"But that's the way I was then and maybe still am: my ambition always outstripped my abilities."

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A Two-Part Interview with Wayne White

Part One:

If you have watched Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Peter Gabriel’s video for “Big Time,” or the Smashing Pumpkins’ video for “Tonight, Tonight,” you’ve seen Wayne White’s art. White’s ingenuity and his extensive body of work are becoming better known through the 2009 monograph Maybe Now I’ll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve, and the 2012 documentary about White, Beauty is Embarrassing, directed by Neil Berkeley.

As an artist who works in many mediums—painting, sculpture, print-making, drawing, stop-motion animation, and installation—puppets have also been a constant throughout White’s career. While the importance of puppets to White is evident in the monograph and documentary, I wanted to find out how White became interested in puppets and to learn more about his influences. In all of his work White is inspired by a wide-range of sources, from pop culture to his close study of artists. Drawing upon these he creates unique and inviting works and, when given the chance, impressive installations, as he achieved with BIG LECTRIC FAN TO KEEP ME COOL WHILE I SLEEP at Houston’s Rice University Art Gallery in 2009 and BIG LICK BOOM at Roanoke’s Taubman Museum of Art in 2012.   

In August of 2012, a few weeks before the national release of Beauty is Embarrassing, I spoke to White by phone. He was in Los Angeles and I was in North Carolina. As our conversation began he mentioned that he was drinking a Coca-Cola. 

—Julie Thomson 

I. Jean Dubuffet’s Punk Rock Puppet Show

THE BELIEVER: How did you become interested in puppets?

WAYNE WHITE: Well I never played with puppets at all when I was a kid. I don’t think I owned one puppet. I used to see the Muppets on television before Sesame Street; they used to be on the Ed Sullivan Show in the 60s. I kind of liked those, but the way I got involved with them was my friend Mike Quinn at Middle Tennessee State University made these funky hand puppets so he could get out of doing a term paper for his forestry class [Laughs]. One day I saw them all in the floorboard of his car and I picked one up and I thought hmmm, maybe I could get out of my term paper in art history class by doing a puppet show.

BLVR: Did it work?

WW: Yes. I did a puppet show at the teacher’s house. He arranged a big keg party, he was not much older than us, and we did a puppet show called Punk and Juicy. That was my entree into the world of puppets. This was like 1978, the height of punk, and so we called it a punk rock puppet show. I really wanted to get in on the punk thing but I didn’t play guitar so I picked up a puppet instead. It was a very violent show with lots of squirting blood. We threw bowls of Cheerios and milk at the audience, and blood, and pig guts. Very in your face assault. [Laughs]

BLVR: Did it have music?

WW: I think we had some kind of music playing at the climax of it, probably Ramones or something to wind it all up. I claimed it was written by Jean Dubuffet. [Laughs] That was my art history slant.

BLVR: What’s the timeframe from that puppet show to when you went to New York in the 1980s and did puppet shows there? Did you do shows in between that period?

WW: Yeah that started the homemade puppet show for me. It brought together a lot of different things I liked: performing, painting, sculpture. I kept doing them after I left Tennessee, at gallery openings in New York or on the street. It was a real guerilla theater kind of thing. One of my old partners who used to do the show with me, Alison Mork, stayed in Nashville and got a job at the local PBS station. They wanted to produce a local kid’s show that taught kids music and she said why don’t you show them your puppet portfolio? Luckily for me there was a young, crazy, open-minded guy working there who was going to direct the show and he hired me. I went down from New York to Nashville for three months and I built this whole production, the sets, the puppets, everything. It was called Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose. That was my first professional job building puppets and sets. I took that Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose portfolio with me back up to New York City and that’s how I got the Pee-wee’s job.

BLVR: Working on Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose was different than parties or doing puppets for fun. How did puppets change for you when you started getting paid to make them?

WW: Well Mrs. Cabobble’s was the first time I had a real a budget and materials. I stepped up the production values because I finally had resources. Plus I had to tone down the punk rock aspect although I kept that edge in there. I had to make it a little cuter and sweeter for the children, but I was still operating on really expressionistic tendencies, like early German movies, Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, German Expressionism, and underground comics. I had already been in New York for three or four years working around, and with, the Raw [magazine] cartoonists and Art Spiegelman, and I’d soaked up a lot of influences from there.

BLVR: Did you already have drawings in your mind or sketches, or did you start with a fresh slate for Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose?

WW: I pretty much started with a fresh slate. Another big influence on Mrs. Cabobble’s were Little Golden Books from the 50s and early 60s, all the great illustrators who worked for them. I wanted it to be a cross between the Cabinet of Dr. Caligari and a Little Golden Book. A story book come alive into three-dimensions. Plus I grew up with Captain Kangaroo and all the old live action kid’s shows that used to come on in the 60s and that definitely was the genesis for Pee-wee too.

BLVR: Were you primarily responsible for the puppets for Pee-wee’s or did other people create puppets too? How did you develop the characters that people know so well?

WW: I was primarily responsible for the new puppets that had to be built. Pterri the Pterodactyl was already pretty much created. Clocky was already there. I didn’t do Chairy, but I did do the majority of the new puppets. There was already a puppet Bible proscribing each character.

BLVR: Wait, a puppet Bible?

WW: In TV, when you have a description of the characters and concepts of the show, they call it a Bible, that’s production slang. I came up with the look, and created, and built Randy, The Beatnik Gang—Dirty  Dog, Cool Cat, Chicky baby—Floory, the Flowers, the Fish, Roger the monster, which was really sort of a costume more than a puppet, Billy Baloney, Magic glasses, et cetera. It all starts with drawings, then the drawings are approved, and then I had a little crew to help me build them.

BLVR: Some of those characters had a genesis at Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose; isn’t Dirty Dog one of those?

WW: Dirty Dog was definitely influenced by a previous puppet I had made at Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose, a puppet called Hambone. I loved making dog puppets, especially blue dog puppets, which came from Huckleberry Hound, who was a huge star when I was a kid. Hanna Barbara ruled the airways.

II. “Flocked Box, Flocked Box.”

BLVR: In Beauty is Embarrassing I remember you saying something about how the way you built Randy reflected what you didn’t know about making puppets?

WW: [Laughs] Well, the big issue with me on Pee-wee’s is I was way under-qualified to be building puppets. I was coming from this funky do-it-yourself punk rock aesthetic which fortunately fit right in with the Pee-wee’s aesthetic. I wasn’t a professional puppeteer by any means. So I had to learn a lot of building techniques as I went along and I used a lot of my own funky do-it-yourself techniques which probably was not the best route to take. [Laughs] I literally carved Randy out of white pine, solid wood. Not a great idea because the head was so big and it weighed ten to fifteen pounds. He was remade the next year in California by professionals. They made his head out of hollow fiberglass with these intricate workings inside of him. Total pro. I knew nothing about those materials.  

BLVR: I can only imagine what it’s like to have a ten to fifteen pound puppet on your arm as you manipulate it.

WW: Oh it’s hell! And of course I had to pretend like I knew what I was doing the whole time. But that’s the way I was then and maybe still am: my ambition always outstripped my abilities. I would throw myself into a situation where it was sink or swim, and learn on the job kind of thing. So that’s probably not the best advice for artists [Laughs], but it was my method.

BLVR: Well there are studies lately about grit and how there’s a certain level of grit that artists have in order to keep going. I think your attitude with the original Randy shows some grit.

WW: [Laughs] And desperation. The biggest problem with Randy is that every time I would drop him into the scene his head would start spinning uncontrollably like the Exorcist. I finally figured out how to control that. It was much easier when I was working with the professionally made Randy the second year here in L.A. But that was the spirit of our show. That’s what gave Pee-wee’s its edge. We were all new to our jobs, we were all cartoonists, and painters, and sculptors. We weren’t professional show-biz people. We were artists creating an art project in downtown Manhattan that happened to be on Saturday morning nationwide.

BLVR: While working on Pee-wee’s what did you learn about collaboration, since there were so many of you working on it, and there was also the shift from the artists to the professionals in L.A.?

WW: I learned how to communicate, how to translate this drawing into three-dimensions. It takes a certain amount of diplomacy [Laughs], patience, and empathy for the person I’m talking to. I learned how to communicate with friendliness instead of bossiness because that really turns people off, especially artists and creative types. The trickiest part was in getting the drawing to translate because the drawing is all asymmetrical, and expressionistic, and there’s gesture in the drawing, and most builders want to clean that up, take out the asymmetry and make it symmetrical, and lose the gesture. It usually takes a certain kind of exaggeration.

BLVR: Can you tell me more about the underground show that you and the other artists created while you were working on Pee-wee’s Playhouse?

WW: Oh sure. See that was a return to Punk and Juicy shows. I guess I sort of initiated that. The word flocked box was mine because when I first came to L.A. I looked at all these stucco houses and I called them flocked boxes. [Laughs] It sort of has a dirty connotation but that was my description of the stucco houses of L.A. Me, and Gary Panter, and Ric Heitzman would get on certain phrases and just use them over and over like three-year-olds, “flocked box, flocked box.” So we decided to call it Flocked Box Theater because we liked the sound of it. It was a release valve because we had to be so professional with the Pee-wee puppets and be careful with them, but there was still this urge for us to get back to the do-it-yourself days and make funky stuff out of foam core, and foam rubber, and cardboard, it’s still my favorite material. On the set, especially if you are shooting on film, there’s lots of down time. Being able to go play in the Flocked Box Theater kept that adrenaline going when we were called to the set to do our on-camera puppetry. That was kind of like a puppet workout for us in the dressing room. [Laughs]

BLVR: It sounds like it was very improvisational. Did you make it up as you went along?

WW: Yes, it was all about improvisation. When you get four or five puppeteers stuck in a tiny dressing room, that energy has to come out somehow. We could have wound up tearing each other’s faces off, but instead we put it all into making paper cup and foam rubber puppets. I had my video camera so we filmed it all too.

BLVR: There are clips of it in Beauty is Embarrassing. Will people ever get to see those shows?

WW: Yeah, maybe, I don’t know. I don’t quite know how but maybe they’ll be on the extras on the DVD or something like that. [Laughs] They definitely need editing. They just go on and on and the sound quality is not the best. We only had one microphone and we were shouting out from behind this cardboard stage, [Laughs] but maybe one day the world will see the rest of it. 

See Part Two

Julie Thomson is a writer and independent art historian who lives in Durham, NC. Her writing has appeared in Raw Vision, Art Lies, …might be good, the Independent Weekly, and the Journal of Black Mountain College Studies. Follow her on Twitter @JulieJThomsonNC.

Illustration by Adam Grano.