Starting his professional life as a cartoonist, the Chattanooga, Tenn., native also has been an artist, art director, puppeteer, set designer, animator and illustrator. Both a fine artist and pop-art icon.
Fame came to him as the puppeteer/set designer for Pee-wee’s Playhouse, a hit children’s TV program in the 1980s; he won three Emmy Awards for his work.
Later, he worked in the music video industry, including as art director for Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time.”
After segueing into fine art, White became known for his word paintings—featuring oversized, three-dimensional text with thought-provoking messages integrated into vintage landscape reproductions.
The one thing that’s hard for the multi-talented, multi-faceted artist to do is name his favorite genre. “They’re all equal and all interrelated,” he commented. “They each inform each other.”
White is bringing all the elements together for a local stay, a two-month artist-in-residence stint at York College.
He has no direct connection to the college, but, as a lover of history, especially Civil War history, White can tell you that, “York was the largest town in the north captured by the Confederates.”
White’s “oldest artistic influence” while growing up was, oddly, Mad Magazine and comic books. “My notion was that an artist was a cartoonist,” he said.
Chattanooga at the time had no real art world—no museums or galleries. White knew no working artists. In addition to comic strips, he drew inspiration from the beautiful landscapes of the Appalachian Mountains and from a mother who was an “amateur artist who loved shopping for antiques and had an aesthetic sense.”
White also recalls having a “natural talent to draw, which set me apart, and which, no matter where you are, everyone responds to.”
More-formal training began at Middle Tennessee State University, where he majored in painting and earned a bachelor’s degree in fine arts.
It was also in college that he first learned about art history. “I discovered the great artists through the centuries and who did what and what was still possible. I also met fellow artists and a community, which is really important.”
Moving to New York after graduation, White became a freelance illustrator for the Village Voice and the New York Times, among others, but also did puppet shows as a hobby. It was this activity he did for fun that led to the “biggest payoff” of his career.
“Pee-wee’s Playhouse was like an art project shot in downtown New York that happened to get on national TV,” he noted. “It was not like a factory product but something original. It couldn’t get better.”
In addition to the Emmys, the show gave him a chance to perform. That “bug” has stayed with him. Since 2009, White has been traveling the country, delivering an hour-long talk, both educational and entertaining, about his life and work. True to his roots, he also plays a little banjo and harmonica.
That was also the year White’s life and work were featured in a 382-page coffee-table monograph, with hundreds of images.
Entitled “Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve,” the book was a collaboration with writer Todd Oldham. According to Amazon.com, it offers a look at White’s “deadpan, strange and endlessly mesmerizing body of work.”
In 2012, White and his distinct artistic gifts were also the subject of a documentary film by Neil Berkeley called “Beauty is Embarrassing.”
Fourteen years ago, he began to move in the direction of more surreal work—including word paintings. It’s a form he actually popularized—based on reproductions he usually finds in thrift stores and a long-standing love of letters and topography.
White started the form on the spur of the moment, but, by now, has created nearly 1,000 word paintings. They have been featured in 18 solo exhibitions in galleries and museums in the United States and Europe and in several group shows.
In general, White’s work is slowly “trickling” into museums and into many private collections. “Hopefully, that will keep growing,” he said.
“The word paintings were born as a joke but became a serious thing,” he said. “I’m a frustrated writer, who here is telling very short stories. It is cutting things down to find the essence.”
One recurring theme is an exploration of hubris. “That’s what most humor does,” he explained. “It deflates human ego and shows how foolish we all are.”
White also creates giant puppets and installations of figurative sculpture.
York College was looking for someone “irreverent” as an artist-in-residence and knew it had found it in White, said Matthew Clay-Robison, gallery director.
“But I trust him completely,” he added, laughing.
White looked forward to sharing his art but also to interacting with the students. He believes he still approaches art in a child-like, fantasy way.
He and his wife, Mimi Pond, a graphic novelist, cartoonist and writer who penned the first full-length broadcast of TV’s The Simpsons in 1989, have two children in college. Woodrow and Lulu are also both artists, as well.
What advice, irreverent or not, does the artist have for York’s students? That’s easy: “Do what you love doing. That’s the path you need to choose.” It certainly has worked for him.
White in Residence
As part of Wayne White’s artist-in-residency at York College, his “Masterworks 2000-2012” exhibition continues at the College Galleries through April 24, focusing primarily on White’s signature word paintings but also on works on paper and small sculptures.
Last month featured a reception, screening of the film “Beauty is Embarrassing,” and Q&A with the artist, who will also present the Center for Professional Excellence Lecture on April 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the Waldner Performing Arts Center.
White is constructing a large-scale public art installation in Gallery Hall of Marketview Arts (37 West Philadelphia St.) based on York’s role in the Civil War. It will be open to the public on April 4 for the First Friday Art Walk downtown.
For information, contact the galleries, 815-6622.