A successful, transcendent, and in-demand career in fine art is most often the result of meticulous studies, innumerable studio hours, popular exhibitions, lucrative commissions, and—perhaps—even a little bit of kismet. It is not the side-effect of a debilitating and rare nerve disorder that causes paralysis and requires intense physical therapy—that is, not unless your name is Marcel van Luit.
Following a teaching and social work career, Netherlands-born van Luit was diagnosed with Guillan-Barré syndrome. After experiencing complete paralysis, van Luit was transferred to a rehabilitation facility where he took up photography and editing as a form of physiotherapy and mental escapism. His first subject, his baby son, offered him the perfect inspiration to create pieces that captured the spirit of adventure and highlighted the beauty of tonal juxtaposition.
Marcel’s work quickly garnered a following on social media and ignited the European art scene, and after several exhibitions in France, Belgium, the U.S.A., Brazil, and the Netherlands, van Luit solidified his spot as one of the most captivating modern photographic artists of our time. His pieces provocatively combine all aspects of the natural world including, plants, animals, humans, and the elements, and are infused with van Luit’s signature style of light and dark interplay. Familiar subjects presented in unfamiliar and intriguing ways spark the embers of imagination while also serving as inspiration to find such beauty and adventure for ourselves in this breathtaking world of ours. Marcel lives, breathes, and is fuel for an inspired life.
And so, Face the Current was thrilled and honored to share in discussion with van Luit; someone whose life’s work is the living embodiment of catalytic inspiration and contagious positive change. We delved into the ideas behind art as a balm for troubled times, what it means to be a dreamer, understanding and appreciating our interconnectedness, and the influential and timeless beauty of nature.
Marcel van Luit’s work is both a feast for the eyes and nourishment for the imagination. Enjoy the view and revel in the journey.
When we use our ability to dream and imagine, we focus on positive thinking and discovering new possibilities. There is always beauty in life and beauty can be easily found in connections between people, nature, and animals. I want to show that through my work because I think it’s comforting to know that, even when everything falls apart, there will always be love, hope, and trust as long you have your ability to dream and imagine.
Sasha Frate: You describe your work as being about hope, dreams, imagination, and the dichotomy of darkness and light. As life always ebbs and flows through joy and sorrow, light and darkness, hope and despair, confidence and fear, etc., how do you see our ability to use dreams and imagination to inspire a greater sense of hope, love, and trust?
Marcel van Luit: When we use our ability to dream and imagine, we focus on positive thinking and discovering new possibilities. When life gets rough, it’s especially important to find ways to take your mind off the negative. Your mindset is a very strong tool! There is always beauty in life and beauty can be easily found in connections between people, nature, and animals. I want to show that through my work because I think it’s comforting to know that, even when everything falls apart, there will always be love, hope, and trust as long you have your ability to dream and imagine.
I don’t want people to just look at a beautiful artwork, I want them to really feel something when they look at it. I want to warm their hearts when they need it, to calm them down, to give them hope, and inspire them to see the beauty in nature. I always try to leave enough room for people’s own interpretation. Art can be really valuable if you can relate to it and have the freedom to make it part of your own journey in life.
SF: You personally experienced what could be considered a tragic period in your life when you were diagnosed with a rare disease that left you paralyzed. However, this happened at the same time in your life as the miraculous birth of your baby boy. This essentially led you onto a new career path as you discovered a passion for photography and creating completely new worlds with your art. While the dream worlds appear to have brought light and hope into your own life, how have you witnessed your art doing the same for others around the world?
MVL: I’m always honored to hear that people have been impacted by my work. I receive so many comments and messages from people about how my work resonates with them. For me, it’s always special to hear how my work helped someone through a difficult time or when one of my pieces warms their heart. I also receive many photos of people who tattooed my art on their arms. I’m still shocked every time I see this, but it’s a great compliment.
SF: Where the Dreamers Go was your first exhibition—a solo exhibition at Corrado Bortone Gallery in Paris—and it was published as a limited-edition hardcover photobook of more than 200 museum-quality fine artwork prints. At the time of your book publishing, the intention was to provide people with the opportunity to have your art in their homes and to be able to open the book when they need to go where the dreamers go. From terror attacks to climate change, this happened at a fearful time in our recent history, and just a couple of years later, humanity again finds itself facing fears and in need of all that you set out to offer with this book: hope when we feel lost, inspiration for those looking for their life’s purpose, consolation in our griefs, guidance towards wisdom, opening up to self-knowledge, and calm for our anxieties. How might you advise people to look to art like yours—and perhaps their own dreams and imagination, as well—to navigate difficult times?
MVL: For me, as an artist, it’s important to touch people with my work. I don’t want people to just look at a beautiful artwork, I want them to really feel something when they look at it. I want to warm their hearts when they need it, to calm them down, to give them hope, and inspire them to see the beauty in nature. In fact, I see my art pieces as life lessons to my sons; something they can look back on when they are older and hopefully help them navigate through life. I always try to leave enough room for people’s own interpretation. Art can be really valuable if you can relate to it and have the freedom to make it part of your own journey in life. There’s this saying that’s also on the cover of my art catalog: “When you change the way you look at things, the things you look at change.” That’s exactly what I’m trying to do with my art.
SF: What are some techniques/practices that you use to look at life through the eyes of a child, as you view things with wonder and an unlimited amount of fantasy?
MVL: I go out to nature with my two boys a lot. We go fishing, hiking, and searching for all kinds of treasures in the forest, and we also build tree houses. It helps me to really see all that’s around me when I’m with my children. Sometimes we’re so locked up in our routines and our digital worlds that we lose the ability to see all that’s already around us to enjoy. There is so much to wonder about, but you have to open up to it to notice it.
SF: Who are the dreamers?
MVL: For me, the dreamers are the ones who have the ability to see the beauty in everything. They are the ones who need an escape from the rush of their lives now and then, and to stand still and see what really matters in life. Dreamers are the ones who want to be inspired, to think outside the box, and are those who are longing for connection with our planet and with other people.
SF: Where the Dreamers Go is not just any book—it is a piece of art in itself with “special effects” that had never before been implemented. The front cover is made from thermal ink, so upon touching it, the “real” cover is magically revealed. What has gone into this one-of-a-kind book, and do you have plans to create another book in the future?
MVL: Creating this book was a dream come true and I got to work with an incredibly talented team. The publisher of my book also published the (limited edition) RIJKS, Masters of the Golden Age book and the Vincent van Gogh sketchbooks, so I’m very honored that they wanted to work with me. We wanted to create an art piece, and an exclusive fine art print is included with every book. We are currently working on a coffee table book.
SF: What has been one of your most surprising, unusual, and/or exciting commissioned pieces?
MVL: Every commissioned piece has a story of its own. It’s always very exciting if people want you to create something that is so personal and important to them. I love to create pieces where all of the important elements of someone’s life come together in one artwork. For example, a combination of different countries, landscapes, symbols, and colors that melt into one art piece and explain a person. I also did a commissioned piece for a woman who always looked at one bird when she was having chemotherapy. The bird really calmed her down as it was always there when she was in the hospital. She wanted me to create something beautiful with this specific bird in it and it turned out to be one of the best art pieces I’ve created so far.
SF: Nature is one of the primary constants appearing in your art. Why do you love to work with elements of nature?
MVL: Nature is an inexhaustible source of inspiration and it’s not subject to any trends; it has timeless beauty. The moments in my life where I was impressed by the beauty of nature are uncountable. The elements of nature have so much meaning that you can immediately set the mood with it. I also want to show people the beauty of nature to inspire them to look after our planet.
The important things in life are universal: we feel the same emotions, we are all longing for love, and we share the same planet with the same animals. We should appreciate every human being as we are all in this together.
SF: You do photography, but do you source all of your imagery from your own images? If not, what is your criteria or process like for selecting who or what type of images to use in your art?
MVL: I use a mix of my own images and photos of befriended colleagues as well as occasional stock images. When I search for an image to use in my art, light is always the number-one criterion. The lighting has to be perfect within the whole artwork.
SF: So much of your art is an invitation to dream and imagine—a visual “what if?” You often also nudge your fans further with questions like, “If you could open a door and enter your imaginary world, what would it look like?” Do you get a lot of fun responses from people sharing their “dreams”?
MVL: Yes, so many! It’s cool to have a glimpse inside the imagination of others. Sometimes it gives me inspiration for a new work, as well.
SF: You once said, “The essence of the beautiful is unity in variety.” How do you envision art and your work as helping people recognize and appreciate this “unity in variety”, even when society tends to have us focus on disparity?
MVL: I think with showing the connections between people, animals, and nature, you cannot miss the message that we are all just a really tiny part of this universe and that we all have the same value. It doesn’t matter where you come from, what you have accomplished, or how much money you make when it comes down to what really matters in life. I hope to touch the emotions we can all relate to. In the end, the important things in life are universal: we feel the same emotions, we are all longing for love, and we share the same planet with the same animals. We should appreciate every human being as we are all in this together.
SF: Adventure is another theme in your work and it was something that fueled your passion in the very beginning to create the types of adventures you wanted to be in with your son. Much like the notion that we should embrace change and venture “outside the box” or “off the beaten path” to really experience life and our place in it, you’ve said, “We must take adventures in order to know where we truly belong.” What do you mean by “adventures”—is it something that requires people to go on safari, can it simply be dreaming and imagining, or is it both? And why is it so important?
MVL: With adventures, I mean to not blindly follow where everyone else goes. There is not one path you have to follow in life to become happy and successful. Dare to dream and to really follow your dreams. When I was younger, I tried to follow the path everyone around me was taking. It was all about not deviating too much and making study and job choices that give you a certain level of security in life. When I got diagnosed with Guillain-Barré Syndrome, I quickly learned that life doesn’t always go according to plan; not at all. Sometimes you have to take risks to follow your dreams to go where you belong. When you go off the beaten path and really connect to your inner self, the most beautiful things can happen.
SF: Your work has quickly led you to travel the world and meet many extraordinary people, including other talented artists and even His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican City. What was this special gathering for (with Pope Francis), and what have been your biggest takeaways reflecting on the unique experiences that have come with your work?
MVL: I had the great opportunity to meet His Holiness Pope Francis at the Vatican City with a small group of amazing artists. I was asked to donate an art piece for auction to raise money for the non-religious foundation of the Pope. These pieces were auctioned in Miami and the artists and buyers were invited to the Vatican City to have a personal meeting with Pope Francis. This was really an extraordinary experience. I’m very grateful for all these unique experiences that come with my work and it’s very cool to realize that following my passion has brought me all of this. It also made me realize even more that experiences are so much more important to me than any material matters. I’m truly grateful to be able to make so many great memories while traveling together with my wife and kids.
SF: You share many beautiful and inspirational sayings along with your art on social media, such as: “You can’t calm the storm, so stop trying. What you can do is calm yourself. The storm will pass.” And, “It’s the Circle of Life and it moves us all, through despair and hope, through faith and love.” What is the saying or greatest inspiration that you’ve personally been sitting with or focusing on lately? What is the one that keeps you uplifted and flowing with hope, love, and trust?
MVL: There’s this Rumi quote that stuck with me the last couple of weeks: “The universe is not outside of you. Look inside yourself; everything that you want, you already are.” Especially in times like this, as we have to stay home due to the pandemic, this is something to think about. I can’t travel anymore at this moment; a lot of my shows are cancelled. But, I’m still happy and grateful because all that I want, I already am.