Beauty is Embarrassing Director Neil Berkeley on Wayne White, Pee-wee's Playhouse, and Art Versus Commerce

Not many artists produce work that can elicit as profound a smile from viewers like the work of Wayne White. In an early scene of the long-in-the-works documentary, Beauty is Embarrassing, White holds court on an auditorium stage presenting a slideshow of his "Word Paintings." He paints words in massive scale over bland painted landscapes he finds at thrift stores. He incorporates his words seamlessly, using shadows and painting in things like beer cans left behind by imaginary laborers who constructed the words in these landscapes, giving the words depth and a solid quality. In one, giant letters jut out over the horizon of a valley, above a dirt road, declaring "Eastern Fuckit." In another, a series of amphibious "Fuck You"s as far as the eye can see land on a seashore lowering their decks to reveal hollow insides. "This is called 'Fuck You Invasion,'" White says.

White, who also works in animation, puppetry, and sculpture, seems to have access to a special place that makes art joyful. With that comes a bit of a burden he defends early in the film. "Humor is sacred," he says. "Without it, we're dead." 

White's most recognized works are probably the puppets he constructed and animated in the late 1980s-era, Saturday morning children's variety TV show head-lined by Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens),

Pee-wee's Playhouse

. The director of

Beauty is Embarrassing

, Neil Berkeley, reacted to learning of White's role in

Pee-wee's Playhouse

as many who had grown up with the show would. 

"When I met Wayne 12 years ago, I never even knew his name, but, man, this guy was there every moment of my experience with pop culture, my entire life," the 36-year-old director says speaking over the phone from Los Angeles. "I watched Pee-wee's every Saturday. I watched Beakman's World, I knew about Shining Time Station, I watched the music videos [for Peter Gabriel and Smashing Pumpkins], even the fine art in the early 2000s, so I was a huge fan of Wayne, but I didn't even know who he was."

The film covers it all, from the success of Pee-wee's Playhouse to White's nadir over-working himself into depression trying to follow-up the success of the show. "He didn't work for awhile," Berkeley says. "He stayed in his house. He kinda got reclusive ... I think he looked at it as a failure because he likes to persevere. He has this blue collar work ethic where he can really push himself and get a lot of work done, and I think that was just one of those moments where he had to just hunker down and  get his head right."

White would eventually re-invent himself as a painter. It took some time, but, following comparisons to Ed Ruscha and whether the paintings were pure gimmickry, the art world would eventually come around. "Entertainment is a dirty word in the art world," says White in the film. "I'll settle for laughter any day."

Berkeley says he met White in Los Angeles while working in the same industry, in the early 2000s, around the time White began experimenting with his word paintings. "We started to work together, about 12 years ago," Berkeley says. "I was a PA at a production company, and he was drawing those Priceline commercials. I was such a fan I stayed in touch with him over the years."

Berkeley said the idea for the documentary came about organically, as the two planned to work together on a demo reel for Berkeley's start-up. Part of the reason the documentary took so long was White's reticence. "At first he didn't want to do it because he thought it would be this exposé, salacious, dark thing, so he wasn't really into it," the director notes. "But as we got into it, I sort of told him where I want to take it and what we want to do, what my goals were, and eventually he bought into it."

The testament to this artist is comprehensive, from his time growing up in the deep south of Chattanooga, Tenn. with a stoic but accommodating father and a life haunted by a tragic accident for the family. It all comes out: his rebelliousness in school, his discovery of art with fellow art students in Middle Tennessee State University. There's even some time on his low point when he over-worked himself trying to re-discover the level of success he had at Pee-wee's Playhouse. Berkeley says he met White around then.

Even for a guy seemingly as happy-go-lucky as White, the documentary reveals the burden of turning one's personal expression into a commodity. Berkeley captures many of those moments in the film. "There are a lot of kind of funny moments that right after he laughs [the camera] holds, and then you can kind of see that there's some depth to that.," says Berkeley. "What he just said, he does really feel that."

The director notes that ultimately, the movie is about finding one's passion and making a career out of it. "It's not about making money," he says. "Do your job and support your family, and do what you have to do. But don't lose sight of this thing that makes you happy. It doesn't have to be art. Whatever you do, that's still not your daily gig, that still brings you joy, find time to do that, you know?"

Beauty is Embarrassing opens exclusively in South Florida at Miami's O Cinema, Thursday Oct. 18, at 9 p.m. The film is also available nationwide on Video On Demand and iTunes. 

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