Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Art Teacher Travels: Wayne White in Chattanooga, TN

Despite the fact that I was just a pinch older than their target audience, I spent my early teens living for some Saturday morning Pee Wee's Playhouse. I acted like it was bonding time with my younger brother but in reality I just couldn't get enough of the show. The silliness and childlike behavior of Pee Wee definitely drew me in but what I really loved where the other characters and the amazing set...which all my retro dreams are made of. I know I'm not alone in my affection for all things Playhouse: my art teacherin' buddy Stephanie and I threw our friend Mallory a Pee Wee's Playhouse themed baby shower and I even stitched her up some Pee Wee-inspired bibs! I like to stay in Pee Wee-loving company. 
It wasn't until years later that I discovered one of the creative geniuses behind the look, design and a good amount of the characters of Pee Wee's Playhouse, not to mention the puppeteering, was Wayne White. The documentary about Wayne, Beauty is Embarrassing, was recommended to me and it blew my mind, y'all. If you have not seen it, please do. You can thank me in bowls of ice cream soup
At the end of the documentary, when asked what his plan was to do next, Wayne says that he's going to build puppets...and that he did. But I'm getting ahead of myself. When I heard that there was an interactive exhibit of the history of Chattanooga, Tennessee, Wayne's hometown, created by the artist, I knew I had to go. It's titled Wayne-o-Rama and it's just about the best thing ever. This show closes September 30th so I strongly encourage you to go and check it out. In case you can't make it, here's a short video I created for my students to share this exhibit with them. Feel free to use it in your art teacherin' world:
So fun, right?!
Mitch and I drove there one Saturday. After a pretty two hour drive (hilly east Tennessee is really pretty amazing), we pulled up at an unassuming building. Inside, we were greeted by two super helpful folks who explained the small but mighty exhibit to us. In the first room there was this diorama, I guess you could call it, of Chattanooga.
 If you've never been to Chattanooga, it's pretty famous for it's incline, Lookout Mountain, Ruby Falls and Rock City, among other things. The drive to the top is twisty and turny, just as the diorama shows. Your ears pop; cars swerve out of each other's way; it feels a little dangerous but in the very best way. At the top, you find cottages that have been there for ages next to a brand new Starbucks. Unfortunately, it's a bit of a racket to take a tour of the mentioned sites but, hey, somebody's gotta pay for their lattes, I suppose. 
Mitch and I used to go to Chattanooga quite a bit when we first started dating. Here we are at Lookout Mountain in a photo that looks like it was taken a lifetime ago. I'm gonna say at least 17 years past...he's much hairier and I'm much less mom-jeans-y. Really, what IS that groin bump I have goin' on?! The late 90's were dark days, y'all. Dark.
At the exhibit, we learned that Wayne drew out the sketches and designs for the exhibit and volunteers came in and followed his lead. I was so sad to learn that I'd missed out on such an incredible opportunity to work under the directions of the artist. I woulda come and spent a Saturday painting dude's toe nails if he'd asked me!
This portion of the exhibit also put me in the mind of Mr. Roger's Neighborhood and the vintage rides at Disney. It was retro and magical, a perfect combination.  
 Imagine if kids could learn about history with interactive exhibits like these. They'd love to come to school and they'd never forget the experience!
 In the same room, just off the left, were the giant puppet and displays of other significant folks in the history of Chattanooga. The exhibit was described like this, "Wayne has saved his most personal, meaningful ideas for Wayne-O-Rama with several goals in mind. He wants to bring a sense of play to art, to pay tribute to his Southern roots and to inspire and stimulate the imagination of a new breed of Tennessee artists – from the youngest to the oldest – and encourage and foster creativity in everyone."
To think that Wayne had this dream and goal, laid out his plan, worked like crazy and made it come to life was so inspiring for me. I have some big dreams that I'd love to make happen but I often allow myself to get hung up on the "I don't know how's" and give up too easily. I love that Wayne didn't let that cloud his vision...he just went for it. And went for it big.
 I love that in Wayne's work, there are no secrets. You can see what materials he's working with, how the parts are attached and how they operate. There are no smoke and mirrors, no perfect pieces and clean edges. It's expertly primitive. Masterfully messy. I love that about his work.
The cardboard puppets were some of my favorites. I would have loved to see this work in art school, it would have blown my mind. If only I'd known the artist behind Pee Wee's Playhouse back then! 
 I couldn't stop snapping photos and making videos. I loved that I was able to. I know my students are going to be so inspired by Wayne.
Did any of y'all have to do that ridiculous assignment in your 3-D class in college where you had to create a chair made from cardboard that could both support your teacher and be aesthetically pleasing? Yeah, if only we'd been tasked to do something much cooler, like this. By the way, my teacher totally fell on her rear when she plopped down in my chair. Needless to say, I failed that one. 
This giant telly with the black and white screen was my favorite. This one was made from cut pieces of wood and gradations of gray. 
This one might have been my favorite.
 The giant puppets aren't merely for display. They've been used in parades in Chattanooga. In fact, in Beauty is Embarrassing, you can see Wayne operating some of the puppets. 
I'm not sure what is going to become of the pieces in this exhibit when it closes in September...but I do have some room at my house. Just sayin'. 
After leaving Wayne-o-Rama, we had lunch before heading over to the Hunter Museum where they were also having an exhibit of Wayne's work titled Thrill after Thrill: Thirty Years of Wayne White. This exhibit closes the day after Wayne-o-Rama. Y'all gotta go if you can. 
Lemme just say, I'd not been to Chattanooga in a couple of years and, man, that city is pretty stinkin' sweet. I has a very rich artsy vibe with galleries and smaller museums located near the Hunter. The Hunter is a STUNNING museum that sits on the cliff of the Tennessee River. You could go just for the view, it's that beautiful. Not only that, but they have fantastic exhibits and a surprisingly solid permanent collection. I was all, "okay Hunter Museum. I see you." 
 But Wayne's exhibit was where I spent most of my time. Thirty years of creating...the volume and diversity of his creations was so fun and inspiring to see. 
 Again, they allowed me to film and snap photos like crazy. I loved it. These brothers were my favorite. They are completely made of cardboard. One art teacher friend mentioned that when she took her students to this exhibit, Wayne was there and operated the puppets for the kids. Can you imagine? How fun!
The walls were filled with his sketches and the floor was spotted with his sculptures. 
I think what I love so much about his work is the style...and how you can see his "hand" in everything from his sketches to his sculptures. I guess that's what 30 years of creating gives you: a distinct artistic voice. 
 Unmatted and unframed, these sketches stretched from floor to ceiling.
 Wouldn't this make incredible fabric? 
This house-shaped creature on two twig legs had me all kinds of gaga. Also, check out those puppets in the background...can you believe that scale?
 In Beauty is Embarrassing, Wayne talks about selling his text paintings at a local coffee shop in Knoxville. Man, how fun would it have been to score one of these pieces? 
 The backgrounds are usually vintage paintings or reproductions with his clever text on top. I love this one, "Did it Anyway".
 The grouping of them was very cool. 
 People having fun without you. Story of my life, ha!
 I really loved that top left one, "Uh huh" and "Now Maybe I'll Get the Respect I So Richly Deserve."
 There were also tons of sketches of Wayne's designs for T.V. shows and music videos. Here's his sketch for the Christmas Special of Pee Wee's Playhouse.
 And his design for the show Beakman's Place. Did you know that Weird Al had a show in the 80's? I didn't either...but Wayne designed the set! Seems about right. 
 I think this sketch is my fave. A couch in the shape of a blue cowboy boot and a prairie wagon?! Sign me up!
I'll leave you with this view of the Tennessee River from the Hunter Museum. You can just barely see the kayakers just under the bridge. 

Have y'all been to Wayne's shows? I'd love to know and hear what you thought? They close soon...so pack up the fam and take in a road trip, it's so worth it! 
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