Q&A: Designer Wayne White Returns for Rocky Top Homecoming Float

Documentaries about artists are often a portrayal of tortured individuals. There's depression and drama, infidelity and alcoholism, bad behavior, all somehow justified in the pursuit of art.

Then there is last year's film Beauty Is Embarrassing: The Wayne White Story. White, a native of Chattanooga and graduate of Middle Tennessee State University, makes art because it makes him happy. He has a loving and stable marriage with the cartoonist Mimi Pond. He seems to get along with his children pretty well. And his popularity just keeps growing.

White first gained renown as a designer for Pee Wee's Playhouse, which led to his work on seminal videos like Peter Gabriel's "Big Time" and the Smashing Pumpkins' "Tonight, Tonight." White's puppetry and paintings have been shown in museums around the globe, and he collaborated with fashion designer Todd Oldham in 2009 for a book of his artwork.

But White's still a Tennessee boy at heart, and he makes trips to the state as often as his busy schedule allows. He'll be around campus for several days, helping build a homecoming float, but he's only speaking to the public once. We talked over the phone from his Los Angeles studio.

So when we met last year, it was after the screening of the documentary about you, Everything Is Beautiful, which got some great reviews. I was curious as to whether the movie has had any impact on your life since then?

Yeah, it has impacted my life. I wasn't expecting to get as much attention from it. I wasn't expecting to be in public so much, for a year really, touring with the film. It's made me a public figure. It changes your life, mostly in a positive way. But there were adverse effects, too—it took me away from my studio for a time, and I didn't get to make a lot of art last year.

Has all the attention affected sales of your art?

Yes, it's definitely been good for business. It's created a lot of opportunities for me—more museum work, more installations. I have a lot of projects that I'm working on that wouldn't have happened without the film.

The paintings you're most known for have your own kind of signature style of text superimposed over thrift-store landscapes, and I've noticed over the past few years I've been seeing that same look in advertisements and even on book covers, like on Jonathan Franzen's Freedom. Does this bother you?

That is true—I have inspired a lot of graphic design. At first I was kind of annoyed about it, but then I started thinking, well, it's not like I haven't stolen myself. There's nothing new under the sun, especially in the art world, and what I'm doing, I didn't make it up.

I hear you're going to be working with students on a project while you're here?

I'm going to be working with the art department, and they're going to make a float for the homecoming parade. I've seen sketches, and it looks great.

Can you tell me what it's going to look like?

The plan is, it's going to be a giant half-cat and half-bear. You know the song "Rocky Top"?

Yeah, it's pretty impossible to be in Knoxville and not know "Rocky Top."

Well, we're making the hillbilly girl he sings about, "Half bear, the other half cat." She's going to have Daisy Dukes and a polka-dot halter top, with a cat head and a bear head, and with a big tail twitching around.

That sounds amazing! I know your wife Mimi Pond is coming with you on this trip. I used to love her cartoons for Seventeen so much. Is she working on anything right now?

Oh, yeah! She's about ready to put out a new major graphic novel this spring. It's the first of a two-part series, and it's being released by Drawn and Quarterly, and she'll be going on a big book tour. This is going to be a big deal. It's about her days as a waitress in Oakland in the 1970s, basically when the punks took over from the hippies.

You're going to be here speaking to art students, but after you graduated from MTSU, you went to New York and worked commercially before eventually becoming known for your own art. Do you recommend to other young artists that they follow in your footsteps or that they pursue the MFA/gallery route?

That's a deep subject. I think it's important to get out in the real world, though it's too individual for me to say for all people. I don't really give advice. I say if you have a skill that you can use commercially, why not try to get a job using it? It beats food stamps. But if you're dead set on being in the fine-art world, then I would say an MFA makes sense. But for me, working—that seemed more fun than staying in school. And I was lucky enough to get something amazing. But how often does Pee Wee's Playhouse come along, really?

Interview has been condensed and edited for space and clarity.

Wayne White • University of Tennessee University Center • Thursday, Nov. 7 • 7:30 p.m. • Free • facebook.com/visualartscommittee