by Leonard Gill
In case you don't recognize the name Wayne White, he grew up in the 1960s on the outskirts of Chattanooga, he studied art at Middle Tennessee State University, and he was in New York City when the downtown art scene there was heating up in the late '70s and early '80s. He was already an accomplished cartoonist and illustrator, and he was lucky enough to join the crew as an Emmy Award-winning puppeteer and set designer on Pee-wee's Playhouse. He also worked on music videos with Peter Gabriel ("Big Time") and Smashing Pumpkins ("Tonight, Tonight"). A painting of White's is a Lambchop album cover ("Nixon").
How did you and Todd Oldham hook up?
Todd had known my work from my shows at the Clementine Gallery in New York, and he'd been collecting it for a few years. In the meantime, he'd gotten into designing books and working with AMMO in Los Angeles.
He'd just put out a book on graphic artist Charley Harper, and he was on tour promoting it in L.A. He gave me a call, I went to his booksigning, and, right off the bat, he said he wanted to do a book with me. I said, "Twist my arm." That's the simple story.
The book itself has a great look to it. You had a hand in it?
I was lucky. Todd has a great design studio, with a great staff. They did 90 percent of the work. I could trust them. I put it in their hands.
And you put yourself in Oldham's hands in his interview with you inside the book. He's good.
He is. That was my lucky day.
What's been the reaction to the book so far?
I'm getting good reactions from my friends and family. They just think I'm the greatest.
It takes a while for these things to roll out, though. So far the reaction's been overwhelmingly positive. I've done booksignings in L.A., one in Texas. Hope to have some in Tennessee too. I'll be at the Southern Festival of Book in Nashville in October.
It's 8 in the morning your time. What's your typical workday like?
I'm up and at 'em by now. I work at home. My studio's at the house. I start around 8:30, and I'm at it all day.
And you're working on?
I'm jumping back and forth between styles. I'm still doing some thrift-store paintings, some cardboard sculpture. It's getting more figurative. I'm sort of drifting back to puppets these days. I'm also doing a big project in Houston: a giant head of George Jones the singer, the head lying on the side, asleep, in a gallery.
How do you come up with the wording that appears in your paintings?
Like any writer, I keep a notebook, day-to-day — things I overhear, things I read, snippets of conversation, ideas snatched from the air. I think of them as the world's shortest short stories. I consider them a crafted piece of writing, because most of them start off as kind of vague, disjointed, or twice as long as they wind up being. So I edit things down, boil things down, try to find the essence, the right sequence of words, just as any writer would.
I've been around a lot of writers. My wife's a writer. I've known more comedy writers and cartoonists and storytellers than I have artists. I come from a narrative point of view in a lot of ways.
The words aren't there to comment on or contrast with the images?
Not at all. As far as the visuals go, I have a very utilitarian approach: whatever fits. If I have a big phrase and a big painting, then those two go together. If the wording looks nice squared up and there's a square picture, then they go together. It's all very nuts and bolts when it comes to matching image and words. I don't try to find any conceptual meaning in the image at all. I consider the thrift-store paintings empty stages, and I'm ready to fill them up, give them meaning again.
But I only paint on reproductions, not original paintings. The originals would have too much of the human "smell" on them. Plus, it would be a comment on the artist if I painted on the original, and I'm not about that. I'm about recycling these used-up commodities.
You work with tracing paper first.
Yes, I put tracing paper over the found image, and then I work up the composition. I never do pre-sketches. I just improvise on the tracing paper and figure it out from there.
I think all art should start on the basis of trial and error. I like that tension of trial and error that comes through in the final image. Nothing too polished. I want the anxiety of the struggle to be somewhat in there. To have a few loose flaps flapping in the wind. It's like music, you know. I like music that's a little rough around the edges, the harmonies slightly sour, stuff that's a little ramshackle, clanky. I can identify with that.
Your parents still live in Chattanooga. When you were growing up, did they wonder how you'd turn out?
They sure did. I come from a very unlikely place. Being an artist was something pretty foreign to the world I come from. So I had to sort of invent it for myself, which was an advantage in some ways. You come out a little more original, as opposed to entering into a traditional system. I just kind of dreamed it up on my own, invented it.
Still, you were very self-directed.
I was. I worked without any safety nets. I had no fallback or other skills. It was art or nothing. That focuses you a lot. I'd recommend it. Especially with art that requires a commitment. If you have fallbacks, you'll go to the fallbacks, because art is really difficult. I focused on it, and it paid off. But there's a huge amount of risk-taking.
You think you would've gone into art had you known the risks?
No. That's another thing. You have to be naive, or you'd be too scared to do it. If I'd known the realities, I might have gotten pretty discouraged.
And now you're focused on fine art as opposed to commercial work.
It's come full-circle. I got into commercial art as a survival thing after I got out of school. And that led to Pee-wee's Playhouse, illustration, New York City, cartooning. It was fun. It was fulfilling. But doing children's TV got to be limiting. And I discovered that the princes of the realm in Hollywood are the directors. If you don't make it to director, you're always going to be shuffled around.
I knew I was never going to make it as a director. I just didn't have the fire in the belly, the ambition. At heart, I was always going to be the guy who drew and painted. So I had to go back, because that's what I was always about. I wasn't about dealing with actors, producers, being in meetings all the time. It was making me miserable. My real happiness was being alone in my studio with a pile of junk and making stuff.
So I just decided to follow what I loved to do instead of trying to be in show business. It was a very difficult move at first. But I was able to find a good gallery here in L.A. And things started happening. I wish I could be more interesting about it.
Here's the thing: You have to sit yourself down and ask yourself, What do I really love to do? Instead of what you think other people want you to do. Or where you think the big money is. You have to strip away that other stuff and ask the big questions. Most people don't want to do that. Most people are in really bad traps.
But I've been lucky — lucky to have people who have supported me. My wife's been great. She's always supported me creatively.
The rest of my family? They're at odds with what I'm doing in the first place, so they don't know what I'm doing. For them, it's like, Whatever, whatever, whatever, go ahead. I've got them mystified.
But basically it's all about risk-taking. That's what art is. It's a slap in the face of human security. I've taken those risks, and they've so far paid off.
What was it like working with Paul Reubens, aka Pee-wee Herman?
Paul Reubens is the greatest. He changed my life. He's one of the important figures in my life. He's the kind of boss I've always looked for, the kind who lets you do what you want to do. And those are the mentors I've been lucky to find, starting with the artist Red Grooms, the musician Peter Gabriel — creative people in power who will use their power to let you be creative. That's the key to getting along as an artist.
I take it you don't miss your days as a fry cook in New York City to make ends meet.
Those days, the early days, were tough. Hard work. Shitty. But they're what inspired me to run in the other direction, inspired me to be an artist. The diner where I worked ... the graveyard shift ... it was brutal. It's a cliche, but it made me stronger.
But you managed to hold onto your Southern manners.
True! I had my good Southern manners.
For more on Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, see the September issue of Memphis magazine.