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Friday, May 14, 1999

The brush strokes behind the images of our `Star Wars' world

By Olivia Hawkinson

The Orange County Register

Thousands of people, perhaps millions, around the world know his art. Few know the man with the paintbrush and colored pencils.

Drew Struzan, 52, has worked quietly in his home studio for more than 20 years, creating 150 movie poster illustrations for the likes of “Indiana Jones,” “E.T.” and, oh, yeah, “Star Wars.”

He's the brushstrokes behind the poster for the much-hyped prequel, “The Phantom Menace.”

The Portland, Ore., native grew up a starving artist — sketching on toilet paper for lack of better supplies — and moved to Los Angeles at age 18 to attend the Art Center College of Design. It wasn't long before Struzan was hooked painting poster art the for movie business.

Struzan's Pasadena home studio is sparse, except for an occasional prop or sweeping canvas in progress. The familiar images are tucked in file drawers — Darth Vader in acrylic or Luke Skywalker in pencil. Struzan was one of the privileged few to see “The Phantom Menace” months before its May 19 opening.

Like his patron and colleague, George Lucas, Struzan speaks softly and tends to keep to himself. Unlike Lucas, he has managed to evade the spotlight — until now.

Last year the American Illustrators Gallery in New York accepted Struzan's art for display — the first living artist to earn a place alongside the likes of Norman Rockwell. On June 11, the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Mass., will open a five-month show including 80 pieces of Struzan's work.

The artist took a break from his hectic pre-prequel schedule to talk about his art, inspiration and most important, “Star Wars.”

Q: Do you have a favorite piece of art that you've done?

A: To me a favorite would be like living in the past, and I live in the future. I'm always looking to improve. As most artists always say, my favorite piece is the next one.

Q: What is next for you?

A: Right now I'm really very busy with the “Star Wars” stuff, of course. It's amazing how much interest there is in artists all of a sudden. I've been doing a lot of interviews and being asked to go to the “Star Wars” convention to sign autographs.

Q: You've done “Star Wars” for 22 years, and you started with the re-release poster in 1977. What was your impression of the movie when you first started working on it?

A: (Lucasfilm) wanted another poster to refresh the image. I live in the future, so I have a tendency not to recall. My wife recalls, and my son recalls standing in the lines. I guess the reason is because I'm so busy working on the next project, I don't have time to dally with the one I've already done. I've got to get my heart into the new work. I put my heart and soul into what I'm working on — it's everything I can do.

Q: How did you get into the movie business?

A: When I graduated from school, most people took off for New York because that's where the work was. I stayed here because I was basically poor — I couldn't do it. Because I was in L.A., I got the work that came out of Los Angeles. It's just because I was here and they recognized my work and offered me jobs. I took them. I was poor and hungry, and illustration was the shortest path to a slice of bread, as compared to a gallery showing. I had nothing as a child. I drew on toilet paper with pencils — that was the only paper around. Probably why I love drawing so much today is because it was just all I had at the time.

Q: What inspires you? How do you get started on a piece?

A: It's not stuff — it's ideas, principles. What inspires me is the stuff life is made out of: love, truth, justice, honesty, goodness, faith, hope and beauty. That's what inspires me. Wherever I find those things, I want to express them and exhort them. When I paint, it's about the feelings. If the subject matter is a vehicle to the feeling, that's great. Like “Indiana Jones” or “Star Wars” is a vehicle that immediately says adventure. That's a vehicle to a particular feeling. What does it mean? It's about justice, in Indiana Jones' case, or a young man growing to his maturity in “Star Wars.” It's much more about that for me than just, oh, it's a guy in a neat black suit.

Q: Why do you use faces so prominently in your work?

A: When I choose to paint on my own, it's either an animal or human being. They are alive, and they embody values and emotions. Of course, that's the first thing we attach to them. The thing closest to being able to talk to a person's heart is to draw a human being, or something alive. I paint people on purpose, because that's where we connect.

Q: Tell me about the `Episode I' poster. Where did you get the ideas?

A: I have a strange developing relationship with Lucasfilm, with George (Lucas), with “Star Wars” itself. It's been a big part of my life. It was quite an honor right away to be asked to do (the Episode I poster). You would think this is an opportunity to do something new and different, but George stuck to his heart and his loyalty, and he asked me to do it again. Each time you do a repeat of the same subject, you've got to do better than the last one. With “Star Wars,” I've got the job of the last 22 years.

Q: Do you like that your work is out there but you're not a conspicuous part of the whole production?

A: Yeah, it works perfect for me. Of course, I want the work to be seen by as many people as possible. That's my goal in life — to make people's lives better and prettier, but it doesn't work if they don't see it. The better platform I have for the work, the better. Some artists do what they do to make themselves important. I want my thing that I say or do to be important. So honor the work, and let me be. It's not me that's important, it's what I do.

Q: What did you want to tell people with the Episode I illustration?

A: I was fortunate that I saw the movie months before it was to come out. I was anxious to see if (Lucas) had just done something completely new, or if he was going to make it part of the trilogy so it really fit in. My impression was that it dovetailed right in like there hadn't been a heartbeat between the two of them. The spirit or the heart of George Lucas is still in it, and that man and that vision still continues. While he has a lot of the new technical things, the heart of “Star Wars” is still the same.

(c) 1999, The Orange County Register (Santa Ana, Calif.).

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