Documentary explores life of architect of 'Pee-wee's Playhouse'

Art took White from East Tennessee to New York

Courtesy Future You Pictures.
Artist Wayne White plays the part in front of one of his newer paintings.

Courtesy Future You Pictures. Artist Wayne White plays the part in front of one of his newer paintings.

Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story

Documentary screening hosted by artist Wayne White, who will talk and participate in a question-and-answer session after the film. 2 p.m. Sunday, Memphis Brooks Museum of Art in Overton Park.

Tickets: $15 or $12 for museum members. Visit brooksmuseum.org.

A native of suburban Chattanooga, artist Wayne White was perhaps an unlikely architect of “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.”

As a set designer, puppet sculptor and voice actor on the influential 1980s Saturday morning program, the former Middle Tennessee State “country hippie” provided a Southern complement to the East Village sensibility of his “fellow weirdos” on the originally New York-based production.

White created Randy, the bratty tough guy marionette, who suggested what Howdy Doody might look like after a night locked in the cabinet of Dr. Caligari.

White’s jazzbo Dirty Dog puppet was a Beat poet whose rhymes owed more to William M. Gaines (publisher of Mad magazine) than to William S. Burroughs (author of “Naked Lunch”).

White earned three Emmy Awards for his work with Paul “Pee-wee Herman” Reubens. This past year, he was recognized with a perhaps more impressive tribute, a documentary feature film.

Directed by Neil Berkeley, “Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story” explores the biography, career and off-kilter philosophy of an artist who appears even more devoted to his wife and kids than he is to the notion of creating a giant George Jones puppet head (which he in fact did, in 2009, at Rice University).

The documentary screens at 2 p.m. Sunday at the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art. White will make a rare public Memphis appearance in conjunction with the movie. He’ll answer questions after the film, and talk about his interest in work that typically resides at the intersection of so-called high and low culture.

“I love comic books and paintings — I don’t see much of a distinction between the two,” said White, currently known for a series of “word paintings,” in which he adds often profane slogans to thrift-store landscapes. The painted letters are elaborate, blocky and sometimes hard to decode; the messages usually are humorous, with an element of wry social commentary. (One canvas, for example, reads: “Heinies n’ Shooters w/ Hotties at Hooters.”)

Born in 1957, White was raised in tiny Hixson, near the Alabama border. “Growing up in a small town in Tennessee, pop culture was the first art form that I recognized,” he said, in a recent telephone interview. “Album covers. Mad magazine — very much so, for its humor. And later on, as I got into art in college, Red Grooms, another fellow Tennessean, from Nashville.” (Although his work is cartoonish and fun, Grooms is accepted as a “serious” artist.)

The movie covers White’s college years; his 27-years-and-counting marriage to cartoonist Mimi Ponds; and such post-“Pee-wee” projects as his influential music videos, which include two of the most celebrated in the form’s history: Peter Gabriel’s “Big Time,” and the Smashing Pumpkins’ “Tonight, Tonight,” inspired by the work of French special-effects pioneer Georges Méliès. (At the MTV Music Video Awards, White says in the film, he was treated like “a leprous nerd.”)

Throughout the documentary White appears as likable as he is resourceful: a standup comic with a Steve Earle beard who transforms literal junk as well as the scraps of the pop-culture imagination into art.

“I’m no Zen master, I’m a worrywart,” he said. “I’m a big neurotic, and I fret a lot about stuff. But my secret is I’m the hardest-working guy in the room. I’ve been told artists who see the movie respond to that, that it’s inspirational for artists — it helps them keep their spirits up, and keep on making stuff. It kind of cheers up people wrestling with the same issues I’ve wrestled with — anybody struggling to keep working.”

“There’s a bigger cosmic message there, too: Life is short. Either do it now or forget it. The time is always now. That’s an old cliché, but it’s always true.”

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