Wayne White grew up in Chattanooga and helped create a children’s TV show in Nashville before bringing his wacky vision to the iconic Pee-wee’s playhouse. These days, White is best known for his large public art installations of giant puppet heads – the genre that has been showcased to his Wayne-O-Rama takes place in Chattanooga in 2016 and 2017.
White’s word paintings have also become iconic works, and the Julia Martin Gallery is currently holding a new exhibition of White’s paintings and sculptures titled Radio Magic Eightball. He kicked off the show on Saturday with an opening reception and a performance by his new band Username Password, and the work will be on display until November 27. Scene recently spoke with White about his new art and his three-string guitar – and also asked him what was so cubist about the pandemic.
Tthis is your second exhibition at the Julia Martin gallery. How did you get connected?
I connected with Julia through Daniel [Lonow] to the Country Music Hall of Fame. Daniel works with the gallery there, Haley Gallery of Hatch Show Print. [Lonow is also the curator at Julia Martin Gallery.] It was in 2018 I believe. I did a country music show with a lot of country music portraits and a giant George Jones puppet.
I just read about it. Was that obviously the biggest giant head of George Jones ever made?
Well, no, that was in 2009 at Rice University in Houston. I made a smaller version for Daniel, plus a full body. The rice was just a giant head.
For this show at Julia’s, you return to your paintings of words.
Yes, it’s a word painting show. These are mainly new paintings of words. I try new things, I try wall reliefs – little pop-art cubist relief versions of relief walls of the word paintings. I do stuff on paper, then the classic thrift store reproduction word paintings and a few other little sculptural things.
I saw an image of one of the wall reliefs. I don’t remember if he was like, like “Fuck It?”
What are they made of? How did you develop them?
Yes, these are from the beginning of this year, and I have never shown them anywhere. And this will be the first of those on the wall. And these are just an exploration of cubism. I kind of cut out the frames and glued them together in a fractured fashion. I had all these letters that I had laser cut from MDF board, which looks like Masonite. I had all these letters lying around that I wanted to play with in one way or another. And so it’s really just my nod to cubism, really fracturing the space and putting it back together. I wanted to kind of express the fractured year we’ve all been through, and the exasperation and kind of blurring of all of our worlds. It was like an expression of that, I guess. But really, they’re just on another level too – they’re just my continued exploration of trying to find a new way to really make the words paintings. I am always looking for a new variant.
You always find new ways to combine elements of a “low” popular culture with “higher” art ideas. These days you’re sort of in a postmodern golden age where everyone is mixing it all up anyway, but you always have. I find it interesting that you make sculptures of country music stars in an artistic context, and at the same time combine materials like MDF with these secular phrases, and then use them to explore something like cubism. How much is this just instinct for you? How much does an agenda cost?
I would say everything is instinctive. I don’t have an overriding agenda. Once I decide on a direction, I create a little program, I guess, just to structure it, don’t I? But I kind of give myself permission to experiment or try whatever I really want to do without worrying about how it fits into the Wayne White brand. Although I am very much aware of the Wayne White brand, I have now been doing these word paintings for 21 years. And so I know a lot of people immediately identify me with them, so there’s this problem, which is a good thing to have. It’s good to have a brand that sets you apart from the pack, right? But he can also kind of hit you and put you in a corner if you’re not careful. I therefore reserve the right to stretch it and extend it as much as I can.
But I feel very lucky that the word paintings are now part of our culture and that they can have many different contexts in many different roles. They can be from very expensive works of art in an art gallery, to a very affordable puzzle that you can buy online.
You’ve exhibited at Cheekwood, Zeitgeist, and the Country Music Hall of Fame before, but what about your more important connections to Nashville?
Well, I love Nashville. I have lived around Nashville since 1975. When I started school at MTSU in Murfreesboro, Nashville was definitely a great destination for us all the time. The big city. So I spent four years at MTSU in Nashville the entire time. I made a lot of friends there. And then when I graduated I moved to Nashville, lived here for a year in 1984. And yes, I love country music. I love old country music.
Nashville is my favorite city in so many ways. It was there that I started to become an artist. It was there that I first met other artists who were going to MTSU or living in Nashville. One of my favorite artists, Bill Killebrew, still paints there in Nashville. He was the first very good professional artist I ever met. So I had all these early origins in Nashville as an artist. This is where I really started to connect with the bigger outside world, and it was my starting point for New York. It was the first real taste of culture I had – Chattanooga wasn’t like that back then. And so I have a very deep connection to Nashville that has been going on for 75, and some of my best friends still live there. Nashville is also where I started my television career in 1985 when I did the children’s show for WDCN-Channel 8, Mrs. Cabobble’s van. It was my first professional job as a scenographer and puppeteer. And I took this wallet back to New York, and Mrs. Cabobble’s van that’s how I got the Pee-wee’s playhouse job. So Nashville has been a great place to grow and learn as an artist, and to have my confidence to go into the bigger world. It really fed me.
You say you find people identify the word paints as the Wayne White brand. How has this been a change for you, given your early career when you were best known for your work on Pee-wee’s playhouse or other television projects?
I will always be linked to Pee-wee’s playhouse and various other projects that I did on television, and I’m very proud of them. I’m not running away from it. But I was glad I was given the chance, and I’m glad I managed to find my own name and identity, and not just someone who makes someone else look good, you see ? Pee-wee’s playhouse was one of the greatest things that happened to me as an artist. It’s a pleasure and a privilege to work in something that was so important in our culture, that had such positive magic. You know, it’s very rare. Very rare. And I’m glad I caught this ride.
When you were doing your tour which ended up being filmed for the 2012 documentary Beauty is embarrassing, you were also making music during your show.
A little yes. I played a little banjo during my lectures, but I haven’t done anything that I’m going to try at Julia Martin’s this weekend.
Is this the first musical performance you do in Nashville?
Yes, this is my first performance with a small band in Nashville. And boy, I ask. Come on man! Are you going to Nashville to show off your mediocre musical talent? Please!
It sounds like fun to me.
I will be playing a three string guitar in this project. It’s a group called Username Password, and we got together online during COVID – it was pretty much a quarantine group. I have been playing the same cigar box electric guitar for a while. Someone gave it to me as a gift at one of my conferences, actually. I put my banjo down to sign books, and this guy stood in line and gave me this guitar. And so it was in 2013 or 2014, and I got interested in playing it, and I post little videos on social media every now and then. I play with my friends in Chattanooga – Bob Stagner is a drummer and Jim Tate, who is a bass player. I asked them if they would like to put tracks on some recordings that I made, and they did. And so we started this remote collaboration last year, and it was a fun thing to do while we were all locked up. And so I just do my guitar tracks and send them, then they add their parts, then we show the composite video. And we never really played live together. Never. So this will be our debut.
I Suppose that by remaking music your instinct for creativity pays big in terms of just hunching over something and then following it where it leads?
Yes. I mean, these musical things that I do are just really little sketches. They last less than a minute. And there is no pressure to be professional, or to make money or anything like that. It’s just pure play. This is how I can play without any conditions. I’m not a musician, but I have a few musical ideas that I like to play with, and I like to be brief. You know, we’re like this short-lived social media group, this midlife group. I’m not sure how to label it, but it’s really fun for me. And as long as I don’t take it too seriously, I have a lot of fun with it. And I’m really lucky to have real musicians, real working musicians like Jim and Bob, who take me seriously enough to support me and make me sound even better.