For Wayne White, art is a lifestyle, creativity is often hilarious, and beauty is still embarrassing.
“What really blew my mind was this baby: The View-Master, especially their 3-D tableaus of usually 2-D cartoon characters. ... To me, this was a real world and looking at it gave me the funniest feeling. It was like a feeling of a world I wanted to reach and couldn't quite get to. You know, a very funny feeling that I still have to this day and I still remember that. I think all artists share this experience: We glimpse a vision, a world that we can't quite reach and we spend our whole lives chasing that vision. I desperately wanted to live in Huckleberry Hound's world, but no, I was stuck in Hixson, Tennessee,” said White, wryly recounting his Southern childhood during a recent performance of his live show “Yer Supposed to Act All Impressed” at the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.
Best known as an Emmy-winning designer and puppeteer on the TV show “Pee-Wee's Playhouse,” White, 55, brought his uproarious biographical slideshow/inspirational speech/musical jam to Oklahoma City in conjunction with “HALO AMOK,” his exhibit of large-scale cubist cowboy puppets that opened at the museum this summer.
As he chatted about his diverse career, the artist sprawled on the floor to play a rowdy banjo solo, argued with a drawling puppet-man looking down at him from the Noble Theater's film screen and dispensed stirring advice to the appreciative near-sell-out crowd.
“I learned that art can be a 24/7 part of everything. It can be a lifestyle. ... You could take it to the streets, make it a real thing,” said White, whose creative drive took him to Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, later to New York City and finally to Los Angeles, where he is now based.
“Creative people, artists, I know you're out there: Do what you love. Don't take anybody's advice. I don't care how embarrassing it is — do what you love to do. It's gonna lead you where you want to go as an artist. The world is dying for stuff done out of love.”
“HALO AMOK” — White got the exhibit title from scrambling the letters in “Oklahoma — has been given an extra month at the museum before it rides into the sunset, said Film Curator Brian Hearn, who is curating the temporary site-specific installation. The interactive exhibit has been extended through Oct. 6.
“It's such a fun thing, we think the folks at ARTonTAP are going to love it,” said Hearn, referring to the museum's 10th annual beer-tasting fundraiser, set for Oct. 4.
In addition, the museum will get to celebrate two wildly contrasting special exhibitions — the whimsical “HALO AMOK” and the masterpiece-packed “Of Heaven and Earth: 500 Years of Italian Painting from Glasgow Museums” — Sunday during its Free Family Day.
Along with free admission, special activities offered Sunday will include mask-making, mural-painting, gallery tours, story times, face painters, a balloon artist, a photo booth and a portrait riddle search, said Chandra Boyd, the museum's senior associate curator of education. A touch cart will allow visitors to touch cloth, flowers and other items from a painting.
In addition, OKC Improv will give a free performance at 12:30 p.m. Sunday, while players from the Tulsa Opera will sing at 2 and 4 p.m.
White first came to Oklahoma City last year when the deadCenter Film Festival showed the documentary “Beauty Is Embarrassing,” which writer/director Neil Berkley, a Moore native, created to chronicle White's eclectic artistic career.
The Tennessee native spent much of last year touring with the documentary, but he formed a special bond with Oklahoma, in part because of Berkeley's roots here. When the museum invited him build an installation there, White eagerly accepted.
“This was my best offer and I took it,” he said with a grin in a June interview. “These opportunities don't come along very often. I was lucky enough that the Oklahoma City Museum of Art gave me a chance to do this, and I jumped at it.”
During his live show, White howled triumphantly as he showed photos of his “cubist cowboy rodeo,” calling “HALO AMOK” “my crowning achievement.” Through his various projects over the years, “I made it into the View-Master,” he said.
“Artists are people who make beauty. I mean, that's the bottom line, and that's an embarrassing thing to admit,” he said, elaborating on the meaning of the documentary title, taken from one of his well-known word paintings.
“It's embarrassing to be an artist sometimes, especially if you're a male in this society. Beauty is a hard thing to handle, but I gotta do it.”