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.
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.
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.
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