These days, his hilarious and subversive paintings have launched an entirely new side to his career. In Toronto to promote the documentary about his artwork and fascinating life -- "Beauty Is Embarrassing" -- Moviefone caught up with White to talk about his incredible past. Director Neil Berkeley was also on-hand to discuss why the world has finally caught on to his genius.
Wayne White wears a lot of hats -- cartoonist, painter, puppeteer -- so what part of his career did you choose to latch onto? Neil Berkeley: The "Pee-wee" thing is really what kicked it off for me. I had seen every episode and grew up on that show ["Pee-wee's Playhouse"]. Everything he had done was directed at me and my friends.
Pee-wee Herman [Paul Reubens] enjoyed a resurgence over the last few years with a Broadway stage show -- did that fact help spur on this project? NB: I knew there was a market for him because Todd Oldham had just put that beautiful book out ('Wayne White: Maybe Now I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve'), and the Pee-wee stage show was coming to life. I was thinking the timing was right to do this, because people are going to be interested in what Wayne did.
What was it like working for Paul Reubens when you were first hired to create set design and puppeteer characters on "Pee-wee's Playhouse"? Wayne White: It started out that I was in awe of him because he was Pee-wee Herman. The first movie had come out and that's why he got the TV series. He was at his peak. I was intimidated by him and curious to see the Paul Reubens side as opposed to the Pee-wee Herman side. As sophisticated as you are, even though I live in Hollywood, it's still hard to sort out the character from the human being. It's so obvious, of course, that it's just a character, but it's kind of funny to meet the real person behind such a strong personality and the fact that he never broke character in the media at all.
We grew to become friends and it was sort of a collaboration. We grew to trust each other and know each other, and chat like friends. I really appreciated him as a boss; he was one of the best bosses I ever had because he let you have complete artistic freedom. I always say that freedom is like oxygen for the artist.
It must be hard when a boss puts restrictions on you artistically. WW: One of the main jobs of the artist is to find a good boss. Most of us aren't rich and we're going to have to work for somebody, and so you have to align yourself with power that is benevolent and freedom-giving, and I've been lucky enough to find people in power to let me do my thing.
You have created art for Smashing Pumpkins, The Offspring and Peter Gabriel in their videos -- did you ever spend time with the artists? WW: I worked with Peter Gabriel. He has a big art background from Genesis and he was very much involved with stage spectacle for years. He was very interested in my drawing process, but he let me have my freedom. He loved me going in a room for eight hours and coming out so that we could discuss the drawings together. He was my favourite rock star.
Who were your "guys"? Who were the people that did it for you growing up? WW: One of the earliest influences was Robert Crumb, the great American underground cartoonist, which led me into looking into Raw Magazine, Art Spiegelman, Red Grooms; my masks have Grooms all over them. Ralph Steadman, the great illustrator for Rolling Stone. Expressionism, a sense of humour, storytelling, low-brow, lower forms of art -- comics and illustration -- there's street dirt on all of them. Movies are a big influence. Preston Sturges, his sense of absurdity.
In the film you talk about certain images and landscapes being so beautiful it hurts your feelings. Explain that phrase. WW: That's something I've said for years. It first popped into my head when I was in Tennessee. A poet I like from Chattanooga said, "Sometimes when I was growing up in Chattanooga, I got that too-full feeling." It's just overwhelming, it's bursting to capacity. In that sense, it hurts ... it hurts! You can't describe how this makes you feel, and it's frustrating and the frustration is a form of pain.
You believe that humour has depth and doesn't get the credit it deserves. WW: I think it is a deep thing. Paradoxically, you can't start thinking of it like that or you kill the laughter. It's one of those paradoxes that all big ideas have. All big ideas are contradictory if you really start to look at them. I think laughter is deep. It's the greatest way to tell the truth. It gets it over with in a way that preachiness and self-righteousness never does. It's a sneaky way to get at the essence of things.
When you do a movie like this, you meet the man, and you meet his friends and peers -- what did you learn about him from other people? NB: It wasn't hard to get people to sit down. They were more than willing to talk about Wayne. Mark Mothersbaugh's people told me I had 45 minutes, and he gave two and half hours of gold. Matt Groening was the same. They were sort of grateful that someone was shining a spotlight on Wayne, because they get all the accolades they need.
Painting has become your main artistic output in recent years. Why such a dramatic change at this later stage of your career? WW: I've always admired and been excited by artists who change. Bob Dylan is a classic example of someone who constantly changes when he doesn't have to. That's the model of integrity for me, someone who pursues the muse no matter where it takes them. Another great changer was Philip Guston, the abstract painter.
I love men and women who have the courage to change. I think that's what it's all about as an artist -- change. The freedom to keep moving on. I guess there's a certain integrity to doing the same thing your whole life, but to me that's boring. Going against all the advice of my teachers, you know: do just one thing, have integrity, don't be a dilettante, don't flutter from flower to flower. But that was just not me, I just could not do it that way.
One of the messages of the movie is follow your gut and your heart, follow what you love. If it's one thing, that's great, but I love many things and want to follow them. It's fun; that's the bottom line. I want to have fun while I'm on this earth. That's all I ask.
"Beauty Is Embarrassing" has one more screening at Hot Docs:
Sun, May 6, 3:30 PM Bloor Hot Docs Cinema
For more local screening times, visit the "Beauty Is Embarrassing" website.