Wayne White's Big Win: A Progidal Puppeteer/Painter Comes Home

Sep 16, 2017

WUTC's Michael Edward Miller interviews Wayne White at the opening of Wayne-O-Rama in 2016.
Credit Mark A Herndon

In 2009, photographs of Wayne White's art were collected in a 400-page hardcover book, Maybe Now I'll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve. White had worked for years behind the scenes at children's shows such as Pee Wee's Playhouse, designing puppets and sets. He was also the art director for music videos such as Peter Gabriel's "Big Time."

His artistic sensibilities influenced many young viewers. But few knew his name.

"I had worked on all these famous shows and TV commercials and videos that had huge exposure in the culture, but they never really gave me credit," White says in this extended interview with WUTC.

"Most people don't realize who the designer is of all these pop cultural things, and that's just the way it is. Usually, only the directors and the actors get most of the glory."

The book (designed by Todd Oldham) published in 2009 helped make the general public more aware of White. Then, the 2012 documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing really put him in the limelight.

"The most common reaction I get from people is, 'You were a huge influence on me and I didn't even know it... now I can place a human being with this influence.' That was the delight and the power of the movie."

He says the fact that it exposed him to new audiences was very dramatic--pulling back the curtain, letting people see a human being behind it.

"Especially for Southerners too," he says. "It's been an inspiration that a young guy from Chattanooga could go that far."

THE PRODIGAL RETURNS

Although White is a Chattanooga native, he left after graduating from Hixson High School, and pursued an art career in cities such as New York and Los Angeles. He's returned to Chattanooga many times (his parents still live here), but 2017 has been truly special for Wayne White--a big homecoming, a big victory.

He has two major exhibits in town: Wayne-O-Rama, an installation with larger-than-life puppets and other sculptures that tell the Scenic City's history, and Thrill After Thrill, a career-spanning retrospective on display at the Hunter Museum of American Art.

He says it's been quite a year for him in Chattanooga.

"This is quite an unusual circumstance for me, and it was great timing that they both happened at the same time."

Wayne-O-Rama is something he's always wanted to do.

"I've been on the road for eight years, going to different cities, building big art installations based on the local history of each city. And every time I do one I always think of Chattanooga, because it's my hometown, and the history of this city [includes] some of my favorite stories."

White and a small army of volunteers and community partners started building it last September.

"Our mission was to stay open all year, and we made it. And now here we are coming up on September of this year, and we'll be closing on September 30th."

He says the Hunter Museum exhibit is just as special to him as Wayne-O-Rama--the Hunter exhibit is the biggest show he's ever had, with pieces from three decades of his career.

"It starts with my beginnings as a professional artist, as as a cartoonist and an illustrator, and some early paintings. Then it segues into my years as a set designer, puppet designer, puppeteer in children's TV, and music videos in Hollywood.

"That was a 25 year period, so there's a lot of interesting stuff there, a lot of famous stuff... and then there's yet another segment of my paintings,  my word paintings. That's why I've been doing for about 17 years now. A segue from Hollywood into the fine art world."

Wayne White (b. 1957), Hot Shots And Know It Alls, 2008, acrylic on offset lithograph, Framed: 28 ½ x 52 ½ x 2 inches, 23 x 53 inches, Collection: Wayne White, Los Angeles, CA

Looking back on his career, he sees many ups and downs.

"It took a long time for me to sort of reconcile my past, in a way," he says, "because I was, in a way, kind of escaping the south and Chattanooga. I wanted to become an artist, and I had to go somewhere else to be that. So it is kind of like the return of the prodigal son... it's very satisfying to get the recognition in my hometown, very much."

Wayne-O-Rama is on display until September 30. More information here.

Thrill After Thrill is at the Hunter Museum until December 31. More information here.