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Taking Off the Ankle Weights: WAYNE WHITE: The STOP SMILING Interview

The STOP SMILING Interview



Thursday, October 22, 2009

By JC Gabel

Wayne White, who hails from rural Tennessee, is a Pop Art renaissance man. Largely self-taught, he has worked for three decades as an illustrator, painter, cartoonist and puppeteer. He is the creative mind behind a bevy of projects, ranging from the surrealistic Eighties television show Pee-wee’s Playhouse (for which he won three Emmy’s for his puppet designs) to art direction for the unforgettable Peter Gabriel video “Big Time” (for which he won a Billboard award for best Art Direction) to set designs for Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight” and lithographed covers for the alt-country band Lampchop (he contributed artwork to four of the band’s albums). In more recent years, he has produced formal works of sculpture, and turned out an ongoing series of text-based pictures he makes from found paintings he covers in words and phrases, positioning the lettering into the original landscape. Although his word-driven art has been frequently compared to the work of Edward Ruscha, White assures STOP SMILING that he didn’t have Ruscha in mind when he first started painting in what has now become one of his signature styles. This past summer, coming off the heals of his Todd Oldham-designed first book, Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve (Ammo Books), White carved out some time to answer a few questions.

[Click here to see a slideshow of Wayne White's work.]

STOP SMILING: You’ve been drawing since you were very young. Looking back, who do you think influenced your creativity?

Wayne White: My mother. She was an aesthete in a world of farm-boy factory workers.

SS: How did growing up in Tennessee affect your perception of the world?

WW: People are sweeter in the South. Southerners make an effort to be gentle toward each other in social situations. It’s almost like baby talk, the way they coo back and forth. I’m too prickly to be that way, so I reacted against it. A large part of my “Southerness” is my reaction against the South. But I don’t mind going back and being baby-talked. I kinda miss it.

SS: In the book you recount how you used to go through drawing tablets so quickly that your folks starting giving you brown grocery bags to draw on instead to save money. Is that what lead you to draw and paint on found materials?

WW: Yes. I don’t like or trust new and shiny things. They make me nervous. That includes art materials. I’ve always felt like an art supply store was already a work of art. Why mess up all those pretty little color sets and perfect white paper? But show me the same stuff all broken up in baggies and dog-eared at a yard sale and I’m raring to go. It’s a working class hang-up that I’ve made work for me.

SS: Tell me about your imaginary friendship with the Geedar family and how that helped play an active roll in your artistic development?

WW: I made up a guy named Geedar when I was three or four and played and talked with him all the time. He looked like Roger Maris. He eventually married Momma Geedar who looked like Edie Adams. I liked creating characters. My real little friends were boring. That’s one of the banal reasons for being creative – to keep yourself entertained. Nothing has changed. I’m still motivated by putting on a little show for myself.

SS: In fifth grade, you saw your first psychedelic art. Did that change your perception of things and what you could create visually?

WW: Very much. I first grasped the idea of abstract art when I saw psychedelic posters and album covers when I was a kid. I started drawing these texture fields. I learned that pictoral space could be more than just the illusions of perspective. I would fill edge-to-edge a notebook page with these ever-changing little shapes and lines. Everyone was impressed. I think I sold a few to some girls I liked.

SS: Ralph Steadman was an early influence. What was it about his work that intrigued you so much?

WW: I really liked the looseness of his line and all those splatters. It was the first time I had seen so-called “expressionism.” His stuff looked like it was breaking out of some constraint and was bursting, bleeding and suffering in its efforts. As a wild-ass teenager, I related.

SS: You educated yourself about art history at libraries and by working/experimenting. Do you think that is the best way for artists to ply their craft?

WW: Teachers are a problem for me. I either tuned them out or conned them. It never quite worked for me. I always let my natural curiosity be my guide and did my own searching. It’s different for everybody, but I don’t like academia. It’s all so cozy and boring.

SS: By the late Seventies, you’d made the leap from “country hippie to the idea of city living and a full-out exploration of culture, Thelonious Monk records, museums, etc.” Take us back to that time for a moment with an anecdote.

: I was taking my first painting class in 1976 at Middle Tennessee State University. I was still spending all my time backpacking and rock climbing. So, naturally, I was trying to finish a “cubist still life” due in the morning in the middle of a party the night before. I was surrounded by my fellow hippy types when in walks one of the arty kids from my class. He dropped by to return something and he sees me painting with all these people watching me and thinks I have this weird following. He tells all the other arty kids (all six of them), and in a few months I’m at their parties with shorthair, listening to Talking Heads: 77.

SS: Was it your love of comics that eventually led to the puppet shows?

WW: No. The puppet thing was a complete fluke. My friend Mike Quinn, again at MTSU, did a hand puppet show for his forestry class. He told me about it and I decided to do one for my art history class, instead of writing a paper. I claimed Jean DuBuffet wrote the play. It was called “Punk and Juicy.” That was 1978. I never played with puppets as a kid. That was the first time I really even thought about them. All on a lazy whim.

SS: Tell me about the time you sought out Art Spiegelman, and how it affected the direction of your career?

WW: I saw RAW magazine in Nashville in 1980 and was inspired to move to New York and become a cartoonist. It was as simple as that. The next thing I know, I’ve parked my 1970 Maverick on 23rd Street and I’m looking for Art Spiegelman at the School of Visual Arts. I find him and show him my not-so-hot comic pages and he’s nice enough to invite me to sit-in on his class. That was the meeting that got me out of the South. I hung around Art’s studio when he let me. He was drawing Maus at the time and it was a real education just to watch that. He also had an amazing library of every kind of graphic art. It was the wizard’s laboratory, and unlike most of my art teachers, he gave me real practical advice, like drawing with a Winsor Newton watercolor brush and India ink. I built a whole illustration career on it.

SS: Did your work on that Nashville PBS kids’ show lead you to getting the Pee-wee’s Playhouse gig?

WW: Yes. I did Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose in Nashville in the fall of ’85 and had it in my portfolio when I interviewed for the Pee-wee job in March ’86. The Caboose style was very Pee-wee-like already. We were all drinking the same water.

SS: Besides “Chairy,” you designed and built all the puppet characters for Pee-wee’s Playhouse. What I don’t think a lot of people know is that you built the set in a loft on lower Broadway in Manhattan, and not on a sound stage in LA.

WW: The first season of Pee-wee’s Playhouse was produced by a company called Broadcast Arts in New York and they wanted to do it in Manhattan. So a loft space was found in a building on lower Broadway near Canal Street and that became the soundstage for the set. We were building a giant, crazy-complicated multi-media chunk of art in an artist’s studio in NYC. It was literally a downtown art project built by painters, sculptors and cartoonists, and not a Hollywood factory product and that’s what gives it edge and power.

SS: The Pee-wee work led to jobs working on music videos, like Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.” A classic. Did you like working in that medium, and do you think it’s all but extinct in an era where MTV rarely plays music videos anymore?

WW: I liked working on music videos because I was lucky enough to be chosen for good ones. The timing was right for me. But it’s all over now. I think it’s a genre now where independent animators can really shine. I’ve seen amazing stuff lately. But I’m from the multimedia dinosaur days.

SS: What was the move to LA like for you?

WW: Hated it! Then it grew on me. Then my kids came along. Then I got a nice big backyard. You have to make your own little secret garden and hunker down.

SS: After you moved to LA, you started to paint again. Why? Was it the landscape and change of pace?

WW: My wife Mimi and I moved to LA to work in the TV business and the minute we got here I started painting and dreaming of jumping over into the art world. I knew I had to keep my own work alive somehow or this town would squash it. LA is sort of a negative reinforcer for me. Like all big cities, it’s a hard place. It brings out your grit. You need plenty of it to go make paintings every day.

: You’ve said you learned to paint through reading books. How so?

WW: I had to learn a handful of basic realistic painting techniques because I wasn’t taught them in school. My painting professor was an abstract expressionist and was limited to that approach. I looked in a book.

SS: When people see some of your paintings using text, they immediately think of Edward Ruscha.

WW: Ruscha is just somebody you have to deal with if you put words in paintings. I clearly owe him a debt. But I do my own thing with words and I’m satisfied that it’s true to me and not some knock-off.

SS: It’s remarkable that you started to exhibit your text-driven paintings at a coffee shop and things just bloomed from there. Do you think it’s still possible for artists today to have similar success? Or has the information age changed word-of-mouth communication?

WW: The Internet speeds up the process of word of mouth and probably makes it even easier to get a reputation going. Or maybe not. It could just be shrinking attention spans so that it’s hard to stay noticed. That’s the artist’s only hope – that someone will notice their originality and help coax it along. Somebody has to notice!!

SS: How often do you go thrifting for old paintings to use as canvases? And are there hot spots you return to?

WW: I go to thrift stores about twice a month. My wife is also a good hunter and has brought back many. St. Vincent DePaul and Salvation Army are both mainstays.

SS: When did you decide to start working in sculpture?

WW: I’ve always worked in sculpture in some form. Puppets and sets are sculptures. I see my paintings as pictures of sculpture. Thinking about 3-D forms is constant with me. Making sculpture is hard work. It makes painting seem easy sometimes – like taking off the ankle weights.


Wayne White lives in Los Angeles with his wife and two children. Click here for information about his new book Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, out now on Ammo Books.  


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