If you're a child of the 80s and 90s, odds are you've experienced the work of Wayne White. You may not have known his name, but for fans who longed to live in PeeWee's Playhouse every Saturday morning, his work is at least partially responsible for warping your impressionable young mind. Geek sat down with Wayne White and Neil Berkeley, the director of the new documentary about the life and work of this prolific creator and master of every medium. The film, Beauty is Embarrassing, debuts in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle this weekend and will go nationwide in the coming weeks. After speaking with these gentlemen and seeing the movie for myself, I can highly recommend it to any creative type looking for inspiration, whether you call what you love doing art or not.
GEEK: Neil, what’s Beauty is Embarrassing about?
NEIL BERKELEY: The documentary is about a guy named Wayne White. Wayne was one of the creators behind the PeeWee’s Playhouse tv show. He was the art director for Beakman’s World and the Smashing Pumpkin’s “Tonight, Tonight” video, Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” video, and Shining Time Station. He’s a 3 time Emmy award winner, MTV and Blockbuster award winner. He’s a husband and father of two and he’s an accomplished fine artist who’s had artwork and sculptures tour the entire world. And he’s also a southern magnetic, funny, inspirational banjo-playing bearded raconteur.
GEEK: What inspired you to make a documentary about Wayne White?
NEIL: I always say that there are 2 roads that led me to this. One was Wayne’s resume. He’s done incredible things and he’s touched a lot of people’s lives. And most people don’t even know it. And the whole purpose of a documentary is to let the world know who is responsible for something that has had an incredible impact. I think it’s an important thing to do. And beyond that there’s the part of the story that everyone’s been reacting to, and that’s Wayne’s energy and drive and focus on making art. At the end of the day that’s what he tries to do every day in one way or another is making some sort of image for people to react to and respond to and enjoy. And a lot of people are trying to do that. A lot of people have this thing inside them. It’s not always painting or art or sculpture. It can be music or traveling or whatever it is. But there this fear that holds a lot of people back from doing it. This fear of failing or getting too old or not getting the reaction we want. At one point or another you have to say ‘screw it. I’m going to do this thing’. I think seeing someone like Wayne get up and do that thing every day is inspirational and it’s a good message for people to see.
GEEK: Wayne, how did you react when you were approached at doing a documentary about you?
WAYNE WHITE: Well, at first I was surprised and not very enthusiastic. I just didn’t think there was enough drama in my life. I was also a little concerned or paranoid because a lot of documentary filmmakers start off with a friendly attitude and then they try to turn the tables on you. They try to trick you into exposing yourself in a negative way. It’s sort of the dramatic M.O. for a lot of documentaries. They’re kind of exploitative and negative. That’s where the drama comes from. So I was a little defensive. But Neil talked me into it mainly because I have an artist’s ego. And I had an instinctive trust of Neil. I knew he wanted to make something that was more about celebrating my life than trying to feel the dirt.
GEEK: So you don’t feel exploited at all?
WAYNE: (laughing) I didn’t say that. I’m exploited in a good way. All artists are exploited. You just kind of have to turn it to your advantage.
GEEK: The movie talks about your origins. You started in the south. And your pride and your defensiveness of how it’s portrayed. How do you think the south has been an influence on your work? You started in New York with Pee Wee’s Playhouse and now you’re in Los Angeles. How has the south stuck with you?
WAYNE: I carry the south with me everywhere I go. I can’t help it. That’s who I am. That’s where I’m from. It’s where I was nurtured and that’s what formed me. So like it or not, I’m a southerner. It’s been good and bad. The bad part is that I had to leave the south to be an artist. I couldn’t be the kind of artist I wanted to and still live there. The good parts are many. I really love the southern sense of humor… the dry kind of understated humor that I grew up with. I think that still infuses my work still today. I’m proud to be a part of the great southern storytelling tradition that’s evident in all of the great writers that have come from the south. I’m honored to be a part of that continuum. I guess I carry a lingering sense of defiance and a sense of being an outsider from being from the south. And that can be directly traced to the civil war and the identification with being a rebel and being misunderstood by the rest of the country. There’s this ongoing prejudice against all southerners where we’re all instantly branded as racists or backwards or ignorant. It’s always open season for southerners. We’re a safe target. It’s always acceptable to make fun of the south. It’s put a bit of a chip on my shoulder.
GEEK: Do you think your art is doing anything to change that perception, whether intentionally or not?
WAYNE: No, I’m not on a mission to change people’s perceptions or prejudices. I think that’s a losing cause. There will always be prejudice in the world and I’m not trying to spread some sort of pro-southern propaganda or be an apologist for it in any way. But I’m not going to deny it either or be ashamed of it.
GEEK: Neil, when it came to making this movie, since your intention wasn’t to exploit or manipulate your subject, were there any challenges in bringing Wayne’s art and personality to the film?
NEIL: No, he was great the entire time. And his family and anyone he’s ever worked with. No one ever said no throughout the entire process. I would go over there in the morning and say ‘can we do this’ and he’d say ‘yeah’. And that included painting, and talking about things he didn’t plan on talking about, including the car wreck scene, which was a very personal moment. He was very open about that and so was his family. Building that LBJ puppet head, that was just a day in the life. That wasn’t for sale or for commercial art or anything. It’s just something he wanted to do with his son that day. As far as shooting and getting things, that was easy. The only big challenge I had was time. This was sort of a passion project done on the side that I shot myself for almost a year. Shooting in the morning, at night, on weekends, just trying to steal time whenever I could. So just physically getting over there and getting it shot was the most difficult part.
GEEK: How much of what you shot do you think made it into the final film?
NEIL: We shot about 300 hours and the film is 87 minutes.
WAYNE: Do the math.
GEEK: Wayne, going back to your time on PeeWee’s Playhouse, you created or helped create a number of the puppet characters on the show. Was there a foundation you had to work from or did you have free reign to design as you please?
WAYNE: Well, all the concepts were there when I came in. Everything was on paper and I was just the guy who created the visual look of them. I didn’t make up the characters, but I did make up how they looked. And I must say that part of the power of PeeWee’s Playhouse was the fact that we were given total free reign as artists and to let our imaginations run wild. And I felt complete freedom as an artist in everything I created for the Playhouse. And that’s a super rare thing in television, to have that kind of artistic freedom and to have that liberal attitude toward creation. So it was probably my favorite job I’ve ever done for television.
GEEK: You also did the “Big Time” music video for Peter Gabriel. Was that before or after your time with PeeWee’s Playhouse?
WAYNE: It was actually during PeeWee. It was in 1987. The first season of PeeWee was in 1986. I guess it was right after the first season and before the second. And I got the job because it was directed by Stephen Johnson, who directed the first season of PeeWee’s Playhouse.
GEEK: Did you get any direction in creating the look of that video or was that completely your design?
WAYNE: That was actually even more freedom than PeeWee’s Playhouse, because all we had was the song and the lyrics, which could be interpreted in a million different kinds of ways. They’re sort of universal and simple lyrics in a way. It was completely wide open for interpretation. And that was another rare, special job for me because Peter Gabriel gave me complete freedom and encouraged me to let my imagination run wild. I’ve been lucky to have those kinds of situations. I’ve always say that the job of the artist is to find good bosses. And Peter Gabriel was the perfect boss. A real gentleman. A very kind and gracious person to begin with and has a true artist’s spirit. He understands the possibilities of the visual.
GEEK: That’s good to hear because you sometimes get the impression that the look and concept of many music videos are created externally with the performer just slapped down in the middle of it all, without any sway over the look and feel of the video.
WAYNE: As evident in his early days of Genesis, that was always a weird visual stage presentation. He always understood art completely. He was great.
GEEK: Speaking of art, normally the fine art world is seen as a bit stuffy, pretentious, and self-important. You’re obviously not those things and that comes through in the film. You say in the film that your mission is to bring humor to fine art. How’s that working out for you? Have you been well-received?
WAYNE: Well, I think it’s doing pretty good. I’ve been in the fine art world since about 1999 and I’m still hanging in there. I still have important collectors buying my work. I just keep rising. So I’m playing that art world game in true fashion. And as far as the reception of it goes, I’ll always going to have my critics. You can’t win ‘em all. I think I’ve been really lucky. I’ve got a pretty good track record in the art world. Only getting better with the movie and the exposure I’ve been getting. I keep changing and evolving, but ultimately, yes, I want there to be humor in my work. But some people will never accept that though.
GEEK: Some of your most humorous works are your word paintings. It shows in the film that you go around to yard sales to find original art pieces to paint over.
WAYNE: Yeah, they’re not originals. I mostly find them in thrift stores… cheap reproductions already framed. I never paint on original art. First of all there’s always too much human smell on an original piece of art. It belongs to somebody specifically. And if you paint it over, then it’s forever altered. It’s almost like a defacing kind of act. But what I do is take these commodities that there are literally thousands, sometimes millions of. They’re not necessarily art. They’re just kind of home decorations. It’s important that they are the reproductions, because they’re kind of empty commodities. They have to be empty like that. I think of them as empty stages and I turn them back into art by putting my own contribution, my own words into it.
GEEK: How long does it take to put together a word painting?
WAYNE: if I’m really bearing down, I can do one in two or three days, I guess. But I usually like to take a week or two to let it slowly cook along.
GEEK: And does the inspiration to place those particular words on the canvas just comes from your life or does what’s already on the canvas have any influence?
WAYNE: I don’t respond to the imagery at all. There’s two separate steps. I’m a writer. I consider myself a painter and a writer. I like the idea of combining the two. And like any writer, I keep a notebook of phrases and things that come to me. Usually they’re a little bit longer in the original form. And like any writer, I carefully edit myself and boil things down to the essence to get the right combination of words. I’m always looking for the perfect phrase, the perfect sentence to put in there. And sometimes they’re long and sometimes they’re short, but like any writer I get my material from life. I overhear conversations. I have thoughts that I write down. Occasionally I quote something else. Occasionally I’ll just take a cliché and put it in there, like “whupass” or some kind of banal phrase that’s ironically elevated into this piece of art. I’m all about bringing two separate things together, dualities, two opposites. That’s the yin and the yang. That’s the engine of any piece of art, is holding two separate, opposing ideas and letting sparks fly. Taking something that’s sort of low and vulgar and elevating it into something finely painted and lovingly crafted. And the two get together and wrestle it out in your mind.
GEEK: You do a lot of different things, more than just painting… puppetry, sculpture, and so much else. If you had to choose one medium, what would it be?
WAYNE: I think I’d lean toward painting. Although that’s a really tough question. I like to do them all. I think they inform each other and inspire each other. I mean, while I’m making a sculpture, I get the idea for a painting. When I’m drawing in a sketchbook, I think about a sculpture. So I depend on jumping genres and mixing it up. I firmly believe in crossing over. I think it always freshens up whatever you’re crossing over into. If I was in some kind of weird nightmare world where I could only choose one medium, I would pick drawing. Just a pencil and a paper. That’s what I would pick.
GEEK: Obviously the film shows that you have a mission to inspire others to express themselves in whatever ways in as many ways as they can. Do you have any advice for struggling artists dealing with finding their place, focus, inspiration?
WAYNE: I have one simple thing that I always tell. It’s always my core advice, which is PERSEVERE. Never give up. That’s the only thing that you really need to know. Everything else will follow. Make yourself do it. If you give up, nobody’s going to care. Nobody cares if you give up. Nobody cares if you go on. But you’ve got to care. That’s the number one quality that an artist has to have: perseverance.
GEEK: Neil, are there any documentaries that you can recommend?
NEIL: There’s a couple movies that I watched to get permission to make this one. One of them was The Devil and Daniel Johnston. That’s a great example of a movie that was successful that people liked, about someone that not a lot of people knew or knew what he did. And another movie I love is Anvil. And that’s a movie, to me, is inspirational and about second acts and doing what you love and never giving up. I think that’s an amazing movie and I recommend everyone go see that one.
GEEK: Wayne, is there any art that you see that inspires you?
WAYNE: That’s a tough one. I haven’t been out to galleries in a year or so. The term artist to me has a broad connotation. One of the artists that I’m particularly in love with is Joel Hodgson, who is a performance artist, a comedian, a magician, the creator of Mystery Science Theater 3000. He’s become my new buddy and we’re going to collaborate on some art together. We’re going to make some puppets and do an art show together. He has such a broad range of interests and is another person who believes in going from different genres to different genres. And we talk nearly every other day about our ideas together. And he’s been a very big inspiration to me lately. He’s done everything. He’s been a stand up comic, a sculptor, a magician, a producer, a director, a writer. He’s my kind of artist. I always wanted to meet Joel. And because of my exposure through the film and the attention I’ve been getting, and lo and behold now we’re buddies and now we’re going to make some art together. And that’s what really excites me.
GEEK: Is there anything you geek out over?
NEIL: I read a lot of Ray Kurzweil. That’s pretty geeky.
WAYNE: I like the old tv show Freaks and Geeks. My 17 year old daughter recently discovered it on Youtube and we’ve been watching that together. I think that’s the best high school comedy drama ever made.
GEEK: When and where can people start seeing this film?
NEIL: We open in New York, Los Angeles, and Seattle on September 7th and then we go nationwide after that. People can check beautyisembarrassing.com for the locations and times and they can follow us on Twitter at @waynewhitedoc.