Wayne White’s Artwork Is As Mad And Humorous As Himself

May 29, 2015

There will be a cattle drive in downtown Wichita tonight as part of the Sundown Parade at Riverfest. Los Angeles-based artist Wayne White has created lively steers, cowboys and other familiar characters from Wichita’s history. KMUW’s Sean Sandefur got to see the artist at work…

Artist Wayne White walks through a sea of cardboard at Harvester Arts in Wichita's Old Town neighborhood. Some of the cardboard is assembled into stylized cartoon creatures; some of it is discarded on the floor, with jagged angles and dusty footprints.  

A dozen or so masks made to resemble cows and steers will be showcased in Friday's Sundown Parade.

Credit Sean Sandefur

“They’re part of a tableau I’m doing for the parade of a cattle drive,” White says.

White himself doesn’t look far off from a farm. He wears a navy blue jumpsuit and a maroon trucker’s hat. His pale blue eyes pierce through a face half-covered in a bushy, salt-and-pepper beard.

Also in the parade will be a larger-than-life Carrie Nation “chasing a whiskey bottle,” White says, though her puppet version hasn’t quite taken shape yet. The pioneer prohibitionist is just a big black dress with a surly-looking face on the floor beside it.

To find inspiration for these puppets, White looked to Wichita’s history.

“I love cowboys,” he says. “The story of Carrie Nation is irresistibly comic and perfect for puppet hijinks. I sort of went with the obvious things, just because I wanted to. I could've gone more political or idiosyncratic, but I went with the big topics. Everybody loves them, and I do too.”

White is Riverfest’s first artist in residence. His 10-day work-stay is sponsored by Wichita State University, Wichita Festivals and Harvester Arts, a nonprofit that provides gallery and studio space for local artists.

Credit Sean Sandefur

White is collaborating with many of these local artists to create the cardboard puppets like Carrie Nation.

Cardboard is a "great, cheap material," White says of the medium.

“It’s not the most permanent stuff in the world," he says, "but I have a lot of tricks and techniques that I can use to make it look like a million bucks.”

White wears his humor on his sleeve. With the kind of work he does, a boisterous inner child is needed. But there’s a mad genius also in there somewhere. Now pushing 60, White became well known in the late 1980's for the puppets and sets he created for the "children’s" TV show “Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.” He even voiced a Beatnik singer named Dirty Dog.

“It was the greatest job in the world, knowing that you could be completely creative and knowing that unfettered creativity was creating a national phenomenon,” White says. “The two together are a powerful stimulant for a young artist. There’s no better feeling in the world than knowing you’re on top of your game and everybody’s paying attention to you.”

White won three Emmys for his work on the show, and his success allowed him to the freedom to pursue another one of his passions: painting.

He says he became best known in the art world for his repurposed thrift store paintings.

“I find thrift store landscape reproductions with the frames still on them, and I put giant words into them,” he says. 

White picks out dull, budget hotel-ish paintings and carefully adds his own touch – so carefully, in fact, that the words and phrases seem part of the original designs, like a snow-covered mountain landscape with the phrase “I’m Lost on a Spaceship, Momma” in red and blue letters suspended in air.  

Credit Wayne White, Western Project Contemporary Art Gallery

“I call them the world’s shortest short stories,” White says. “They’re definitely poems. I see each one as both form and language.”

The phrases are short bursts of seemingly random thoughts. Truly, they're keyholes into the creative mind of Wayne White--a mind that seems to thrive in controlled chaos, which is on display at Harvester Arts in Wichita, where quick sketches of airplanes, cowboys and whiskey bottles are thrown up on the walls as references.

One wheeled creation made for Friday’s parade is a cowboy perched atop his noble steed.

This intersection of art and history is something that’s been with White since he was a boy growing up in a small town outside of Chattanooga, Tennessee.

“I loved history ever since I was a kid. I just love the fantasy of it, the romance of it,” he says. “And I was surrounded by stories from the past there in Tennessee. Everybody is. And some people pay attention, and some don’t. I always paid attention. I just loved dreaming about it. It’s a fantasy trip for me. And so these jobs that I do now in each city is an extension of that.”

One of the cow masks that will be in the Sundown Parade "cattle drive"
Credit Sean Sandefur

White will soon be doing a similar project in Hollywood, creating puppets inspired by the past to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Broward County. Wherever White works, he says there are always local people who are eager to help.

“The local artists here have been amazing,” he says. “That’s another thing I find when I travel. The artists in all cities, big or little, are just as good as the artists in the big cities, maybe even better because they’re more enthusiastic. And I love that enthusiasm.”

And how can Hollywood measure up to 14-foot cowboys and a bottle-busting Carrie Nation running amuck on Douglas Street?

“I just want to invite Wichita to come to it,” White says. “I guarantee you’ve never seen your city interpreted quite like this.”

See White's creations in action during Friday's Sundown Parade:

A selection of Wayne White’s puppets will be on view at the Ulrich Museum of Art at Wichita State University from June 13 through July 12.

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