Summery seafood pasta salad

Babette’s visual feast and Henry Darger, outsider artist

Does art imitate life, or does life imitate art ? Sometimes it’s hard to tell. One thing is sure : art reproduces what is in the depths of the subconscious mind, and that’s nowhere more evident than in the work of American artist Henry Darger. But when the line dividing art and life is indistinguishable, what you get looks a lot like the life of French-American creator Elizabeth R.

Babette, as Elizabeth is known to friends, is the founder of children’s apparel company WOWO (World of Wonder), which features colorful clothing for children of all ages. But you’ll also find gorgeous fabrics including floral, hounds-tooth (in French it’s called “cock’s foot” or pied de coq), and Liberty-style prints.

Beguiling mix

This summer I had the opportunity to visit Babette’s home and studio, which are nestled in a tiny corner of Saint Mandé, just between the Paris limits and the huge bois de Vincennes park. Arriving in her neighborhood by bicycle, I noticed right away how great (and green !) it smelled : the wisteria was in bloom (again) and even a few palm trees graced several yards.

Babette’s home is beautiful. It contains a beguiling mix of her children’s collages and the entire family’s collection of objets d’art, treasures picked up on different travels throughout the world. And Babette is truly worldly : born in the United States, she also lived in Lebanon and Portugal, all before the tender age of 5.

Ethnic, graphic, and vintage

Her American grandmother’s influence included books by Maurice Sendak, whose sublime illustrations continue to nourish Babette’s interior landscape, and a subscription to American Vogue (back issues fill the shelves in Babette’s office). She learned sewing, knitting, and even embroidery from her French grandmother.

Created in 1998, her brand has a particular DNA, as we say : a mix of ethnic, graphic, and vintage influences, whose inspiration Babette gleans from exhibits, visual artists, and her time in India, where she travels about three times a year.

Mood boards

On Babette’s office table were the actual elements that make up her mood boards, which are used in creative fields to generate ideas on colors, designs, and patterns. Bits of lace given to Babette by her grandmothers lay next to a vintage hair accessory made from leather and rhinestones that was salvaged from a friend’s collection destined for the trash.

Strings of ribbon and rick-rack brought home from India covered a pair of children’s sandals she found in Berlin and imagined to have been hand made in Turkey – it turns out they were from India ! Also from Berlin was a scarf, whose pattern echoed that of a dress from an old Marni catalog Babette had lying around.

Outsider art = art brut

One of Babette’s color inspirations caught my eye : Henry Darger. In June I’d seen posters around Paris advertising an exhibit of this artist, but was unfamiliar with his colorful works. It turns out that Darger was American, and produced what we call outsider art, or art brut in French.

So I went to the exhibit at the Musée d’Art Moderne that same week, where I discovered Darger’s imaginary worlds of “Vivian Girls,” monsters, and never-ending wars. I agree that they are, in Babette’s words, situated “between naiveté and horror.” In the 15-volume saga of words and illustrations he entitled The Realms of the Unreal, Darger unleashes his complex subconscious world, emerging from a childhood filled with trauma.

Virtuous cycle

Thankfully Babette has only taken from Darger’s worlds his inspiring way with colors, and the resulting children’s clothing lines are all sweetness and light. Surrounded by her books on Naga culture and beadwork from around the world, we discussed the nebulous process of creation.

Once all the color and design elements are combined in her head, they macerate, and then the designs just seem to flow out when they’re ready. It’s a sort of marinating process in the depths of the subconscious, and when Babette sits down to actually design and create the clothes, these long-stewing elements emerge naturally.

But that’s because Babette has been doing this for years and years. She said that when she started out, she sometimes worried about her inspiration drying up. But the funny thing about creating is that the more you do it, the easier it gets, and the more creative you become. It’s what we’d call a virtuous cycle – and you don’t have to be a traumatized, secretive recluse to create it !


I’ll be taking a little vacation, so you’ll find my next post on August 27th. Merci !

In the meantime, check out Babette’s beautiful collections at WOWO.

Or if you’re in Paris, the Henry Darger exhibit is now on at the Musée d’Art Moderne in Paris, until October 11th, 2015.

Summery seafood pasta salad

This is my adaptation of Elizabeth’s favourite recipe, which was given to her by her American grandmother. When artists share their recipes with me, I always make the original version their way, and then I tend to make a few modifications – here I’ve added the baby spinach greens for extra color, and I’ve added a French cooking technique or two…. Babette, I hope you like this version !

To devein shrimp, have a look at this video. I’m not sure how many cups of coffee Gordon Ramsey consumed before deveining his shrimp, but he sure does a good job of showing you how to do it.

ingredients :
- 2½ quarts (2.5 liters) water
- 1⅓ cups (about 330ml) shrimp stock or clam juice (optional)
- 2 tablespoons course sea salt
- 1 lemon, cut in half (1 half for cooking, the other half squeezed)
- ½ pound (225g) frozen bay scallops
- 9 ounces (260g) linguine

- 1 tablespoon olive oil (for sautéing shrimp)
- 9 ounces (260g) medium-size shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 1 tablespoon minced shallot
- ¼ cup (50g) white wine for deglazing (optional)

- 5 ounces (140g) smoked salmon, cut into ½-inch (1.5 cm) pieces
- juice of ½ lemon from above
- 1 cup (150g) ripe cherry tomatoes, cut in half
- ½ cup (100g) mild olive oil
- 1 very generous handful fresh dill, chopped finely
- fine sea salt, to taste
- ½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- a couple of handfuls of baby spinach leaves, washed and spun dry (optional)

how to make it :
1. In a large pot, heat the water and stock or clam juice to boiling. Drop in the salt and a lemon half. Add the bay scallops and boil for about 3 minutes. Remove the scallops with a slotted spoon and cool them under cold running water. Pat dry and place them in a large salad bowl.
2. In the same boiling water, cook the linguini according to the pasta cooking instructions on the box. Drain and run under very cold water to cool completely.
3. In the meantime, heat the tablespoon of olive oil over medium-high heat in a medium sauté pan until the oil shimmers. Place the deveined shrimp in the pan, cooking on each side about 2-3 minutes. Remove the pan from the heat and transfer the shrimp to the salad bowl with the scallops.
4. In the remaining shrimp-infused oil, lightly sauté the shallots over medium-low heat for about 3 minutes. Pour in the white wine to deglaze (which just means adding liquid to dissolve the delicious caramelized bits in the bottom). Stir well, scraping up those bits from the bottom, and let the wine reduce until there’s only about 1 teaspoon left. Transfer the mixture to the salad bowl.
5. Add to the salad bowl the cooked linguini, salmon, lemon juice, tomatoes, and olive oil. Toss gently to combine.
6. Then add the dill, salt, and pepper, and finally, the baby spinach leaves if using them. Toss again.
7. Let pasta salad cool in the refrigerator for 1-2 hours. Warm to room temperature before serving.

makes about 6 servings

note from Babette : “I hope you enjoy this recipe as much as I and all my friends who have tasted it !”



Tags : shrimp , seafood , scallops , Henry Darger , pasta


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