in the uplifting documentary Beauty is Embarrassing, currently showing at SXSW.
After two and a half intimate years of collecting White’s family, friends and co-workers’ stories, Berkely found the good-natured artist’s journey was one of celebration and self-discovery rather than the clichéd depiction of the tortured artist succeeding in spite of himself.
“We’re finding that audiences are almost relieved by the end of the film,” says Berkeley, in town with White for the initial SXSW screenings of Beauty is Embarrassing. “People often expect to feel bad after a documentary, but this one is funny… Audiences are responding exactly the way we hoped they would.”
That’s not to say that the film whitewashes the hardships that White faced throughout his career and continues to struggle with every day. After White adapted to having Berkeley’s camera on him 24/7, his quieter moments also reveal his inner demons: his fear of disconnection and of letting himself and others down.
“It really wasn’t weird being followed around all the time,” says the puppeteer, reflectively. “Neil gave me the freedom to be myself, and I think the film really shows the best versions of me. I watch the movie now and I think, ‘I want to be that guy.’ It’s me in my most honest moments. The only skeletons I have in my closet are the ones I’ve made.”
Always authentic and brazenly defiant to the end, White’s most recent attention has come from his pop art gallery exhibits that consist of painting crass witticisms over found thrift store Americana landscapes. These pieces combine his precise sense of humor with his appreciation of the mundane “K-Mart art” of middle America.
It wasn’t too long before these paintings ignited White’s value in the fine art world, a microcosm that almost never respects comedy as an art form. Still, art critics and fellow artists alike began giving credit where credit was due. The self-made puppeteer became a world-class painter.
In one amazing shot of the movie, illustrator Gary Panter calls White “a poet.” In the shot, just over his shoulder, one of White’s paintings declares in bright white block letters: “Marcel Duchamp is a big French fag.” (Hooray for poetry!)
“In a humble way, I suppose I do consider myself [a poet],” says White, laughing. “I love art. I get it in its highest form. But there’s no reason you can’t do that and also have fun. I say, lose the pretension and be real about it. I’m a guy from Tennessee who reads Wallace Stephens. You can be both.”
Citing Red Grooms, Art Spiegelman, wife Mimi Pond and even Pee-Wee as his artistic heroes, White is indeed an American original. “I’ve had lots of mentors, and I’m lucky enough to find people who believe in me more than I believe in myself. Artists need that affirmative person. I’ve been very lucky. And now I’m doubly lucky that someone wanted to tell my story.”
A happy ending to our hero’s journey.
Beauty is Embarrassing plays Thursday, Mar 15 at 1:30 p.m. at the SXSW Vimeo Theatre in the Austin Convention Center. Free to Film, Gold and Platinum badge holders and film pass holders. $10 for tickets without a badge.
White's work is also on display at Domy Books until April 19. Signed copies of his book, Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserved, are on sale now.