published Thursday, October 11th, 2012

Wayne White helped make 'weird' cool

Wayne White is shown in a scene from the documentary about his life called "Beauty is Embarrassing." He is standing in front of some of his word paintings.
Wayne White is shown in a scene from the documentary about his life called "Beauty is Embarrassing." He is standing in front of some of his word paintings.
Photo by Contributed Photo /Chattanooga Times Free Press.


Age: 55.

Hometown: Chattanooga.

Education: Hixson High School, Middle Tennessee State University.

Family: Wife, Emily Pond; son, Woody; daughter, Lulu.

Vocation: Artist.


"Beauty Is Embarrassing" will be screened at Wynnsong 10, 2210 Gunbarrel Road, at 2:10, 4:30, 6:50 and 9:10 p.m. today-Sunday and 2:10, 4:30 and 6:50 p.m. Monday-Thursday. Wayne White will speak Saturday and Sunday following the 6:50 p.m. screenings.

Weird is now cool thanks in no small part to Wayne White.

As a kid growing up in Hixson, White always knew he was different, weird even, at least as he was often compared to other kids by adults. An artistic child, he preferred walking through the woods looking for sticks to playing sports.

He still prefers walking in the woods looking for sticks; only now he uses them in art pieces that end up in galleries.

Today, because of his work on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" and videos including "Tonight, Tonight" by The Smashing Pumpkins and Peter Gabriel's "Big Time," White has helped to give people "permission to be oddballs."

"It's an amazing feeling really to know that," he said in a telephone interview. White will be in town this weekend to introduce "Beauty Is Embarrassing," a documentary about his life that will be screened at Wynnsong 10.

The film is directed by Neil Berkeley and features appearances by musician Mark Mothersbaugh, fashion designer Todd Oldham, "Simpsons" creator Matt Groening, illustrator Gary Panter, animator Ric Heitzman and actor Paul Reubens.

"I didn't really realize until this movie came out the impact that my work has had on other people," White said. "I've had my nose to the grindstone for 20 years. Now, I feel like I've opened the front door, and the sun is shining, and people are staring at me.

"I feel like Rip Van Winkle just waking up to a generation of 30-somethings who were profoundly influenced by Pee-wee."

The film, which takes its title from the idea that opening oneself up to others can be difficult and embarrassing, uses home movies, interviews, archival clips and commentary from White himself, including liberal use of his favorite four-letter word, to trace his life.

It's a path that took him from Chattanooga to Middle Tennessee State University to New York to California. At MTSU, he met a band of "fellow misfits" who taught him that it was OK to be artistic and different.

In New York, he met his wife, artist Mimi Pond. In addition to writing and drawing "The Valley Girls' Guide to Life," her credits include writing the first full-length episode of "The Simpsons."

In the documentary, White gives much of the credit for his success to the love and support Pond has provided over the years. He also said while his parents, Willis and Billie June White, "never opposed what I was doing, they never quite understood it. They did the best they could, and of course they are proud of me now."

White sees his return to Chattanooga this weekend as more the prodigal son coming home than the conquering hero.

"For years, I did have a chip on my shoulder thinking, 'Boy, someday they'll be sorry.' Then I go back and there is nobody there. Nobody there to prove anything to. It's kind of an adolescent attitude. I realized I need to just be proud of myself without having to prove anything to myself.

"I was an angry man about my Southern background for a long time, but now it's great to sit back and be proud of my achievements."

White said he realizes that his upbringing made him who he is, and it gave him his "Southernness," which he continues to use in his art. It also taught him the value of hard work, he said.

He thrives on reinventing himself and is currently enjoying a new career as a painter.

He has also been writing and performing music and has been collaborating on new material over the past several months with new friends Bob Stagner and Dennis Palmer, founders of Chattanooga's Shaking Ray Levi Society, and hopes to record with them soon.

His word paintings have been shown in galleries around the country. These are essentially paintings that he's found at yard sales or thrift stores that he has added funny phrases or slogans to.

At first his paintings were dismissed as gimmickry because of their humor, but White said he "enjoys puncturing pretension."

"I feel alienated in an art gallery," he said. "It's not based on the quality of the mind or soul. It is based purely on money."

He feels the same way upon entering art supply stores.

"I've always been intimidated by expensive art materials. I never had any or, if I did, I was too intimidated to actually use it. Now, I can afford it, but if I go into an art store, I'm like, 'this is already art. Let me get something out of the garbage can.' "

White said he grew up a fan of Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie, especially their need to leave home to discover and reinvent. Finding and working with Paul Reubens on "Pee-wee's Playhouse" was exactly the type of cutting-edge project he was looking for, he said.

"I guess that is the reason I went to New York," he said. "It was to find that kind of situation. I had the urge to get in on the ground floor of something. I didn't know what it would be.

"I know Pee-wee was ground-blazing, and I had to get in on something like that."

In doing so, he helped make weird cool.

"That is kind of mind-blowing. Weird is kind of cool, and weird was not cool when we were kids. I was too young to be a hippie, but I was a freak, and now the freaks and hippies are in control."


Television credits

• "Pee-wee's Playhouse" set designer (earned three Emmy Awards for his work there). On the show, White created Randy, Conky, Dirty Dog, Floory and Mr. Kite.

• "Shining Time Station"

• "Beakman's World"

• "Riders in the Sky"

• "Bill & Willis"

Video credits

• Art director for Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" video

• Art director for The Smashing Pumpkins's "Tonight," Tonight" video

Art credits

• His word paintings have been displayed in magazines and galleries around the country.

• For his show at Rice University, he built the world's largest George Jones puppet head, a piece he called "Big Lectric Fan To Keep Me Cool While I Sleep."

about Barry Courter...

Barry Courter is staff reporter and columnist for the Times Free Press. He started his journalism career at the Chattanooga News-Free Press in 1987. He covers primarily entertainment and events for ChattanoogaNow, as well as feature stories for the Life section. Born in Lafayette, Ind., Barry has lived in Chattanooga since 1968. He graduated from Notre Dame High School and the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga with a degree in broadcast journalism. He previously was ...

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