A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Grand Ole Opry
“I torture the banjo and three-string cigar box guitar as a hobby,” Wayne White told Whalebone when we asked about his musical endeavors. White may keep it to no more than five strings aurally, but in the visual arts he pretty much has done it all, the wildly imaginative equivalent of a Prince-like multi-instrumentalist. Through any medium, he bends everything he touches into his warped Dr. Caligari with a twang at a rave perspective. He started out as an underground-cartoonist-turned-driving-force-of-Pee-Wee’s Playhouse’s style, has made Peter Gabriel into putty, brought elaborate and absurdist puppets to grand stages and injected some much-needed humor into the fine-art world by way of his word paintings.
He bends everything he touches into his warped Dr. Caligari with a twang at a rave perspective.
You can see his banjo-picking skills on display in “Beauty is Embarrassing,” the 2012 documentary tracing his career. White has also made hundreds of watercolors, drawings and paintings of musicians over the years. This fall a selection of them will be on display at Julia Martin Gallery in Nashville. The 20 or so glimpses of musical heroes and icons on stage, backstage or sitting at home in quiet moments are all on the smaller side, canvases around 10” x 15.” “I like the intimate scale and, hopefully, the jewel-like vibe of little intense color jab windows,” White says.
He was kind enough to hum a few bars with us.
I bring in abstract marks as a counterpoint. That’s the music.
How would you describe your relationship to music?
WAYNE WHITE: Like most humans, I instinctively love and crave music. It’s like color. We could live without it, but it would be miserable.
How do you decide who you are going to paint or draw?
WW: I have favorite subjects—George Jones, Ernest Tubb, like that. But I make myself try new stuff every day. I’m gonna do Barbara Streisand and Barry Gibb soon.
Are there ways that the style of the work is influenced by the music or reflects the music?
WW: I do a lot of color and line improvisation when I’m making the portrait. I bring in abstract marks as a counterpoint. That’s the music.
Where and how do you start the process of a musician picture?
WW: I work from photos from my big collection of books in my studio. Sometimes I work from screen grabs. I’ve always been able to get lost inside any photo—to look so hard you make it yours and spit it back out.
In addition to the many drawings and paintings of musicians you’ve made, you’ve also done some very fanciful puppets of musicians, including George Jones as “a big electric fan,” a cello that plays itself and the 9:30 Club Show presidents band for PBS. So many questions about all of those, but mainly why is Nixon so perfect as a mohawked and tattooed drummer?
WW: He was absolutely driven and always wore the appropriate get-up.
What’s your earliest memory of music?
WW: Singing and dancing to “Little Egypt” by the Coasters on the car radio and everybody laughing.
How would you describe your own style when you play music?