Wayne White makes his world
Artist Wayne White's dream job takes him to cities all over America, and on Friday, May 29, Wichita will see his talents firsthand.
Best known for his set and puppet designs for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, for which he won three Emmy awards, White also voiced characters on the show.
For the past week, White has been in Wichita for an artist's residency program being held in collaboration with Wichita Festivals, Harvester Arts, the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University and WSU's School of Art, Design, and Creative Industries. The culmination of his work the past 10 days will be featured at the Riverfest's Safelite AutoGlass Sundown Parade downtown at 6:30 p.m. on Friday.
"I get to invent my own job," White said, "and I have invented this role of circus master that gets to come to town and work with local artists to create spectacles."
Along with more than a dozen local artists, White has built several large-scale puppets that will make their debut at the parade. The puppets are designed to depict characters and icons from Wichita's history, including a large scale version of a B-29 being built by a group of Rosie the Riveters, Carrie Nation wielding an ax and chasing a whiskey bottle. White and the other artists involved have put hundreds of hours in and used 200, 4-by-8-foot pieces of cardboard to build their masterpieces.
"Early on we get a glimpse of a world that we can't quite reach and we're longing to get there," White said. "Whether it's in a picture book or a View-Master — that powerful illusion in the View-Master really drove that home for me. A world that was just out of reach, and it was so beautiful. And I've spent my whole life trying to reach that feeling, that world that that vision gave to me. And I think that is true of all artists."
For the artists working on the Riverfest project, the whimsical enigma of some of the pieces is going to be a draw for the public.
"People are going to try and figure out who all the characters are, and that's fun," said Jessica Wasson, a graphic designer working on the project. "There's no right-away answer. It's a think-piece, and it's really captivating. They are giant puppets, and we don't really have anything rolling through the parade like that typically."
After the parade, the pieces will be on display in Century II for the length of the Riverfest. As a residency program, the artists who participated in Wayne's workshops will show their pieces at the Ulrich Underground in June with some pieces also at Harvester Arts.
"Here at the Ulrich we believe that today's art matters, so it's a natural extension for us to support this residency," said Bob Workman, director of the Ulrich Museum of Art. "We really look forward to presenting some of the results of Wayne's workshops here at the Ulrich Underground in June. We are so fortunate to live in a community with dynamic arts organizations, and Harvester and WFI are bringing important programming to enrich us all."
Harvester Arts originally spoke to White about this venture two years ago, but his schedule was full. Thanks to Wichita Festivals and Kristin Beal, co-founder and COO of Harvester Arts along with Kate Van Steenhuyse and Ryan Gates, a grant was secured through the Kansas Creative Arts Industries Commission and many sponsors stepped in to bring White to Wichita.
White was born in Chattanooga, Tenn., and uses his memories from the south as inspiration for his work.
"I am a small town guy. This [Wichita] isn't a small town by any means, but I love the Midwest," White said.
White's pace is much different now than it was in back in the mid-1980s when he was designing and building sets for Pee-Wee's Playhouse, Shining Time Station, Riders in the Sky, The Weird Al Show and Beakman's World. In 2009, Wayne's life and career were chronicled in an incredible 382-page monograph, and since he has spent most of his time on the road creating outdoor art installations, including parades, in cities all over America. In September of 2012 Beauty is Embarrassing, a biographical documentary about White, was released and screened at the Tallgrass Film Festival the next month. The movie, directed by Neil Berkeley, was a winner of Tallgrass Film Festival's Audience Award in 2012.
Since in Wichita, White has been an "art monk," staying in the studio all day and spending time with his wife, artist and author Mimi Pond. The couple did escape to the Douglas Avenue Chop Shop and bought a couple of steaks that White said were awesome. While in town he also hosted four mask-making workshops and spoke to a packed house at Abode Venue. On Thursday, May 28, his wife is doing a book-signing at Watermark Books for her latest graphic novel, Over Easy. The couple has collaborated several times over the years, including one piece that White did titled "Heinies n' Shooters w/Hotties at Hooters," a part of his collection of thrift store paintings that he paints on large, three-dimensional words.
"He is an artistic genius. He inspires me daily," Pond said of her husband of 28 years. "I went to one of his puppet shows in New York on the Lower East Side in about 1984, and I just thought it was amazing. When he stepped out from behind the cardboard stage, I said 'that's for me.'"
It was after the two moved to Los Angeles in 1986 that White got deeply involved in TV shows and art directing genere-changing music videos such as Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and The Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight."
From a small-town boy to an Emmy- and Billboard-award-winning artist, White says his inspiration to become an artist came from all around him. From the fonts on cereal boxes to his favorite toys and cartoons, his work has been a culmination of his past, present and his ability to look towards the future and reach for what he wants.
"At an early age we see something that blows our mind," White said, "and we spend the rest of our lives trying to reach that special land. I wanted to live in Huckleberry Hound's world!"