Having a laugh with multimedia artist Wayne White



White in his Los Angeles studio
  • White in his Los Angeles studio
Beauty Is Embarrassing, which plays this week at the Gene Siskel Film Center, is the rare documentary about an artist who's well-adjusted in both his private and public life. The subject, multimedia pop artist Wayne White, seems content exhibiting his work in galleries and diners, museums and grade schools; and given how prolific he is (he creates paintings, sculptures, and gallery installations and has worked in television), he has plenty of work to go around. He also comes across in the movie as a supportive husband and father who remains comfortable with his small-town southern roots in spite of having lived in Los Angeles for more than two decades. White, who first came to fame for his design work and puppetry on Pee-Wee's Playhouse, is a proud eccentric, and it's inspiring to learn he's been so successful in life and art simply by being himself.

I spoke to White the other morning before he got to work in his Los Angeles studio. He seemed no different on the phone than he did onscreen—amiable, funny, and often self-deprecating.

Ben Sachs: What are you up to this morning?

Wayne White: I'm still drinking coffee and thinking about doing something. [laughs]

Are you more productive in the afternoon?

No, I try to get started as early as I can. But I'm still getting back into my old routine because I've been on the road a lot lately.

This has been for screenings of the film, I assume?

Yeah. I've been doing Q&As in a lot of different cities.

Have you traveled much in the past?

No, it's a relatively new thing for me. It's been kind of disruptive to my studio schedule. But it's been quite a time. I've discovered all these thirtysomethings who grew up watching Pee-Wee's Playhouse. I sort of knew that it made an impact on that generation, but I only saw it as a reality by being on the road and meeting thousands of people who were impacted by it. I've been alone in a room for 25, 30 years, doing my own thing. It was a revelation to see how many people I've reached through my work. It's been mind-blowing.

What's it like being the subject of a film? That must be disorienting too, to go from spending all this time by yourself to seeing yourself on a big screen.

White on the set of Pee-Wees Playhouse
  • White on the set of Pee-Wee's Playhouse
It is disorienting. I'm still processing the whole experience, to tell you the truth. At first it's exciting, of course—who wouldn't want to see their story told on a big screen? But then it becomes intrusive, because you suddenly realize that you're a public figure now, even if it's on a small level in my case. But still, my life has been opened up to thousands of people, and it's a little frightening. So you cycle through these different emotions. You realize, "Well, I'm lucky to have this as a promotional tool for my work. It will help me sell paintings and get some jobs." But the feeling of exposure can make you self-conscious. After a while, you get sick of yourself.

It must be a relief that your life is a lot more normal than, say, Robert Crumb's. I've heard he could barely watch Terry Zwigoff's documentary about him.

Yeah, the content of that movie was way more unsettling than mine. There's a lot of pain in that movie that I can understand [Crumb] wouldn't want to relive. There are some low points in my story too. They're nothing compared to Crumb's, but I can relate to his self-consciousness. It's one thing to put your artwork out there; it's another thing to put yourself out there. [Viewers] come away thinking [the movie's] a definition of you, rather than a portrait of you.

Something that comes through in the movie is that your work encourages spectators to enjoy themselves. In that sense, the art takes a lot of attention away from you.

And that's the most positive part of it, when it inspires [other] people to be creative. I want to pass on this spirit of art making. When I do that, it also teaches me a lesson that I'm just a part of this continuum. None of these ideas I espouse are new; I didn't make up any of this stuff. I just grafted them from my influences and now I'm passing them along. It's not all about me; it's about these universal ideas. That's the greatest joy of this whole experience, learning I can be an inspiration to other people. I never thought in a million years that I'd be an inspirational conduit, but . . . yeah, it's happened.

And now you start touring the grade schools, giving motivational talks.

[laughing] Actually, I have gotten invitations from schools to talk to young people about being creative, but . . . ugh. Right now I just feel like hiding out for a while.

Now that you're the subject of an inspirational movie, I'm curious if any movies have inspired you.

I can't really say I'm influenced in my drawing and painting by the movies, though I love the movies. Everybody does.

From the film, White wearing a Lyndon Johnson puppet head
  • From the film, White wearing a Lyndon Johnson puppet head
What are some of your favorites?

I love Sullivan's Travels, anything by Stanley Kubrick. I loved Mary Poppins when I was a kid; that was a big influence on me.

Is it because of the scene where the characters walk into a drawing?

Yes, that blew my mind! It resonated with me so much when I was a kid. But [as an adult] I love the message of Sullivan's Travels, that humor is a form of salvation and the world needs laughter as much as it needs anything else.

One of my favorite parts in Beauty Is Embarrassing is when you talk about meeting your wife [comics artist Mimi Pond]. It's a great love story. How long have you been together?

We met in 1985 and got married in '88. Those were the Pee-Wee years, and also some of the peak years for Mimi as a cartoonist. It was a very industrious, creative time for us as a couple.

That's why I found it so inspiring. I've known creative people who have gotten together, and they've become less productive as a result.

You know, Mimi was already a successful artist when I met her. She inspired me to carry on and keep painting in New York City. And she was inspired by my work... We gave each other the confidence and the joy to create.

And the movie shows that now your kids have gotten in on the act.

It's true. We're a whole artist family. Our kids both have natural, incredible talents. We didn't force them into anything; they just fell into it.

Do you ever collaborate as a family?

We don't really collaborate all that much on art. I think that's one of the things that holds us together—we don't try to work with each other, but we're all on parallel paths. I think if we tried to collaborate too much it might drive us nuts. [laughs]

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