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

Keep Westword Free
I Support
  • Local
  • Community
  • Journalism
  • logo

Support the independent voice of Denver and help keep the future of Westword free.

Wayne White might be your favorite visual artist of the last few decades that you didn't know existed. But that was sort of the point behind Beauty Is Embarrassing, director Neil Berkeley's the documentary about White's life and career thus far, which will screen at the Denver FilmCenter this Friday, September 21.

"It's like, 'Oh yeah, oh, wow,'" says White in his Chattanooga drawl, describing the general reaction to his body of work. That work first reached a wide public audience when White was brought on as a puppet craftsman for the kitsch-heavy children's television show Pee Wee's Playhouse in the late '80s. See also: - Review: Beauty Is Embarrassing - Review: Peter Gabriel at Red Rocks 6/13/11 - Noah Van Sciver goes punk at MCA Denver

White's career soared with the Pee Wee stint, earning the artist three Emmy Awards and more opportunities for television work than he could have ever imagined. Becoming an integral part of MTV's aesthetic in the early '90s, White created puppet-driven shorts for the channel's Liquid Television -- a cultural precursor to the Adult Swim era -- of awesomely warped kid stuff for grown-ups.

In the mid-2000s, the now well-known White started his "Word Paintings" series, adding sayings in bright colors to old landscape imagery from thrift stores.These sayings -- "Hotties 24-7," "Human Fuckin Knowledge" -- have become the artist's new trademark, bringing him a fresh audience and us another view of the many humorous sides of Wayne White's cool little world.

In advance of his appearance at this Friday's screening of Beauty Is Embarrassing, White spoke with Westword about the necessity of humor in art, perseverance and his affinity for the F-word.

Westword: You saw your first big break with Pee Wee's Playhouse. Do you know Paul Reubens personally? And did you know who he was before you were brought on to design and create for the show?

Wayne White: Oh, of course. I had followed him for years before that. He got the show because his popularity was peaking at the time -- he had just done Pee Wee's Big Adventure, the movie, Tim Burton's first feature. So I had seen that, along with millions of others, and I had seen him on David Letterman, so I was very familiar with him.

Do you feel like the experience with Pee Wee's Playhouse had an effect on the work you did after the show ended?

It changed my life, drastically -- that was a huge turning point for me. Prior to that, I was a cartoonist and illustrator in New York City; I thought that was going to be my path. But all along, I had been doing my own homemade funky puppet shows on the side, and lo and behold, that became my career.

Especially after doing a high-profile show like Pee Wee's. It opened up all of these new doors in television, and I became known as "the wild and wacky designer." That's why I eventually moved to Los Angeles, to work in television production. It changed everything. That's what allowed me to buy a house and raise two kids, etc.

What is it about Los Angeles that you like, other than the proximity to work?

I love my house -- I love having a house with a big back yard and a swimming pool and a garden. I just love the climate and getting to work at home. I have my own little bubble here in L.A. that I really enjoy. I know L.A. gets a bad rap; a lot of people only think of the traffic or the crassness of Hollywood, which is all true. But I really don't have to confront that anymore. I love my little world here in my home that I've made. How did you get into the music video side of things? Like your work with Peter Gabriel and The Smashing Pumpkins?

With Peter Gabriel, I got the job because the video (1986's "Big Time") was because of Steven Johnson, who directed the first season of Pee Wee (and Gabriel's video.) Like I said, working on Pee Wee opened all of these new doors for me. Then 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. I had known them socially and they knew of my work, so it was great. That was the first project I did with them -- I went on to do several other projects with them.

That (Smashing Pumpkins) video and Pee Wee's Playhouse are the biggest responses I get, really. Everybody has an emotional attachment, it seems, to that "Tonight, Tonight" video. It is such a piercingly beautiful song and then, hopefully, the imagery is memorable, too. Everybody loves music because it reminds them of a certain time in their life and people really identify with the sound of that song, and it really evokes big memories for people.

The imagery really coincides with the big, sweeping sound of that song -- and was a big step for that band, at that time.

Yeah, it was one of those rare and special things where the imagery and the music are kind of inseparable, you know? You think of both at the same time and they compeiment each other. I was very lucky, I mean, most productions that you work on don't have that kind of magic.

Was the idea for the "Tonight, Tonight" video brought to you? Yeah , they already had the idea on paper that they wanted to do a take-off on the Georges Méliès Trip to the Moon film. They knew that I loved nineteenth-century imagery -- I had been doing a series of history paintings in a traditional kind of style at the time, and I was also a huge fan of Méliès. I was fortunate to get to do that.

In the documentary, you discuss having some low points in your career -- even after winning three Emmys for

Pee Wee's Playhouse

. What is your advice to artists who hit those points? How did you come through and continue?

My advice -- for those situations, and any situation for any artist -- is very simple: never give up. Perseverance is the number one thing you should have as an artist. If you don't have that, it's all over. Because there are going to be all kinds of low points -- extreme discouragement from time to time. I know it sounds simple-minded, but that's all there is to it. Never. Give. Up.

Because you want to, you really do. (Laughs.) Especially too, when you're working in commercial art that also involves your personal creativity. It can be hard to separate sometimes.

Yes, it's hard to juggle a moneymaking job with your own passions. Again, keep trying to juggle. Keep it up. That was a revelation for me when I first moved to New York City from Tennessee. I was a young man, I was 24. I wanted to leave every day. I wanted to run back home where people loved me and I was safe. I had to fight that feeling everyday. But I came to realize, that's the whole secret - to not give into your need for comfort. Because art is very difficult. It is not a comfortable thing.

Here's the other thing you realize: nobody cares if you give up or go on. You can't rely on what people think about you. The universe doesn't care what you do. So you have to find a sense of determination. Don't think there's an audience cheering you on - you give up? They don't care. You go on? They don't care. You've got to care.

I moved to New York City and had the same thoughts -- coming out from my subway stop everyday and thinking, like, this city stinks! It's hard. It's hard to even buy groceries here.

That's exactly where I had my revelation -- I had just eaten a big chocolate bar and I was standing in the subway and I thought, "I don't want to go this job interview. I want to go home." I was all jacked up on the sugar, and I thought, you can't. Just do it. Just do it! It's a rollercoaster.

It sounds simplistic, but that is the truest advice I can give.

Are you working on anything right now that isn't discussed in the film?

Well, I'm still doing my word paintings -- that's an ongoing thing I have in the studio. I'm trying to branch out and do bigger projects: museum-type commissions. I'm negotiating with my hometown of Chattanooga, Tennessee to do a big outdoor public works sculpture that takes the word paintings and makes them real -- do a giant word sculpture in the beautiful Tennessee landscape. I want to work on a bigger scale, continuously.

I just finished a big museum project in Roanoke, Virginia at the Taubman Museum of Art. Those are the kind of things I want to start doing more of, along with my studio work. And I want to keep doing those big, walk-around puppets you see in the film, too. Who doesn't love a giant puppet, right?

You use a lot of profanity in your word paintings, and it seems from the film that it is also a part of your daily life. It's not viewed as negative.

Well, I'm not quite as dirty-talking as I come across in the movie. (Laughs.) The director kind of played that up for the humor. I give him a lot of credit for pulling it all together. But yeah, profanity is a part of everyday life. Writers use it. People who write screenplays use it. You can't comment honestly on everyday life if you don't use profanity every now and then. It's part of life, and I'm just trying to be honest about it. And it can be very funny, too. I'm always trying to find the humor in a situation, and it gets people's attention. It can get a little out of hand, a little gratuitous. But I'm just reflecting everyday life, I think. Just like a writer would use it in his prose, when a character speaks.

The voice(s) that I use in the paintings aren't necessarily me; I'm oftentimes playing a character and speaking in that character's personality. That's another thing should realize. Just like a writer, I take on different characters.

Why do you think the art world is so afraid of humor -- or something that isn't always utilized?

I think humor is seen as a lesser thing -- it's considered lightweight. And art is always trying to be thought of as very heavy and deep. And to use humor is to, maybe, seem light. But I challenge that, because I think humor is a very deep subject. I think it has a lot of depth to it. The best forms of humor have all kinds of layers of emotion in there, including sadness and anger.

It's the same old story: humor is for the children's table and drama is for the adult table. It's just that way. It's just a prejudice against humor, and there shouldn't be -- I think there shouldn't be. I want to explore it, because I think it is a very worthy topic. And, on a craftsman level, it is way harder to get someone to laugh than to bum them out, believe me. That alone should give humor alone some level of respect. It's just the nature of the art world - it's very self-serious. It needs to lighten up a little. (Laughs)

Thank you, Wayne, for sharing your story. Your personal outlook on life is fucking awesome.

That's fucking great to hear.

Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.

We use cookies to collect and analyze information on site performance and usage, and to enhance and customize content and advertisements. By clicking 'X' or continuing to use the site, you agree to allow cookies to be placed. To find out more, visit our cookies policy and our privacy policy.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.


Join the Westword community and help support independent local journalism in Denver.