Sir Daniel Winn, who was born in Vietnam and has since made his mark in the United States, turned a background in reconstructive surgery into a distinguished art career. The creator of the Existential Surrealism philosophy, his work crosses boundaries in canvas and sculpture.
Winn is also a curator and serves as the spark behind Winn Slavin Fine Art in Beverly Hills.
Like the original Star Wars trilogy, Winn’s creations incorporate elements of mythology and the meaning of the human experience. Although he discovered the films a bit after his arrival in the US, the themes presented within them are visible in his work.
In an exclusive email interview with Monsters & Critics, Winn discussed his integration of these issues in his art, including his current project, designing the statuettes for the Asian World Film Festival.
Monsters & Critics: When did you first come into contact with Star Wars?
Sir Daniel Winn: I came over to the US from Vietnam in 1975. A few years later, even though I was not yet speaking any English at the time, I watched Star Wars. It really fascinated me and changed my view of my own universe.
M&C: What are your hopes and fears about the direction of the franchise?
SDW: My hopes are that it continues with the original concept and vision of what the creator wanted to convey. If they’re going to re-envision that or create it for more modern times, I would hope that they would keep the same message and the deep, profound understanding of what the movie or idea is about.
My fear would be that the concept could be twisted or commercialized in a way that you lose the intrinsic symbolism and idea of the creator, who is an artist with a specific message of his philosophy.
M&C: How has your fandom of the franchise affected your aesthetic?
SDW: Star Wars has affected so many people. For me, it began during my childhood, as it had with so many other artists, moviemakers, writers, and philosophers. It impacted me in how I view the world in a way that is more surreal.
The way Star Wars presented an illusion of another reality helped me with the concept of my own artistic philosophy of Existential Surrealism, which addresses our existence, whether that’s here on Earth or in another universe.
Even though there’s a fictional reality that does not really exist, as in Star Wars, you can still show the same concept of humanity and who we are.
M&C: Your talents are now being applied to design statuettes for the Asian World Film Festival. What’s it like for someone affected by cinema to participate in an industry like this?
SDW: To be asked by their artistic committee to create an emblem for the purpose of awarding the very best of the best in their industry is such an honor. The Asian World Film Festival is like the Oscars, the Golden Globes, or the Emmys of the Asian filmmaking community, and the statuettes will be used on an annual basis indefinitely.
To be a part of that legacy, of honoring those artists, is incredibly humbling. I feel very blessed, appreciative, and grateful, but also nervous at the same time because this is something that has to be unique and special for the world to see, not just for now, but for years to come.
M&C: Have the moral codes expressed in Star Wars found their way into your humanitarian work?
SDW: Yes, everything that happens in my life through music, movies, and life experience, has affected me and how I view what is ethical or morally correct.
And it’s not just the culture of our country, but internationally. I’ve been influenced strongly by two cultures, East and West, so I have a very East-meets-West mentality. And I am a fusion of both. I was raised with very traditional Eastern philosophies as well as the Western way of life — its family values and its morals. And they’re very different.
Now, I didn’t see a lot of movies in Vietnam, but I’ve seen a lot of them here. Star Wars gets into different types of philosophies in terms of what is right or wrong, what’s light and dark, as well as a lot of gray areas in between.
A prime example is Darth Vader who grew up more in the light and then he went over to the dark side. But it doesn’t mean that he’s a bad person or a good person, it’s just that he’s experienced both.
In a way, that moral code needs to be assessed in terms of what is right or wrong. But ultimately, you empathize with him and both of his moral realities.
I feel I want to communicate that in my artwork. In your existence, it’s not that one is necessarily better than the other.
But if you experience both — pain and pleasure, happiness and sadness, bitter and sweetness — then you can really understand what a moral code is and what you consider to be right or wrong.
M&C: The Shanghai Art Museum recently housed an exhibit featuring your work, along with Salvador Dali’s. Do you see any elements of surrealism in Star Wars planets, creatures, or costume design?
SDW: Absolutely, from the first movie all the way to the last.
We don’t live in that reality. We don’t live in outer space. We don’t travel to other planets. We don’t meet intergalactic humanoids or extraterrestrials here in our reality. So, in essence, everything about Star Wars is a surreal concept.
My artwork’s philosophy is Existential Surrealism, which is a take on Dali and his dreams and concepts. And Star Wars can go deep into your dreams — sometimes even nightmares — with the intergalactic travel and surreal spaceships and humanoids. So that does inspire a lot of creativity in my own art.
M&C: Are there any particular characters you connect with more than others?
SDW: I connect very much with Darth Vader, from when he was young all the way to who he became.
At first, you really didn’t understand who he was — he was clearly the antagonist. But once you see the movies that explain his backstory in the prequels, you then start to understand who he really is. I gravitate toward that because it shows how life changes and shapes you.
And then there’s his mask. Everything about that really relates to my artwork and my philosophy because his mask is just a shell — it’s not truly who he is; it’s just a facade. Who he truly is, is his inner self from his youth.
You see his energy when he unmasks, and you ultimately see who Darth Vader truly is — his soul and his spirit. He’s not his mask. He’s him.
M&C: What are you most excited about regarding the franchise?
SDW: I’m excited that more young children and more adults are being exposed to something that is surreal and that is philosophically sound in the sense that it gives a message that we can all appreciate.
Without the franchise, we may have lost this “cult” that future generations would then not be able to appreciate. It’s almost like the old Superman or Spider-Man shows — the classics — how they are so much more appreciated now. Back then they were franchises, but then they evolved into something different.
And fifty years from now, Star Wars will be what is considered a classic too. I’m excited that this classic is being appreciated and will be shown for generations to come.
And I’m excited that I was part of that Star Wars movement, and that I was a Star Wars fan. We’re part of a living history right now, and I think that’s awesome!