When it comes to exploring the mythos that is Star Wars or George Lucas himself, there’s certainly no shortage of material available in every format that exists today. In fact, it’s one of the most prolifically written about and ballyhooed film franchises in the history of cinema.
At last count there are close to 100 books on the production behind or origins of various Star Wars properties and that doesn’t include technical material or books written about George Lucas himself or the affect those films had on the movie making industry. Canon materials alone range in the hundreds if not thousands of books, comic books and graphic novels. There are countless “making-of” documentaries and hours upon hours of bonus materials and behind the scenes footage. There are workshops and film school courses dedicated to the making of Star Wars and how it changed the industry. This doesn’t even begin to include the infinite number of bloggers, journalists and fanatics who make writing and speaking about the universe of Star Wars their personal vocation in life. I think you get my point, there are absolutely no stones left unturned when it comes to this topic…right? Well, as it turns out, there’s one person who would say that’s not necessarily the case…
Robin Lee is a composer and art enthusiast living in Maine, who for 20 years now, has been fighting the good fight for what she claims is the birthplace of Star Wars, the studio estate of American artist/illustrator Maxfield Parrish. Frederick Maxfield Parrish (seen above), who died in 1966 at the age of 92, was a renowned and influential painter and illustrator who inspired many artists throughout his life, George Lucas included among them. In fact, Lucas personally owns a great deal of Parrish’s original artwork and in an interview regarding his and other’s influence he says Parrish, “directly inspired the look and feel of his “Star Wars” epics.”. Below are two examples of Parrish’s artwork that he owns and may have been inspired by:
It’s certainly easy to see how Lucas’s love for dramatic illustration like these pieces had some influence over the way that his own films were made and marketed, in particular Tom Jung’s now classic Episode IV Type A one sheet seen below:
Robin was first made aware of the connection a few years ago when a colleague spotted the quote in a book titled, The Lucas Effect written by Patti McCarthy in 2014. The original source of that quote was taken from an interview Lucas gave to The Lookout on June 14, 2013 when discussing the Lucas Museum and artists that had an influence on him and his earlier work, predominantly American Graffiti in 1973 and of course Star Wars 4 years later in 1977.
Robin, who filmed and owns the last piece of archival footage of Parrish’s estate and was one of the last to visit before it was demolished, has taken Lucas’s statement as proof that the art studio where Parrish did most of his work in the first half of the 20th century should be considered the birthplace of Star Wars and therefore sacred ground. She states:
“I truly believe that Star Wars began in that art studio of artist Maxfield Parrish around 1904-1905. George Lucas said that it was the artwork of Maxfield Parrish that “directly” inspired the feel and look of his Star Wars films. That is a major statement and I believe him.”
Lucas Films or Lucas himself has not commented on this theory and attempts to reach out to them for a statement were not successful. Lucas himself has stated several times over the years that the inspiration for the Adventures of Luke Starkiller, later to be renamed to the more affable Star Wars: A New Hope, came from many different sources in the art, print, TV and film world. To suggest there is simply one source or a “birthplace” of inspiration in this case isn’t something that seems quantifiable, certainly not from the mouth of George Lucas anyways.
And while it’s easy to connect the dots, even Lucas’s stating as much, that Parrish’s work would show up in the Star Wars universe in some way, the fact is he was visually inspired by countless artists, Norman Rockwell and Howard Chandler Christie among them. As for the story itself, he drew upon classics from his childhood such as the Flash Gordon series, Akira Kurosawa’s The Hidden Fortress and Joseph Campbells The Hero’s Journey, as well as countless westerns and early sci-fi/fantasy epics.
This is not to downplay the significance of Maxfield Parrish or dismiss his achievements, rather just to suggest he was simply an important piece of a larger puzzle. Robin however disagrees, even to go as far as suggesting that Parrish’s assistant and friend Susan Lewin, seen androgynously in a lot of his work, is the inspiration behind the look of Princess Leia:
“I truly believe that Sue Lewin is connected to Princess Leia and that she was the inspiration for Mr. Lucas. You do not see storm troopers or droids or galaxies or anything like that in a Parrish painting, but you do see the beautiful and flawless Sue.”
Concerning the look of Princess Leis, particularly the iconic one in Star Wars: A New Hope, Robin goes on to say:
“Look up vintage photos and glass negatives of Sue Lewin. Notice Sue’s hand made costumes, the long white iconic gowns, her eyes, her hair, her face, her body, her absolute strength and innocence, and likeness, so much like Leia. I feel that Mr. Lucas had the complete inspiration embedded deep within himself when he created princess Leia, how could he not? It is only what I feel.”
While the similarities are hard to deny, Lucas has stated on the record in both print and video that the inspiration for the look of Princess Leia came from the Hopi women from the Mexican revolution and also, as many would suggest, Flash Gordon’s Queen Fria. He’s made no public mention of Parrish’s work in this regard.
Robin also feels strongly that since Parrish, and Lewin to a lesser extent, have played such a major part in the creation of Star Wars with their art, that their legacy should reflect as much. So much in fact, that she feels they are both deserving of an award of some kind, posthumously:
“I believe that this world should come to know Maxfield Parrish for his extreme contribution to not only Star Wars but for the world of pop culture and all who felt inspired from his work. Maxfield Parrish in my book is a mega artist and he like Mr. Lucas was a genius. He AND Sue Lewin deserve our respect, gratitude and more.”
When asked about which award she had in mind, her answer was this:
“Which award should he receive? An award that does not yet exist, an award that will be for both him and his faithful Sue. His award in the acknowledgment of Sue Lewin and her sacrifices, she was a strong woman in art history, that would be his award.”
Right or wrong, since no such award exists and all parties involved with the creation, development and legacy of Star Wars have ever suggested that such an award be created, let alone that Maxfield Parrish or Sue Lewin are deserving of one, I’m inclined to deduce this is unlikely to occur. But I would agree with Robin on one point, as should others, that both Parrish and Lewin deserve respect and gratitude from the art community that they were a part of for so many years.
There’s no denying that Lucas’s love for narrative art runs deep, with the construction of his self funded Lucas Museum of Narrative Art (artists rendering below) set to begin sometime this year in Los Angeles. With a price tag of $1.4 billion, this state of the art 275,000 square foot facility will boast many of Lucas’ personal pieces which includes an extensive collection of Norman Rockwell paintings as well as original artwork by N.C. Wyeth, Edgar Degas, Winslow Homer, Pierre-Auguste Renoir and Parrish. The purpose of the Museum Lucas says is to inspire future generations of dreamers, “just as he was at a young age by artist-illustrators such as Norman Rockwell and Maxfield Parrish.”
The museum will house an unprecedented collection that features both fine and popular art from illustration to comics, an insider’s perspective on the cinematic creative process and the boundless potential of the digital medium. And much like Lucas’s eclectic mix of influences, the museum will feature a wide array of compelling visual storytelling, a type of storytelling which Lucas clearly has a fondness for.
Yet still, even with the inclusion of his work in the museum and the evident fondness Lucas has for Parrish’s art, the case that the Parrish estate is somehow the birthplace of Star Wars still seems improbable. Other than the above mentioned quotes by Lucas regarding Maxfield Parrish’s influence, the fact remains there is almost no recorded evidence anywhere to surmise anything beyond it being nothing more than a singular revelation.
And as recently as April 13 of this year, while speaking at the Star Wars Celebration 40th Anniversary, Lucas was again asked about the origin of Star Wars and where the root of the idea came from…
“Star Wars evolved. It didn’t come out as one thing. It was an idea and the idea was more: I would like to make an action movie, that is more like a Saturday afternoon serial that I enjoyed as a kid, but imbue it with mythological, psychological motifs, because we didn’t have those (that day). So I said, ‘I want to take these two things and put them together’.”
He continued to say that the idea changed several times and went through several iterations, even when filming began in Tunisia he was still developing and rewriting the story. The idea he said…
“was simply to do a high adventure film that I loved when I was a kid with meaningful, psychological themes. You know, I don’t know what I felt, it was like a really “cockamamie” idea.”
So, if the idea did come from a single source of inspiration and not as he states a collection of ideas, he still doesn’t seem willing to acknowledge it publicly. And maybe not surprisingly, Parrish’s name was not mentioned.
One unmistakable homogeneity however between these two men is that they are indeed both true visual artists. Seth Brown, a documentarian and artist himself provides insight into Parrish’s work and how the two men parallel each other:
“It’s a curious thing, when an artist manages to capture and create a world (Star Wars) that is so obviously not part of our reality, yet feels like it must be real, somewhere, somehow. Parrish had the ability to create this same feeling with the worlds on his canvas. Parrish had a strange effect of imbuing the impossible with life, and Lucas may or may not have been effected by it.”
Perhaps Robin and Seth are attuned to a more powerful connection between Parrish and Lucas that the rest of us simply cannot decipher? After all, most of the great artistic achievements and endeavors in history often come from a place we rarely understand or can even comprehend:
“I believe in the force, back in 1995 at the Parrish estate I would write over and over in my journal that their was some type of force here, I called it a guiding force and wrote that it was demanding and it would whisper things, it would follow me, I had no knowledge of the Parrish-Star Wars connection at all.”
That force energy, she believes, was picked up by Lucas and built the visuals, the life, and the meaning Star Wars contains. A glimpse into another reality.
But in spite of all this and the roadblocks she’s encountered, I believe Robins quest is a noble and pure one and one that seems unlikely to end anytime soon. Even after 20 years she remains steadfast in her belief that Parrish has largely gone unappreciated and that the demolishing of his estate and remaining pieces of art are a travesty within the art community, the Star Wars universe and to a broader extent, the world. And at a time when art of all kinds seems under attack at an institutional level, it’s good to know there are people still willing to stand their ground and fight to preserve it.
And while I may find it hard to disagree with the opinion that Maxfield Parrish’s impact on the art world is consequential, its whether or not his connection to the history of Star Wars is meaningful or anecdotal or something else entirely is what remains ambiguous. But I’ll leave that up to you, the individual, to decide.
“Many of the truths that we cling to depend greatly on our own point of view.”
Till next time…MTFBWY.
If you would like to learn more about the life of Maxfield Parrish and Robin Lee’s work to preserve it, visit: http://www.maxfieldparrishmovie.com
For more information on Seth Brown’s work, visit: http://www.maxfieldparrishmotif.com
For more information on the Lucas Museum of Narrative Art visit: http://www.lucasmuseum.org