This weekend at the South by Southwest Film Festival I was lucky to see Neil Berkeley’s documentary Beauty Is Embarrassing. This film tells the engaging story of artist Wayne White, who designed sets and puppets for the hit ’80s children’s show Pee-wee’s Playhouse. But White’s work on this beloved series is just the beginning of his amazing career…
In addition to being a key Pee-wee player, White served as art director of music videos like “Big Time” by Peter Gabriel and “Tonight, Tonight” by Smashing Pumpkins (he won awards for both). White has also brought his talents to commercial work, and has most recently garnered attention for his amazing word paintings, in which he takes thrift store lithographs and paints 3-D text over the landscape (in a similar fashion to the image shown above). White’s art has been featured in galleries, and in 2009 he collaborated with Todd Oldham to release a book of his paintings entitled Maybe Now I’ll Get The Respect I So Richly Deserve.
’80s enthusiasts will enjoy the film’s focus on White’s days on the set of Pee-wee’s Playhouse, when he and other artists noted the pure joy they experienced, as well as the collaborative energy. It was an intensely creative time, and they were true pioneers, creating magic out of the resources they had. And did you know that in addition to designing puppets, White provided their voices as well?
Viewers will enjoy an inside look at this groundbreaking show–the first children’s program to take an ironic look at pop culture. The film also mentions the excitement of New York’s East Village art culture in the early ’80s, from regular Warhol sightings to the prevalence of graffiti art. Interviews with key ’80s players like Paul Reubens and Devo’s Mark Mothersbaugh add to the fun!
But more than the tale of “the guy who worked on Pee-wee’s Playhouse,” Beauty Is Embarrassing is the story of an artist’s life and the perseverance and pioneering spirit required for a creative lifestyle. Themes such as finding an artistic voice amidst a traditional Southern upbringing, appreciating the support of one’s family (which includes wife and comic artist Mimi Pond), the challenges of raising children when both partners are pursuing creative endeavors, and the difficulty of striking professional gold again after many years make this film honest and completely rewarding.
And then there’s White’s dynamic personality–rebellious, funny, and undeniably encouraging. I walked away feeling a push to continue making creativity a priority in my life. Thank you Wayne White and director Neil Berkeley–this documentary is a gem! The preview follows:
Stay tuned for more Pee-wee’s Playhouse this week at Mirror80!