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Ten pieces of pop culture you didn't know Wayne White created

Wayne White with Randy, one of his many creations for Pee Wee's Playhouse.
Wayne White with Randy, one of his many creations for Pee Wee's Playhouse.

Wayne White might be the most prolific and virtually unknown contributor to popular culture of the last four decades. But the illustrator, painter, sculptor and puppet-maker from Chattanooga is getting some much deserved exposure with the release of Beauty Is Embarrassing, a documentary about White's life and still-evolving career. The film opens this Friday at 7 p.m. at the Denver FilmCenter, and the artist will be on hand to chat with the audience after the showing.

Not familiar with White's work? Here's a quick primer of just some of the pieces he's contributed to the world of mass media through illustrations, puppets, commercials and music videos.

See also:

- Visual artist Wayne White on Pee Wee's Playhouse and using the F-word in fine art

- Review: Beauty Is Embarrassing

- Lists: Spike Lee's most beautifully preachy moments

10. Puppets on Pee Wee's Playhouse

White's best-known work was form Pee Wee's Playhouse , the show that essentially launched his mainstream career in 1986. Brought on at the television show's inception, the illustrator's self-proclaimed "funky homemade puppet shows on the side" became his bread and butter. Characters like Dirty Dog, Mr. Kite, Conky and Randy were not only created by White, but he also voiced and operated some.

9. The Smashing Pumpkins, "Tonight, Tonight"

The second of what the artist calls his best-known pieces are the backgrounds and life-size illustrations for the Georges Méliès-inspired video. "I got the Smashing Pumpkins gig because I knew Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, the husband-and-wife director team who did Little Miss Sunshine and Ruby Sparks and millions of other videos and commercials," says White. Already a fan of nineteenth-century design, the artist's whimsical work was a perfect fit for the retro video.

8. Peter Gabriel, "Big Time"

Looking at this video against the work White did for Pee Wee's Playhouse, it's easy to see how much of the artist's creative license was thankfully left unedited. A part of MTV's history on its music video-minded timeline, Gabriel's "Big Time" was just one of a string of vignettes that helped establish his visual presence in the pop world, with definite thanks due to White's vision.

7. The Offspring, "She's Got Issues"

A step back to White's earlier work as an illustrator, The Offspring's video layers his gooey cartoon style over film footage. The video also features a pre-New Girl fame Zooey Deschanel.

6. Tex and Rex puppets from Shining Time Station

The cowboy brothers who play the music inside the jukebox world in Shining Time Station show off White's penchant for southern kitsch, and give a graceful nod to his proud hillbilly upbringing.

5. Set design - The Weird Al Show

Credited for set design on Weird Al's awkward but awesome short-lived TV show, White's work was again an integral part of the wacky world of late '80s-early '90s television. Meant for kids but catering also to adults, it wasn't just about the characters and jokes on these shows, but White's retro aesthetic, too. (See Beakman's World for more of White's work from a little earlier in this time period.)

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4. Liquid Television, "Bill And Willis"

Returning again to White's lovingly hillbilly roots, this short for MTV's then-groundbreaking, adult-aimed cartoon show Liquid Television is classic Wayne White. Creating both the voices and a white-trash dream-hell all his own, White did some of his best work with the Bill And Willis characters and the mangled swap meet set-up (complete with distorted port-a-potties).

3. Children's television show, Riders in the Sky

On the heels of his Emmy-winning success with Pee Wee's Playhouse, White began work on Riders in the Sky, another children's show with his signature cartoonish work all over it -- except this time themed like the old West. With virtually no traces of the show on the Internet (White explains in Beauty Is Embarrassing how the demise of the show from the get-go broke his heart, and has said he couldn't even watch a single episode), the above clip remains, but fails to showcase White's amazing puppet creations and colorful and bubble-style set design. Luckily, it looks like the company that manufactured White's creations, The Puppet Studio, still has photos of his work up for viewing.

2. Snapple Commercial series

In the context of Wayne White's body of work, it's obvious that these commercials come from his mind -- once you've seen everything else he's put out into the world. The 2003 series doesn't feature any of the artist's particularly defining illustrations or puppets, but his humor is clear. For a look at all of the clips White did in this series, see his website.

1. Old Spice commercial with Bruce Campbell

This 2007 ad features a giant sailing ship image by Wayne White that runs the length of an entire Old Spice commercial. What's more amazing, especially in a world of computer-generated imagery, was that this is an actual physical painting created by White just for this purpose.



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