DOWNERS GROVE – Lucas Durham's parents didn't name him after Star Wars' creator George Lucas, though it would have been fitting.
"I wish I was," the 23-year-old Downers Grove native said. "My parents are geeky enough that they might have, but they didn't."
Durham, a Downers Grove South High School grad, draws and paints impressive science fiction and fantasy images as a freelance artist for several companies, including the Bradford Exchange and Fantasy Flight Games, among others.
He has been drawing since as soon as he could hold a pencil, he said, and remembers an equal love for sci-fi at a young age, when his mom would read him Robert Heinlein novels to put him to sleep.
Following high school, Durham graduated from the American Academy of Art in Chicago in 2011, and he also took an exchange trip to the Florence Academy of Art to further hone his water coloring and drawing chops. That classical training is put to good use in his compositions — huge robots and other fantastical imagery are made real and almost touchable in detail.
On Sunday, Durham's skill is taking him to Hollywood, where he is among 12 winning artists and 12 winning writers from around the globe who will be honored during the 29th annual L. Ron Hubbard Achievement Awards.
Each of the artists and writers are paired up for a collaborative contest, the winner of which gets $5,000. For being named one of the 12 artists, Durham already gets a $500 prize.
Judges for the contest included luminaries in the sci-fi galaxy, including Orson Scott Card, author of the classic "Ender's Game."
"I'm very lucky to be at the point where I'm able to talk to some of the famous artists that have influenced me over the years," Durham said. "One of the judges for the L. Ron Hubbard Achievement Awards is Dave Dorman, a big Star Wars (book) artist. He's actually a local from Chicago. He's been just great to listen to."
One of the images Durham submitted to the contest is characteristic of the sly approach he takes towards the sci-fi universe. Instead of a climactic battle, it shows maintenance crews welding and repairing gigantic mechanical robots the size of buildings.
"A lot of times you see it from the soldier's perspective or pilot's perspectives," he said. "But you never get to see the guys in the background. Who takes care of these things? Who has to discuss 'What's the budget for this guy?'"
Durham said he likes to refer to those books by Heinlein and others he grew up with for inspiration. He also likes to study real-world machines for grounding. On a recent trip, he stopped by a fighter jet museum for reference, and discovered that Walt Disney used to design insignias for fighter planes in World War II.
"Next time ... I'll be adding different platoon symbols inspired by what Disney was doing," he said.
All the preparation and study has led to a busy start to his freelance career. In the future, he said he would like to paint covers for books and art for fantasy card games like Magic: the Gathering.
"I like to think of myself as a problem solver," he said. "If an art director comes to me and says, 'We'd like a wizard casting a spell,' how do you convey that in the most (interesting) way?"