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Wayne White’s Playhouse

Wayne White in “Beauty is Embarrassing.”

Wayne White’s Playhouse

by Ronald Sklar

The brilliant creative mind behind Pee Wee’s Playhouse and other cultural landmarks continues to pop our eyes.

You may not know him by name, but you know him as that guy behind the scenes responsible for blowing your mind. Wayne White is an artist, art director and puppeteer who is the creator of all the non-human characters on the Eighties masterpiece Pee Wee’s Playhouse (Pee Wee excluded). As well, he was the art director for such award-winning music videos as The Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.”

A recent documentary on his life and work, called Beauty Is Embarrassing, had recently hit the film circuit to resounding praise. These days, he has found great success as a fine artist, whose work is shown all over the world.

Here, White talks with us about some of the finer points of his animated journey.

On life’s sweet irony

I had this crazy puppet show idea, doing puppet shows in people’s garages and at keg parties. Everybody thought I was insane to do that. Yet, lo and behold, it was the greatest career I ever had and it made me the most money. I bought a house and raised two kids from this crazy puppet show notion. I could have failed at so many things but I’ve been so lucky in my life.

On alienation

Being a Confederate punk rocker is definitely a part of me. I was the perfect age. I was about 21 when punk really hit. I was the perfect candidate for picking up on that vibe. I was a huge rockabilly fan to begin with, and punk and rockabilly share a lot in common: drums, bass, guitar, and stripped-down rock-and-roll. It gave me an outlet for that defiance that I’ve always had since I was a teenager. I always felt like an outcast and a misfit. I didn’t have any support system. I was an angry young man and punk fit my idea of things. I went from a long-haired hippie to short-haired punk.

On staying true to one’s dreams

I had a one-track mind about being an artist and drawing pictures. I had to defy a lot of people’s ideas about common sense and playing it safe by taking a riskier path.

On his influences

I take the South with me everywhere I go. It’s a place that nurtured me. It’s where I’m from, whether I like it or not. Specifically, I think it very much influenced my sense of humor, which is very important to my work. I always say my mission is to bring humor into fine art. The South has a very specific kind of humor. It is a wry, dry humor, an understated approach. Also, the South has a sense of defiance. We’re rebels. Nobody understands us. We revolted against the federal government. The sense of being a rebel and an outsider in the general larger culture of the United States has always been a part of me. I always thought of myself as an outsider, that defiant personality.

On collaborating with Paul Reubens (Pee Wee Herman)

He was an incredible person to work for. He had a lot of power in 1986. He told CBS exactly what he wanted to do. He surrounded himself with really good artists. Not Hollywood hacks, but kids who had never worked in Hollywood before. He knew the power of crossing over genres, using real artists instead of standard industry types. He gave me complete freedom, and that was the power of the Playhouse. It was a downtown New York art project that happened to make it onto national television.

On what Paul Reubens was really like in person

It was hard for me to imagine what he was like before I met him. That’s the power of that character [Pee Wee]. It’s really hard to separate the illusion from the reality. As a person, he is a really thoughtful, low-key, deep-voiced, laidback kind of person — exactly the opposite of the high-strung, has-to-be-the-center-of-attention Pee Wee character.

On what it was like on the set of Pee Wee’s Playhouse

It was my first time working on a national TV show. We were so hard at work. We did it in a downtown New York loft. It just felt like a really hard, lonely job. It was a struggle to give birth to the Playhouse. There was a lot of trial and error, a lot of do-overs — lots of staying up all night. We were this insulated little band of downtown New   York artists. We really didn’t think of the larger world at all. We were doing it for ourselves. We weren’t doing it for a nation of children. So when it started taking off like that, it was very surprising.

On creating the classic Smashing Pumpkins music video “Tonight, Tonight.”

The song is beautiful. It really is. To tell you the truth, I’m not a huge Smashing Pumpkins fan. I don’t like their harder stuff, but that song itself is haunting. Before I even heard the concept, I knew the song. I had a love of the antique and the 19th century. I was doing a series of American history paintings that were very traditional, of civil war battles and steamboat scenes. It’s that melancholy, antique kind of vision. It was so satisfying to see my paintings become these giant sets.

On working with Peter Gabriel on his “Big Time” music video:

I got that job because the video was directed by Stephen Johnson, who directed the first season of Pee Wee’s Playhouse. He hired me to be the art director. I must say that Peter Gabriel is the nicest rock star I’ve ever met. He’s a perfect gentleman, with exquisite manners. He treated me like an equal. Again, he was a great boss, just like Paul Reubens. He let me do my thing. He respected me as an artist. That shows through in the video. I can’t remember him saying no to anything, and he’s quite a visual artist himself from his days in Genesis. When the artists create something out of love, it shows. The world really needs that.

On his future work

I’m very excited about the new phase of my career, doing large-scale commission work. I’m negotiating now with my hometown of Chattanooga to do a big outdoor public works sculpture — one of my paintings coming to life in the beautiful Tennessee landscape. It’s a big prominent word sculpture. So that’s a new phase of my career. I’m excited about that.

On realizing his place in pop culture

I’m slowly starting to realize what an impact everything I have done has had, especially on the thirty-something generation. I am delighted. I mean, who wouldn’t be? I’ve worked very hard for 30 years, and it’s often been alone, without any feedback at all. Just getting it out there, through the advances of the Internet age — it’s all coming back to me and to put it simply, it makes me feel incredible. What artist wouldn’t like this kind of payback? I’m just part of a continuum, and I’m glad to be such a strong part of that continuum.

Copyright ©2012  All rights reserved. Posted: November 29, 2012.

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