It’s said the average person makes 5-7 job changes in her lifetime. These encompass both bold career makeovers and lateral moves to more attractive companies. Artists are a different breed, though. Their career paths tend to be much more difficult to chart, cycling through as many different phases as their inspiration demands. Even under those terms, however, a body of work like Wayne White’s is still uncommon.
White is an artist who has worked in almost every medium imaginable. He has been an art director, an illustrator, a cartoonist, a puppeteer, a painter, and more. After coming up in the underground comics scene of the 1980s, he took a job at Paul Reubens’ upstart Pee-wee’s Playhouse. There, he helped design the overall look of the show, created puppets for it, and even voiced some of the characters, such as red-headed bully Randy. While it was ostensibly a children’s show, Pee-wee’s Playhouse ended up making a lasting impact with many audiences and is still often cited as an influence today.
After his tenure on Pee-wee’s Playhouse, White continued working on other shows, and creating memorable music videos such as The Smashing Pumpkins’ "Tonight, Tonight" and Peter Gabriel’s "Big Time". More recently, White has been exhibiting word paintings featuring bulky, 3-D messages, inflected with his trademark humor, woven seamlessly into landscape imagery.
For a long time, White remained an unsung hero in the American art scene, or as unsung as you can be with three Emmy wins. In 2009, though, Todd Oldham put out a retrospective book of Wayne’s work, fittingly titled Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve. Since then, there has been renewed interest in the artist’s work, which has culminated in the forthcoming documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing.
Recently, White spoke with Co.Create about some of the highlights of his prolific career, what it was like working on Peewee’s Playhouse, and what drives him to keep creating.
CO. CREATE: What brought you to the East Village comics scene of the '80s?
Wayne White: I had a rude awakening after college. I’d had four years of intense fun and camaraderie. I was in an academic bubble, as most college students are. And then when the bubble popped I found myself in Nashville, Tennessee in 1980 with a degree in abstract expressionism. There’s not a lot of jobs for abstract expressionists in 1980 in Nashville, so I had to sober up and find a skill that would pay.
I started to think about illustration again, which sort of lead back to my first love, cartooning, and that really started a fire. Especially after I saw Raw Magazine, which Art Spiegelman was putting out at the time. There was this new comics revolution going on in New York, which inspired me. I jumped from the fine arts world right into the graphics and comics world, which for me there was no difference between at all—they both had the same level of integrity and talent—and that began a lifelong investigation into the difference between high and low. As far as integrity and passion of art-making goes, they’re the same.
How did you get the job at Pee-wee’s Playhouse?
I had been doing puppet shows as a hobby for years on the side, not taking them seriously. Just for friends’ parties, and casually, kind of a goof. I was already living in New York and a friend of mine was still living in Nashville, working at the local TV station down there. She told me that they needed a set designer and a puppet designer for a new kids’ show they were gonna do. I reluctantly submitted my crazy-ass puppet portfolio that I thought nobody would ever take seriously, and lo and behold there was a young crazy guy, a director down at the station who liked what I did. I got a job doing this puppet show in Nashville called Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose, which was a local hit. I took that portfolio directly back with me to New York, and that’s what got me the Pee-wee job.
Which audience did you have in mind when you were coming up with ideas for Pee-wee’s Playhouse?
An audience of people like myself. Young hipsters that had grown up in my generation. Sort of the lower last dregs of the Baby Boomers, who grew up in the '60s and '70s watching children’s television, and then grew up to read underground comics, and then grew up even more and saw people like Andy Kaufman and Saturday Night Live and this whole postmodern deconstruction of the culture we grew up in. People who knew about art, loved rock and roll, and all the pop culture stuff I was. You know, a typical striving pop cultural sort of nut that I was. We wanted to look back on all this media influence and kind of make fun of it and do a satire of it almost, but embrace it too because we love it all.
Was that the audience that ended up tuning in?
Absolutely, I mean, the audience was already there. Pee-wee was already a big hit by the time I came along to do the Pee-wee show, so there was definitely this audience of hipsters who were very much tuned in to his sense of satire and cultural references and just the absurdity of it. Again, it was the late-'70s and the era of Andy Kaufman and deconstruction. It was the beginning of postmodernism, sort of, taking apart things. Everything was falling apart in the '70s.
In the film, you and the other artists working on the show are portrayed hanging out in a room all day, smoking joints, and tossing around crazy ideas. What kind of ideas got shot down there; how did you know if you’d gone too far?
That was the beauty of it all. Nothing got shot down. Some of our wildest dreams and ideas were accepted and championed by Paul. He had enough power at the time to get this crazy stuff on the air. Without him, it never would have flown. He was the same as us, though, we were all cut from the same cloth. We had our champion so I can’t think of anything really besides outright obscenities that wouldn’t have gone. That was the greatest part of that show was that we could dream wildly and have it happen.
You were a pioneer of some techniques in music videos that became more common later on. What was it like trying to force through ideas in the music video space in the 1980s?
I always say that one of the jobs of the artist is to find good bosses. Unless you’re independently wealthy, you’re gonna have to work for somebody somehow. And I’ve been able to find really good bosses: Paul Reubens being one, and Peter Gabriel being another. Peter’s another guy who gave me complete freedom. He had this song, and it was open to interpretation big time, so I just ran wild with it, and he liked that spirit of freedom. That’s my goal is to be able to find those situations, and if it’s not like that, I don’t want to do it. That’s been a blessing and a curse. I could have made a lot more money if I’d towed the line, I guess, but freedom, that’s what I’m looking for. Freedom is oxygen for the artist.
You’ve done some advertising work as well. Did that ever feel like a compromise?
I don’t feel compromised about anything I do as long as I do it with my heart. I bring sincerity to anything I try. It’s often a big failure and it’s often met by people who don’t appreciate it, in both worlds. Art is advertising; it’s an advertisement for yourself. Everything is a fiction, everything is a pitch. If you can do it with sincerity and touch people, who cares if it’s in a magazine or on a wall?
You’ve been really prolific in your career. What drives you to keep creating?
Freedom is what drives me to keep creating. That’s what everybody wants: liberty, freedom. That’s the whole point of being an artist, to indulge your soul. You’re not alive unless you at least think you’re pursuing freedom. I don’t know, maybe it’s all an illusion. They say that free will is an illusion. The artist’s job is to investigate that and be as free as possible.
In the movie, you and your wife [artist Mimi Pond] still seem happy together after all these years. How does having a relationship with a fellow artist help foster creativity?
First of all, it’s good to have another judge around you can trust. Somebody with a good eye, and a mind you can respect to run things by, because a lot of the times, you’re not your own best judge, so it’s great to have another fellow artist to run things by to make sure you’re not full of shit or deluding yourself. Everybody needs that objective eye that they can trust. That’s the #1 advantage of being close to an artist is the trust, it’s like your first filter before you send it out into the world, although I don’t necessarily need that all the time, but it’s nice to have it. It’s sort of a security.
There seems to be a consistent tone with your work, whether it’s puppets, paintings, or animation. How does your process vary?
The process always begins with a drawing. A piece of paper and a pencil. I use paper to think. I’ve been at it so long that I have a pretty practiced connection between my hand and my mind. It all comes out visually like that for me. I love to draw and it always begins that way. It’s just a matter of visualization. I’ll know I want to do a puppet or a painting, but then sometimes it surprises me sometimes. What began as a painting idea will end up as a puppet.
There’s a certain free-floating spontaneous time that I reserve for myself. I also believe in the voodoo of once you start making something—a drawing or an object—it takes on a life of its own and it tells you what it wants to be. You’ve got to listen to your creation, and you’ve got to believe in that. It’s kind of a hard fate to have—it goes against common sense—but that’s what happens. Stuff starts talking back to you in the studio, and you have to be ready and crazy enough to listen to it and follow it.
As much success as you’ve had in your career, you’ve also come up against brick walls sometimes. How did those experiences affect your creativity?
Artists need to experience both equally. They need success and they need failure. They’re both great teachers. Failure is a great teacher. It reminds you and humbles you. You have to be humbled all the time as an artist or your ego will get out of control. Artists’ egos are very dangerous things. One of the themes of my art is the artist’s ego and how ridiculous it is, and how comic and absurd it is, and how it needs to be beaten back down to its box often. And that’s what failure does for you, it keeps your ego in check and makes you look honestly at yourself. Success is easy. Success is like getting drunk. But failure is like hunkering down and facing the music.