Award-winner Wayne White admits he’s a bit of an artistic chameleon.
He’s been an art director, set designer and puppet maker who won three Emmys for his work with cult favorite “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.” He’s also a self-confessed “ham” who supplied the voices for several of the oddball characters on that show, like Randy, Dirty Dog and Roger the Monster.
He’s worked on music videos for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time” and Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” snagging a Billboard Award for his design efforts.
He’s been a cartoonist and an illustrator for The New York Times, The Village Voice and Raw. He admits to being a “frustrated writer” who has written “tons of bad poetry,” but who parlayed his love for words into his acclaimed – and cheeky – word paintings like “Aint Tellin, Aint Askin,” “Buttered Up and Dumbed Down,” “Hoozy Thinky Iz” and “Beauty Is Embarrassin” – this latter subsequently becoming the name of a 2012 documentary by Neil Berkeley about White’s life, art and eccentricities.
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“I’ve worked in every kind of style. I take pride in that. I’ve adapted to whatever I wanted to do or needed to do. There’s something to be said for specialization, but I never felt that need,” says White, a Chattanooga, Tenn., native who lived nine years in New York City and 25 years in Los Angeles. “Of course, it’s taken a long time. I’m 57. I’m not an overnight success.”
Now, White is in Wichita as the Riverfest’s first artist-in-residence, conducting mask-making workshops open to the public while also working with a team of local artists to create several big-scale, 14-foot puppets for the Sundown Parade that kicks off the nine-day festival for the 44th time this Friday evening.
White, who sports a full dark beard with major white patches over his chin, is being coy about what the puppets will represent, preferring to let paradegoers be surprised.
“I love history, so I’m taking my ideas from Wichita’s pioneer past to make it personal,” says White, who created a giant sleeping head (with surprise moving parts) of singer George Jones for Houston, a “cubist cowboy rodeo” for Oklahoma City and a complete cartoon city for Roanoke, Va.
“I know about your cowboy heritage and airplane industry and was told about some of the festival icons like Admiral Windwagon Smith and the Keeper of the Plains. I was also fascinated by (ax-wielding prohibitionist) Carry Nation, but I haven’t finalized anything,” White says, adding that one road he doesn’t plan to go down is the yellow brick one leading to the “Wizard of Oz.” It’s been done enough, he says.
“I started as a puppet maker back in school in Tennessee, where I grew up. For 25 years, I was a designer for television shows like ‘Pee Wee’s Playhouse,’ ‘Shining Time Station’ and ‘Beakman’s World.’ But for the past 14 years, I’ve been in the fine art world with my paintings,” White says.
“Then in 2009, I created the George Jones head (titled ‘Big Lectric Fan to Keep Me Cool’) for Houston. Since then, I’ve come back to puppetry for big-scale installations,” he says. “Wichita’s parade is a perfect venue for them.”
Bringing White to Wichita as the Riverfest’s first artist-in-residence is the brain child of Ann Keefer of Wichita Festivals Inc. and Kristin Beal of Harvester Arts.
“We’ve been talking for a couple of years about how to re-energize or beef-up the parade,” says Keefer, WFI’s vice president for program development. “To be honest, there only so many trucks you can watch coming down the street without wanting something more. We needed something more exciting, so I reached out to Kristin, an artist herself, to be a consultant for parade entrants.”
For example, Beal suggested to Westar that bucket trucks would be more exciting if they incorporated line workers on utility poles waving to crowds from on high, like circus acrobats.
“Then last year, after two years of working just with the parade, we bounced off ideas on how to engage our vibrant local arts community in beefing up the festival itself, and the idea for an artist-in-residence came up,” Keefer says. “We wanted to bring in a nationally known figure to work with local artists to either jazz up the parade or design sets or perhaps create a public arts project for the festival that would showcase the talent we have here.”
Choosing Wayne White as the first festival artist-in-residence was easy, says Keefer. When the “Beauty is Embarrassing” documentary was shown at Wichita’s Tallgrass Film Festival a couple of years ago, it won the audience favorite award.
“He’s funny and fascinating and inspiring,” Keefer says.
Artist White, who will be in Wichita for 10 days, is modest about the “inspiring” description, which has stuck to him since the film. But he freely admits that humor is a big part of his art, which encompasses painting acrylic words and phrases on bland vintage litho landscapes. At auction, his witty, irreverent and sometimes shocking paintings have sold for up to $10,000.
“I do deal with satire in my word paintings, so I guess I’m a humorist. I like to use humor to go after things like ego, vanity and hubris. I do comment on a lot of things,” White says. “But there’s nothing political in my work. There are other venues better suited to political satire, like TV, movies and print. I’m not an activist.”
While he insists he doesn’t swear much in real life, he does incorporate occasional swearwords in his paintings.
But mostly, he just has fun playing with words, condensing and crafting phrases into puns or pithy thoughts or quirky images where the titles are spelled out in the artwork, sometimes straightforward like advertisements but often in puzzle or geometric patterns to be deciphered. Because of his southern heritage, he’s always “droppin’ the ‘g’” and simplifying the resulting word by intentionally leaving off the apostrophe.
Consider the chuckles from catching sight of “Good Lookin People Havin Fun Without You,” “Ego Bingo,” “Heinies ’n Shooters w/ Hotties at Hooters.” Or scratching your head over the seemingly incomprehensible “Uh, I’m Lookin for the Archaic Cave of the Unconscious” and “But It Is And I Am So They Wont.” Or sharing the inside joke of the tongue-in-cheek “Aw Cmon.”
Despite wearing many creative hats, White identifies himself as an artist first and foremost.
“I’m the guy who sits in a room all alone with a piece of paper and draws. It’s all about putting something on that paper. If you can draw, you can do anything,” White says. “Drawing is the magic key.”
If you go
What: Award-winning artist, designer and puppeteer Wayne White will conduct mask-making workshops, give talks and create giant puppets for River Festival Sundown Parade
Where: Harvester Arts, 215 N. Washington in Old Town (unless noted)
Workshop schedule: 1-3:30 p.m. Sunday , 1-3:30 p.m. Tuesday and 5-7:30 p.m. Tuesday
Cost: $35 adults, $20 students. Register at www.harvesterarts.com
Talk schedule: 7 p.m. Monday at Abode Venue, 1330 E. Douglas. Free, but RSVP recommended at 316-267-1330
Sundown Parade: Workshop mask-makers and White will participate in downtown parade with their masks and his giant puppets at 6:30-8 p.m. Friday
Another artist in town
While Wayne White is completing his residency with the Wichita Riverfest this week, Wichitans will also get a bonus appearance by White’s wife, Mimi Pond, an artist, cartoonist and writer.
Pond, who wrote the first full-length episode for the now iconic “The Simpsons” in 1989, will read from and sign her latest graphic novel, the 2014 “Over Easy,” at Watermark Books, 4701 E. Douglas.
Her appearance at 4:30 p.m. Thursday is free to the public, but RSVP is recommended because of space limitations. Call 316-682-1181.
Pond was nominated for two Emmy Awards for the “Simpsons Roasting on an Open Fire” episode and won a PEN Award for graphic literature for the body of her work, which includes such books as “Shoes Never Lie,” “The Valley Girls Guide to Life” and “A Groom of One’s Own –And Other Bridal Accessories.”
She has been a cartoonist and illustrator for the National Lampoon, the Village Voice and, currently, the Los Angeles Times. She has written television episodes for shows like “Designing Women” and “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
She and her husband have a son and daughter, who are also both artists.