One of the best things about Netflix is its big selection of indie documentaries, which (when they’re not in a foreign language) are great for knitting while watching. Last week I found myself watching Beauty is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story while working on a new design, and it was the perfect inspiration after a long day of knitting and ripping the same thing multiple times. Wayne White’s name may not be familiar to you, but probably his work is.
His first big break was as a designer and puppeteer on Pee-Wee’s Playhouse, one of my favorite childhood TV shows and one of my earliest creative influences. The part of the documentary covering the Pee-Wee days made me want to watch an entire documentary on the making of that show, but I was also interested to find out what the person behind the show’s visuals went on to do. (I also loved seeing clips from the fake alternative kids’ show that White and his puppeteer colleagues made when they were waiting to be needed on the set.)
White’s work in television went beyond kids’ shows. He was also the art director for the Smashing Pumpkins video Tonight, Tonight, among many other animation projects. I’m sure I saw this video back in the ’90s, but now that I’ve taken the film history classes, the old-timey sci-fi movie theme strikes me as especially clever and charming.
After getting burned out by Hollywood, White has gone on to make a career in the fine art world with his kitschy, sometimes vulgar word paintings.
I’m less excited about these myself, but I admire his approach to art (and the message of the documentary) that emphasizes playfulness and experimentation without getting preoccupied by what others expect from you. Maybe this is standard artist talk, but it’s something I can’t be reminded of enough as I question the direction of my own work on a daily basis. And the sheer nuttiness and devotion to fun that comes through in White’s work is contagious—I’m finding myself daydreaming about epic projects that border on the impossible, which is probably something we should all do.