Carl Sagan came to mind recently, when I was reminded of his saying that “If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first invent the universe.” The same applies to every piece of creative work ever crafted, from the deli­cate sophis­ti­ca­tion of the Mona Lisa to a toddler’s erratic doodling. Every single atom in that paint, those crayons, the paper and the canvas was either created after the Big Bang or forged inside the belly of a giant star, now long gone. We ourselves are star stuff, and the recipe for any work of the imag­i­na­tion is star stuff plus creativity.

I will return to this idea later on. But allow me to first take you on a small detour where you will meet Mosa, our main trav­eling companion.

A Bit of Prehistory

In 1917, an art move­ment was launched in the Netherlands that would influ­ence many subse­quent gener­a­tions of artists. It was called De Stijl. Among its best-known members were painter Piet Mondrian and archi­tect Gerrit Rietveld. Many museums throughout the Netherlands are now cele­brating De Stijl’s cente­nary with a series of exhi­bi­tions under the name Mondrian to Dutch Design.

One of these venues is Museum Drachten, which I visited last weekend. It has focused part of its efforts on De Stijl’s over­seas influ­ence in the Dutch Antilles, Curaçao in partic­ular. Their exhi­bi­tion De Stijl and Expressionism in the Tropics features works from several artists, including the husband-and-wife team of Chris and Lucila Engels. They were good friends with, among others, Rietveld—who designed a stair­case for the central vide in their monu­mental home in Willemstad.

One of the museum’s eye-catchers is a large square work by Chris Engels of a mother suck­ling her infant girl. This is it. The woman is Mosa.

Can you spot Mosa in the image at the top of this post?

An Old Friend

I know Mosa and Child well and I’ve known it all my life. It was painted in 1958, before I was born, when my parents were a young couple living in Curaçao. They were good friends with Chris and Lucila Engels; Lucila would later become my godmother. The story of Mosa’s creation is inti­mately tied to the story of my parents’ lives at the time.

My father was a young acad­emic working (from Curaçao) on getting his PhD (at the University of Leiden in the Netherlands), and there were some prob­lems along the way. Chris Engels, who had become a mentor of sorts to my father, had spent the evening discussing the situ­a­tion with him. His young protégé’s trou­bles preoc­cu­pied him, and at night he couldn’t sleep. Wandering through the house in the dark, he stum­bled upon a servant girl who was nursing her newborn infant. He asked if he could paint her portrait, to help him quiet his mind. She consented.

And so Mosa was born. The prob­lems were resolved, the PhD was earned, and the artist gifted the painting to my parents. She has been a fixture in their—and later my—home ever since.

I have no memo­ries of a world without Mosa. Wherever we lived, she would move there with us, forever proudly nursing her baby daughter. Sitting on the living-room floor under Mosa, I must have built count­less LEGO creations, doodled innu­mer­able draw­ings, and lived a myriad of exciting play­time adven­tures. To me, Mosa wasn’t “art”; she was just part of the family.

And yet there she was last weekend, up on the wall at Museum Drachten, on loan from a “private collec­tion”. An Antillean descen­dant of De Stijl. A work of Art.

Getting Reacquainted

It’s a strange expe­ri­ence to see an object that is so familiar and so inti­mate presented in public as some­thing extra­or­di­nary and excep­tional. I was almost temped to say to Mosa, “Don’t you be getting any fancy ideas now, you hear?” But I didn’t need to, because the trans­for­ma­tion was unmis­tak­able. Mosa was no longer “mine”. As she hung there on the museum wall, she belonged to some­thing greater. Two things, actu­ally.

The first change was that Mosa has taken her place in an artistic tradi­tion. She no longer stood alone. As Mosa continued to feed her baby, Mosa and Child was tied by some umbil­ical connec­tion to an ongoing legacy of creative thought that reached back at least to 1917, and forward at least to the current esthetic of Dutch Design.

The second change was that Mosa reclaimed her indi­vid­u­ality. As a portrait, this image of a young woman breast-feeding her child is frozen in time. But what about the people them­selves? Mosa’s baby would be about 10 years older than I am. Where is she now; how did her life unfold; is her mother still alive; does she even know that a painting exists that shows her at her most vulner­able, still unformed, full of promise?

Star Stuff Again

That’s the thing, I think. Mosa, her newborn child, the canvas and the paint, the artist, the spec­tator, a little boy doodling on the floor—they are made of the same stuff. If you wish to make a painting from scratch, you must first invent the universe.

There are connec­tions wher­ever you look. The high art that right­fully belongs in a museum and the familiar image that hangs quietly on a living-room wall. The grand, time­less tradi­tion of creative renewal and the small, tran­sient histo­ries that connect people and fami­lies. The birth of a child and the birth of a painting.

The thread that runs through these stories is our humanity. All of us are making an apple pie from scratch, tweaking the recipe based on our own expe­ri­ences, insights and ideas. We do this for as long as life sustains us, and the process is what makes us who we are. Creativity plus star stuff.

The atoms that consti­tute us all will even­tu­ally, inevitably move on to other things. And we will cease to be. The little boy doodling on the floor, the spec­tator, the artist, the paint, the canvas, the newborn child—and yes, even Mosa herself. This is not how things are “meant” to be; it’s just how they are.

But in the mean­time, we are here. We are awake, and aware of our place under the ancient heavens, however fleeting. That is some­thing worth cher­ishing: we are part of how the universe knows itself. And if we can give each other some measure of human kind­ness, I imagine that might make Mosa smile.

• • •



Father, son, husband, friend and writer by day; asleep by night. Happily pondering the immortality of the crab wherever words are shared.

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