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FDL Movie Night: “Beauty Is Embarrassing–The Wayne White Story”

Who says fine art can’t be humorous?

Wayne White’s art isn’t highbrow. It isn’t Lowbrow. But it qualifies as both. It’s American in the best of ways: Pure, funny, shoot-from-the-hip, self-made, inventive, imaginative. Wayne White is Will Rogers with a paintbrush and a hot glue gun, an artist whose work greeted attendees at Art Basel in Miami, and whose influence–Mark Mothersbaugh calls him one of the founding fathers of American Pop Art–exploded from that most American of mediums, the television.

Directed by Neil Berkeley, Beauty is Embarrassing is inspiring, poignant and uplifting, opening our minds to possibility that we are all artists and must be true to our visions, and live life as if every day matters. White’s persistence and drive to constantly create and yet to be his own harshest critic have produced a body of work that is self-reflective, yet universal, strong, biting, and ultimately a poke in the eye of the art establishment because it’s so utterly funny, yet on point.

As the Emmy Award-winning designer of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, White’s vision of an askew childhood reached millions (Earlier in his career White designed the sets and production for a Nashville-based PBS series, Mrs. Cabobble’s Caboose, which was even weirder because the host was serious and the sets were insane progenitor’s of Pee-wee’s clever madness). He designed sets and puppets for the show as well as voicing characters. But when Pee-wee’s Playhouse stopped production after three seasons, White, who had moved with his family from New York to Los Angeles, began the Hollywood grind, taking meetings, and luckily art directing several videos and commercials. But he was near the breaking point and about to crack, locking himself in the basement for days and drawing, taking anti-depressants.

Wayne had never stopped creating, painting, building sculptures out of sticks, cardboard and found objects. A thrift store painting caught his eye and he began to create his word paintings across the landscape. The landscapes White uses in his word paintings are idealized, pastoral views of America, not unlike the fist glimpses of his native Tennessee, where was raised by his loving and supportive family. But beneath their idyllic family life was tragedy–his mother suffered long-term affects from a car crash that nearly killed the whole family as they drove to a holiday dinner when Wayne was six.  Wayne was unlike the kids in his small Tennessee town–he drew and made puppet shows and animated films, growing out his hair and rebelling against the Southern conservative mentality.

In college he met fellow artists, including his lifelong friend Mike Quinn who Wayne says showed him what an artist’s life truly is. In Beauty is Embarrassing, Wayne returns to Tennessee to help Quinn, an art teacher at a local prep school, work with students and build a huge puppet of the school’s founder. Quinn admits that he himself might not have had the gumption to go to New York, to break away like Wayne did, while it’s clear Wayne admires Mike’s ability to stay true as an artist. The two men’s respect for each other and their decisions in life is palpable, stressing the importance of friendships and roots.

Wayne’s relationship with his wife Mimi Pond is also explored in depth. As Wayne’s career in Hollywood took off, Mimi put her own artistic career on hold in order to raise their family–they have two children, both artists–a traditional role in a what appears at first to be a non-traditional family.

As Wayne points out, he and Mimi have proven F. Scott Fitzgerald wrong when the writer claimed

There are no second acts in American lives.

Wayne took his word paintings to a local diner–just three blocks from my house!–and hung them on the walls. They sold, and he replaced them with more. In the second act of his career,Wayne has gone from coffee shop to galleries, to museums to huge retrospective shows. And his beloved Mimi can now begin her second act, taking up her career once again in full swing.

Throughout the film, Neil intercuts White’s large Lyndon B. Johnson masked character built from cardboard with White’s discussion of his art at a local theater–along with explaining his art and life, Wayne dances, sings and plays the banjo. He is a consummate performer, interacting with neighbors and his family as a truly larger-than-life LBJ, while humbling expressing himself to a rapt audience.

Thoughtful, introspective, self-deprecating, self-doubting, and successful through his own innovation, Wayne White is an American treasure.

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Lisa Derrick

Lisa Derrick

Los Angeles native, attended UC Berkeley and Loyola Marymount University before punk rock and logophilia overtook her life. Worked as nightclub columnist, pop culture journalist and was a Hollywood housewife before writing for and editing Sacred History Magazine. Then she discovered the thrill of politics. She also appears frequently on the Dave Fanning Show, one of Ireland's most popular radio broadcasts.