It’s official, I know a bug lady :) I should clarify, Michelle Johnston is not just any bug lady, she’s the artist extraordinaire over at Alfred & Alma’s Insect Shoppe. From framed art featuring colorful butterflies to woodland scenes under glass domes, Michelle makes insects of all shapes and sizes look good! While prepping for my most recent wedding, (see it here), I learned that the bride and groom had commissioned an Alfred & Alma dome to adorn their cake table. Out of all the details included in their wedding, this was by far my favorite!
The symbolism of the butterfly is actually quite fitting for wedding decor, as they represent transcendence and growth. They also symbolize finding joy in life, read more about the spirit animal here. Previous to this wedding, Michelle made about 20 domes in a variety of sizes for wedding decor. They were used as centerpieces for the tables, with smaller ones by the bar, cake, even on a piano. The bride also gave them as gifts to the wedding party, which is a great personalized sentiment!
This was not my first glimpse of an Alfred & Alma piece. I was first introduced to the Insect Shoppe through Kanibal Home, a home goods store in Jersey City, NJ. Sidenote – Over the years, Kanibal Home has become one of my favorite places to pick up funky decor items and locally-made greeting cards. As soon as Steve and I find our forever home, I’ll be there picking up some larger, vintage furniture :) Like many others before me (and many after I’m sure), I instantly fell in love with their mini eco-systems created with dried flowers, wood chips, moss and the most beautiful butterflies ever. Shortly thereafter, I took a class led my Michelle, where we learned how to create our own terrariums. I walked away with a beautiful piece and a newfound appreciation for the work Michelle does, not to mention a new friend who shares a love of animals!
It was a pretty easy decision to ask Michelle if I could feature her Alfred & Alma insect work here on the blog. I spent the morning with her last week, learning her process and photographing her ability to pin not one, but two beetles in under twenty minutes.
Above, checking out the “pliability” of a found butterfly. Below, her workspace. You don’t need much when your subjects are so small! And yes, that is a pinned scorpion waiting for a home…
Above, I love this vintage drawer full of found creatures. Ok, I love the vessel, not the contents :) Below, a collection of butterflies purchased, pinned and ready for their very own displays.
*No beetles, butterflies or tarantulas were harmed during this photo shoot! Most of the insects Michelle works with are purchased from overseas’ suppliers and come from areas such as Africa and Malaysia. In these areas of the world, butterflies are farmed, helping to preserve natural habitats. Beetles and other creatures are often considered pests, much like our own cockroach. Which, coincidentally, is the one creature that gives Michelle the heebie-jeebies! The butterflies come wrapped in paper, beetles and such in plastic. Kept in these wrappings, they can be stored for years. Occasionally, Michelle will find some beetles and butterflies locally. She never kills them, but has been known to scoop up dead ones on her walks with her pup Zachary.
Before they can be worked on, butterflies need to be steamed, beetles soaked. Through this process, they are pliable and ready for pinning. They can also then be frozen and later thawed to be worked on.
Michelle pins them once right through the center of the body to hold them in place, and then the legs and wings can be adjusted and pinned into natural positions. She recommends using as few pins as possible when positioning them. Once dry, they become brittle again and the fewer the pins to remove the less likely damage can be caused. With the pins removed, the creature will keep its position forever.
Like other animals, insects follow the general rule of thumb found in nature that females are slightly larger in size, while males are more colorful so that they may attract the female’s attention. Below is the male beetle, recognizable by his smaller size, color and horns.
His female mate…
When it comes time to make her insects an environment in which to live, Michelle gets moss fillings and some of the dried florals from the floral district in Manhattan. She adds sticks that she finds on her walks, cleans and then bakes them. This ensures they are fully dry and insect-free. All of the the rocks and little natural things inside are also all found locally. “It’s amazing how many plants dry into beautiful and reusable pieces that would otherwise be thrown in the garbage,” Michelle says. Below are some samples of some of her finished pieces on display at Kanibal Home.
Of course, I had to ask how the name Alfred & Alma originated. Turns out they are the names of two of her past pet beetles. “Alfred was gifted to me as a present because I’d always wanted a rhinoceros beetle since they were my favorite,” she explains. “I had raised a bunch of fig beetles from larvae’s prior to him.” And she still has them pinned in a frame with her other pets!
Alfred is the big one in the upper lefthand corner, Alma is in the upper righthand corner. I have to admit, at least pinned behind glass, they are pretty cool :)
She’ll even repair insects, which is how she happened to have this lovely tarantula specimen. I got itchy just looking at him, as she told me that the hairs on their legs are used in itching powders….
Alfred & Alma became an official LLC at the start of this year but Michelle has been operating as such since 2011. She started working in commercial entomology in 2008 when she had just graduated with a degree in photography and was looking for a job. She was trained to manipulate and pin insects, making luxury pieces that ran the gamut of hundreds of dollars. After meeting Kristen, owner of Kanibal Home, who has a marvelous track record in inspiring and helping others to branch out on their own, Michelle decided to start her own company to make her art more affordable to everyone. In addition to the custom pieces she makes, she sells her work online through Kanibal Online and Etsy (framed art only for shipping purposes) and more elaborate pieces at the Kanibal Home storefront.
When it comes to custom pieces, clients will usually have an idea of what they would like to work in terms of vessel, be it a dome or something more unique. “Ninety-five percent of the time the client asks me to just do what I do, which I think always makes for the best work. I’ve learned through experience what works and doesn’t,” Michelle explains. “Occasionally I get requests for specific specimens or a certain feel ‘bright and playful’ or ‘muted and subtle.’ You get that more for weddings since the couple is working within a theme or color scheme.”
If you’d like more info on custom-made pieces or classes, please email Michelle at email@example.com.
Thank you Michelle, Zachary and Clementine for being such remarkable subjects to capture! It was such a pleasure spending time with you :)