AVONDALE – As far back as Nina Salem can remember, she’s been drawn to nature obsessively.
Growing up in a small wooded town in Massachusetts, Salem spent much of his time collecting items like rocks, bones and feathers and rescuing animals and other wildlife, eventually going into the taxidermy.
“Being autistic, I tend to be hyper-focused on things, and I was obsessed with feathers and furs and loved the smells and feel of everything. That always really turned me on,” said Salem.
For many years, Salem felt she had to hide her passion from friends and family for fear of being seen as an “eccentric”. But she no longer deprives herself of it.
The 30-year-old Brighton Park resident is opening an insect and taxidermy museum in Avondale with the vast collection she has amassed over the years.
The museum, called The Insect Asylum, will also serve as a community center with educational classes and art events for children and adults. Salem is also an artist who incorporates taxidermy and insects into jewelry and other artwork.
“I didn’t have a school to learn all that stuff, and I was told it was weird and it was wrong, and it’s not true. So I want people to have the opportunity to explore the unknown and explore their passions in a safe and responsible way,” Salem said.
The Insect Asylum will occupy a vacant storefront at 2870 N. Milwaukee Ave. The front of the loft space will house Salem’s collection of nearly 2,500 insects, some of which are over 100 years old, as well as a wide array of taxidermy that Salem has accumulated over the years, from a rare ray to a huge African eland.
The collection consists of purchased and donated pieces. Salem sources its supplies from entomologists and ethical dealers, like a butterfly sanctuary in Vietnam. She is committed to preserving animals, insects and other wildlife “that will never be missing in the wild”, she said.
Beneath the museum will be a professional-grade taxidermy and wet specimen lab and a carpentry shop for Salem’s partner Lane Huitt, who runs a furniture business, Salem said.
Once open, people will be able to enter and view the collection, purchase local artwork, or reserve the museum for children’s birthday parties and other events. The museum will hold regular events incorporating nature and art, such as evenings to sip and paint with a real sloth, Salem said. Lab memberships will also be available for people who want to learn how to do taxidermy and other animal preservation work.
Salem and Huitt rent the back apartment in hopes of hosting poetry readings and other art events there once the museum is up and running.
“The whole point of this place is to be a cabin in the city,” Huitt said. “All the things we bring here to help support…the space, like salable items and artwork, will all revolve around the theme of nature: natural things, like wood, other pieces to spiritual basis.”
Salem said the place would be “more earthy than macabre”.
“A lot of other oddity shops are very macabre, like cult classics, Baphomets on the wall — things like that,” Salem said. “It’s a space where I want parents to be able to bring their children to learn.”
This is the first brick and mortar for Salem, who has been running The Insect Aslyum from his South Side apartment for about five years.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, Salem built a successful business showing off her collection of insects and taxidermy — and her nature-inspired designs — at pop-ups and other events across town.
Salem’s collection of insects was the star of an exhibit at the Ars Memoria Tattoo and Art Gallery in Ravenswood, now the Wayward Arts Gallery, titled Bug Out Chicago – An Exploration of Insects through Time.
Salem has also partnered with the Park District to organize events for children, introducing them to living insects, such as Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and nature-themed activities such as vermicomposting.
But Salem has been hit hard by the pandemic. With events canceled, she turned to selling nature and science-themed activity kits before she began looking for a bigger – and more permanent – home for The Insect Asylum.
After about eight months of searching, Salem and his partner found the perfect space in Avondale last month. The storefront is directly across from Monarch Thrift Shop — a good omen, Salem said.
Now Salem and Huitt are fixing up the space in hopes of having a grand opening on Earth Day, April 22.
It’s a deeply personal endeavor for Salem, who has only pursued his true passion in recent years.
Before launching The Insect Asylum from her apartment, Salem went to school for molecular gastronomy. She worked as a pastry chef in hotels and restaurants across the city, then for Bartend Chicago in the restaurant business, believing the hospitality industry would provide her with a stable career, but also feared that many would find her obsession with taxidermy and strange insects.
Yet Salem could not shake his love of nature and, more specifically, the preservation of dead animals and insects.
“I really wanted my toes to be in the dirt,” she said.
With The Insect Asylum, Salem hopes to spread his deep appreciation for the natural world and inspire others to embrace their passions, no matter how unconventional.
“I’m so excited that this space exists because now all these unwanted or damaged or old animals have a home,” Salem said. “And when they live here they are appreciated, and when they find new homes they will be appreciated instead of sitting somewhere in the back of a closet or under a bed or deteriorating in a storage room or an attic or a basement…because someone doesn’t like it and doesn’t know what to do with it.
For more information, visit The Insect Asylum’s website or follow the company on Facebook or Instagram.
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