Wayne White Resurrects South Florida Founding Father as Puppet

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Everglade creatures, let's go!" artist Wayne White yelled out in his Tennessee drawl to a group of high school students hidden under their own colorful cardboard creations as they paraded through Hollywood's Young Circle. White wore coveralls with a simple "Wayne" on the name tag. The procession included a manatee with a sort of thoughtful frown on its face, a snail with a trail of fabric slime, a colorful and long crustacean, and a sea turtle with an intricate shell.

But the piece-de-resistence was the gigantic green likeness of Broward County's namesake, Napoleon Bonaparte Broward, a former Florida governor who's known for draining the Everglades and shaping up the public school system (icky fact: he had a sister named Josephine). About six sweaty men carried the green, lumbering and surprisingly expressive puppet, one at each hand, moving its giant paws side-to-side. 

Thanks to an National Endowment for the Arts grant — the first the Art and Culture Center of Hollywood received for an exhibition — the famed artist spent the last week with about a dozen New World and DASH high school students preparing for these moments, part of his exhibition, Wayne White: Art is Supposed to Hypnotize You or Something

Though White's TED talk explains he started out as a failed cartoonist, he ended up working on the best show ever made: Pee-Wee's Playhouse, and even crafted Randy and Mr. Kite. For those born around 1979, he also made the Smashing Pumpkins' memorable "Tonight, Tonight" video, and the movie Beauty Is Embarrassing about him has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Besides puppets, his work consists of thrift store paintings into which he inserts graphic lettering, much of it is comedic and philosophical.

White orchestrated the parade in Hollywood, instructing those carrying Broward and the kids to, "Dance!" to the beats and whistles of Brazilian drummers Banteria Unidos de Miami. People walked through the park all smiles, taking photos, dodging the lurching arms as they swayed back and forth. One teenager pulled a man to the side, "Dad! Watch out!" she said as a green palm swung by his head. During a photo opp, curator Jane Hart stood in front of White, a rainbow vision, with blue hair and matching Miccosukee poncho. As the procession neared the Art Center, one of Broward's middle fingers fell off and White took over the movement of the other, stepping to-and-fro.

The artist arrived in South Florida only a week before with his wife of 27 years, graphic novelist Mimi Pond. She spent time here working on part two of her series Over Easy about her waitressing career in Oakland in the late-'70s. The pair often do residencies together, though don't collaborate.

White is a fan of history, and when he creates puppets in different towns, he likes to work with the local lore. He'd already read a book on the Everglades before this project came about and there was a chapter on Broward in there. "When they suggested Napoleon Broward, because it was the 100 anniversary of Broward County, it clicked, and I remembered the story I read about it. I wouldn't have normally pursued him as a subject, but why not? I'm often willing to let ideas drop out of the sky," White explained. He did know that he wanted to focus on the Everglades.

Hart watched the project evolve and commented on how, in puppet form, the former governor seems to reemerge from the Glades, a "swamp thing with this evil glint in his eye," as she described him.

"I like the excuse that I'm soaking up the environment, but I do my best thinking when there's a deadline and I'm in the process, rather than preplanning things," White elaborated. "When I preplan things, I get too clever and beside the point. Thinking while I'm working keeps me on the mark." This project underwent many changes over the course of only a week. He said he was going to have the puppet come up from the swamp with plants and stuff, "but then he stared looking like a ghoul, like a zombie. But then I got him out in the sunshine, he didn't look like a zombie, he kind of looked like a cool Florida guy, a shade of green that's complementary in the sun and the light. He looked fashionable out in the sun, now back inside, he's more like a ghoul again."

In the gallery amidst his other paintings, the group who carried Broward brought the dismembered puppet into the middle of the room and reassembled him carefully. They included local artists Sinisa Kukec and Kiki Valdes and musician Michael Alen who all said they greatly enjoyed working on this exhibition.

Hiding out in Hart's office to do the interview, a few students stopped by before leaving. They stood reverently as White offered them praise for their creations, snail and the woodpecker. "I work alongside the high school students, I give them a theme and let them go at it. If they have questions, they can come to me. I'm busy doing my own thing," he said after they left.

"They were the most focused group of high school students I've ever seen. They were all business," Pond chimed in. 

White says he doesn't work that often with kids, but he does talks and shows at universities, and he enjoys it. "I do love walking down the halls of an art school looking at the good, not so good, and even shitty drawings everywhere. It energizes me, it really does."

His work offers fantastical imagery that only children or outsider artists are able to produce. It's not over-filtered or disconnected. Hart noted that it's also not cynical. White described it as DIY. "It is quite a risk for a grown man to make a cardboard puppet parade. Most people would roll their eyes at it," he admitted. "There's humor in it and there's a lot of craft involved in it that pulls it off, so it doesn't look like a dorky half-assed thing." 

I mentioned one of his last tweets showing another puppet in another city, a pooping horse. "I come for the laughs," he continued, "I don't purposefully set out to be youthful or whimsical, but it is there. I own up to it. There's a part of my work that's very populist. I'm an entertainer. Totally. But there's a darker part of my work that comes out in my drawings and paintings, where I take on a darker parts of the American scene. But a big part of my scene is putting on a circus a show. I'm happy to do it with no irony."

Wayne White: Art is Supposed to Hypnotize You or Something until August 23, at Art and Culture Center of Hollywood, 1650 Harrison St., Hollywood. Admission is free for members and students of all ages and $7 for non-members. Visit artandculturecenter.org.

Follow Liz Tracy on Twitter for more puppet tales. 

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