Insect Asylum Brings an Exploration Through Time to Ravenswood Gallery
Nina Salem carefully opens the display case on top of her desk and pulls out an African beetle with a black Y-shaped horn and mostly striped exoskeleton from her collection. His scientific name, Goliathus goliatus, gives away his size. Though the beetle is bigger than the palm of Salem’s hand, she places him underneath a magnifying glass, exposing the grooves of his abdomen, and begins to demonstrate her restoration process.
“The goal is to make them look as life-like as possible,” Salem said, as she dipped a Q-tip into a small jar of ethanol and gently brushed around the beetle’s midsection.
Salem’s “bug surgeries” take place inside the living room of her Little Village home or her art studio. Since December, Salem has dedicated countless of hours fixing, cleaning and repairing over 2,000 specimens, including butterflies, dragonflies, moths, bees and more, for her latest exhibit, Bug Out Chicago – An Exploration of Insects through Time, which will be featured from July 27 to Aug. 5 at the Ars Memoria Tattoo and Art Gallery in Ravenswood. From butterfly pinning classes to owl pellet dissections, the weeklong event has a list full of activities fit for guests of all ages.
Even before she could get to that stage, Salem assesses her insects and jots down any broken limbs, wings or antennae. Then, she hydrates them by wrapping them up in wet paper towels and placing them inside containers with moth balls, so “their joints can become nimble again.” At times, Salem uses a hypodermic needle and injects distilled water into their backs and shoulders. She also soaks some of the bugs in acetone to rid of their greasiness.
“Our goal is to invite the community to see what we’re doing and feel inspired by nature and encourage them to go out, and learn, and to do things on their own,” Salem said.
Bug Out Chicago is an extension of The Insect Asylum, an organization co-founded by Salem. She is joined by her boyfriend and local chemist, Robert Runnels, who serves as the vice president and chief financial officer; as well as friend and board member, Ryan Brandoff. Salem said her dream for The Insect Asylum is that it becomes a traveling museum, where she, Runnels and Brandoff can bring the collection to schools, colleges or other institutions and educate others about the magical world around them.
Salem’s passion for art and fascination with animals and insects all stems from her childhood. Growing up in the woods of Massachusetts, she had no choice but to become fond of her surroundings. Nearly every inch of Salem’s apartment walls, shelves and tables are covered with some type of bone art or taxidermied animal.
“Almost everything that you see from my stuff is all found art,” she said. “I try not to invest too much money in things because that defeats the purpose, you know. It’s a form of recycling.”
Last Fall, Salem received a phone call about a collection that was up for sale. AJ Route, an entomologist from Salem’s homestate, died and members of his family were on the hunt for the right buyer to purchase his bugs. Without even examining the collection, Salem bought it and had it shipped to Chicago.
Overall, the collection features thousands of specimens, ranging from the early 1900s to the 1990s, from the continental United States, South America and Africa. Though Salem is to debut Route’s findings for Bug Out Chicago, there’s still more that she has yet to touch.
A few big, blue bins are stacked inside Salem’s studio – a single room in a cool, windowless basement. The perfect place for preservation because her bugs are very sensitive to light.
Salem is self-trained in restoration drawing from her experiences as an artist and taxidermist. Her formal training and previous career involved studying molecular gastronomy which led her to become a French pastry chef working in the fine dining industry. Though it may appear to most that her past and current line of work are different, Salem said the two worlds require extreme patience, meticulousness and organization.
“I read a lot. I watch a lot of videos, and I talk to a lot of people in the industry,” she said. “Experience is the best educator, and I try to be as respectful to the specimen as possible.”
With Bug Out Chicago, Salem’s goal is to raise enough money to not only continue to restore the collection, but build partnerships with professionals who have more background and can help protect the specimens’ DNA, as well.
“The ones from the ‘30s definitely require a bit more knowledge than what I currently have,” said Salem. “There [are] things that you can pick up along the way, and there [are] things you only acquire when you’re doing this for 30 years. A collection that’s 90-plus years old in envelopes, they’re so delicate and so fragile that if you touch them they crumble.”
Catherine Matthews, co-founder of the art gallery, met Salem through a mutual friend and immediately embraced Salem’s vision for Bug Out Chicago. Beyond that, she was inspired by her 9-year-old son’s reaction when he encountered the collection for the first time.
“[Salem’s] enthusiasm is contagious,” she said, noting she and her son were so entranced by the multi-cultured creatures.
Matthews described her son as a typical boy who loves video games, but when he met Salem, he was captivated by her beetles.
Matthews is also drawn to Salem’s storytelling. Oftentimes, Salem talks about when the bugs were found and what era they were from, and ties that in with a history lesson. “Not only is she an insect expert, but she’s an artist,” Matthews said, adding that Bug Out Chicago really is an immersive experience.
With the event is just a few days away, Salem has committed to working around the clock and expects sleepless nights. In all, her driving force is – and has always been – to show love and care toward the late Route and his life’s work, as well as Mother Nature.
“They don’t bite!” Salem exclaimed, as she placed a couple of beetles in her hand and stroked them. “They’re just kind of creepy, and fun and interesting.”