AVONDALE — For as long as Nina Salem can remember, she’s been drawn to nature to the point of obsession.
Growing up in a woodsy small town in Massachusetts, Salem spent much of her time collecting things like rocks, bones and feathers and rescuing animals and other wildlife, eventually taking up taxidermy.
“Being autistic, I can tend to hyperfocus on things, and I was obsessed with the feathers and the furs and I liked the smells and the touch of everything. It always really excited me,” Salem said.
For many years, Salem felt like she had to hide her passion from friends and family for fear of being cast an “oddball.” But she’s not shying away from it anymore.
The 30-year-old Brighton Park resident is opening an insect and taxidermy museum in Avondale with the vast collection she’s amassed over the years.
The museum, called The Insect Asylum, will double as a community center with educational classes and arts events for kids and adults. Salem is also an artist who incorporates taxidermy and insects into jewelry and other pieces of art.
“I didn’t have a school to learn all this, and I was told it was weird and it was wrong, and that’s not true. So I want people to have the opportunity to explore the unknown, and to explore their passions in a safe and responsible manner,” Salem said.
The Insect Asylum will fill a vacant storefront at 2870 N. Milwaukee Ave. The front of the lofted space will house Salem’s collection of nearly 2,500 insects, some more than 100 years old, as well as a wide array of taxidermy Salem has accumulated over the years, from a rare stingray to a massive African eland.
The collection consists of purchased and donated pieces. Salem sources from entomologists and ethical dealers, like a butterfly sanctuary in Vietnam. She’s committed to preserving animals, insects and other wildlife “that will never be missed in nature,” she said.
Below the museum will be a professional-grade taxidermy and wet specimen lab and a woodworking shop for Salem’s partner, Lane Huitt, who runs a furniture company, Salem said.
Once open, people will be able to walk in and view the collection, buy locally made art or book the museum for kids birthday parties and other events. The museum will hold regular events incorporating nature and art, like sip-and-paint parties with an actual sloth, Salem said. There will also be lab memberships available for people who want to learn how to do taxidermy and other animal preservation work.
Salem and Huitt are renting the apartment in back in hopes of putting on poetry readings and other art events there once the museum is up and running.
“The goal for this place is to be a cabin in the city,” Huitt said. “All of the things we bring in here to help sustain … the space, like sellables and artwork, will all revolve around the theme of nature: natural things, like wood, other pieces that are spiritually based.”
Salem said the spot will be “more earthy than macabre.”
“A lot of the other oddity shops are very macabre-based, like cult classics, Baphomets on the wall — things like that,” Salem said. “This is 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 run The Insect Aslyum out of her South Side apartment for about five years.
In the years leading up to the pandemic, Salem was building a successful business around showing her insect and taxidermy collection — and her nature-inspired creations — at pop-ups and other events across the city.
Salem’s insect collection was the star of an exhibit at Ars Memoria Tattoo and Art Gallery in Ravenswood, now Wayward Arts Gallery, called Bug Out Chicago – An Exploration of Insects through Time.
Salem also partnered with the Park District on events for kids, introducing them to live insects, like Madagascar hissing cockroaches, and nature-themed activities such as vermicomposting.
But Salem was hit hard by the pandemic. With events canceled, she pivoted to selling nature- and science-themed activity kits before she began searching for a larger — and more permanent — home for The Insect Asylum.
After about eight months of searching, Salem and her partner found the perfect space in Avondale last month. The storefront is right across from Monarch Thrift Shop — a good omen, Salem said.
Now, Salem and Huitt are fixing up the space with the hopes of having a grand opening on Earth Day, April 22.
It’s a deeply personal endeavor for Salem, who only in recent years has pursued her true passion.
Before launching The Insect Asylum out of her apartment, Salem went to school for molecular gastronomy. She worked as a pastry chef at hotels and restaurants across the city and then for Bartend Chicago in catering, thinking the hospitality industry would provide her a stable career but also worried many would find her taxidermy and insect obsession strange.
Yet Salem couldn’t shake her love of nature and, more specifically, preserving dead animals and insects.
“I really wanted my toes in the dirt,” she said.
With The Insect Asylum, Salem hopes to spread her deep appreciation for the natural world and inspire others to embrace their passions — however unconventional they may be.
“I’m overly excited that this space exists because now all of those 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, go to The Insect Asylum’s website, or follow the business on Facebook or Instagram.
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