If you ask Amber Hage-Ali and Ian Johnson, the owners and artists behind the Terrorium Shop, what a terrorium is, even they have a hard time defining it.
"Flora with a macabre twist?," offers Johnson.
"I hate that," says Hage-Ali, shaking her head, "because I don't think anything is macabre. I think it's beautiful and part of life. It's really a mini-world. A mini-ecosystem of my favorite parts of nature."
Deriving the name for their art from the words "terror" and "terrarium," Hage-Ali and Johnson gave their shop the same name, filling it with artistic creations that combine living plants and foliage with bones foraged from roadkill and insects to re-create intricate scenes found in nature.
The Terrorium Shop and its wares are the result of an unlikely partnership between a gardener and a taxidermist. "I do the dead things; she does the live things," explains Johnson.
After Hage-Ali gave Johnson a terrorium for their first holiday together as a visual manifestation of their interests, they began selling them from the porch of their home in Washington Park and at craft markets and festivals. As their company and clientele began to grow, they moved from the porch to the basement, and now to their new storefront in Denver's Berkeley neighborhood, which opened on May 4.
Growing up hunting and fishing in the mountains of Colorado, Johnson had always taken an interest in animal preservation. After collecting bones throughout his adventures, he had to find a way to preserve them and keep them from stinking up his space. He mostly taught himself taxidermy through trial and error, then went on to work for a local taxidermy studio (where he still does commissioned taxidermy pieces).
Hage-Ali also grew up collecting natural materials. "When I was little, I used to collect curiosities and found mementos, and I would kind of re-create the way that I found them. It was kind of like a picture, or a 3-D memory for me. My mom used to take me to the greenhouse all the time, and she would only let me pick up flowers that fell on the ground, and that's when I started collecting. Where I'm from, there aren't a lot of bones. It was mostly bugs and little fragments of nature I found, and I really got into the bones when I moved out to Colorado. One time I was hiking, and I found a skeleton. It looked like half of a deer face, with a plant growing out of it. I thought, 'This is so cool. Look at the nature taking over the death.' And that's how I started incorporating living plants into my mini-scenes."
The Terrorium Shop prides itself on only using ethically sourced materials from Colorado. Most of the taxidermy and bone elements come from foraged roadkill. "We have a network of people that will call us and say, 'Hey, there's a dead raccoon,'" says Johnson. "We like to think that we give a little bit of a second life to the roadkill animals. Nothing dies for our art."
"Because of that, you'll notice a lot of fractures and imperfections on the bones, which I think are beautiful," Hage-Ali adds. "The whole idea is to re-create the concept of decay and growth, and to show how it is found in nature."
Rather than aiming for museum-quality, bleached-white skeletons, Hage-Ali and Johnson embrace the natural weathering and decay processes that affect the bones in their terroriums. While Hage-Ali gets most of her flowers from a local greenhouse, she uses found foliage like moss and tree bark for their dried pieces. She is also committed to foraging responsibly, which means avoiding flowers that have not yet been pollinated. One day she hopes to have her own greenhouse in which to grow flowers, but for now she is only growing her own mushrooms. The Terrorium Shop also sells grow-your-own mushroom kits for Pink Oyster and Lion's Mane mushrooms.
The terroriums are inspired by Hage-Ali and Johnson's experiences in nature.
"Sometimes I'll be thinking about a time we hiked through Red Rocks, or when the wildflowers are first in bloom, and I'll use that palette to kind of re-create that scene. I always use an experience or a memory that I'm trying to re-create. They are like pictures for me," says Hage-Ali.
She prefers terroriums to nature photographs. "I'm kind of against taking a lot of photos when you're out in nature. It takes away from that special moment in time. I want to feel it and remember the smells, the sounds, the textures completely," she says.
The terroriums not only capture the essence of nature better than photographs, but they also are more interactive. "One thing I think is really cool is that you do re-create that process, bringing it into your home. But you become a part of it with your interaction, which is kind of magical to think about — that you're part of this process that is bigger than yourself. Decay and regrowth are only facilitated if you take care of your piece," says Hage-Ali.
Now that they have their own retail space with the Terrorium Shop, Johnson and Hage-Ali are looking forward to expanding their offerings and continuing to experiment with natural materials. Johnson is excited to start doing small taxidermy pieces with more than just bones, like birds, to incorporate into their mini-scenes. They also will be hosting and teaching classes on taxidermy, insect painting, entomology, floral design and terrorium making. Hage-Ali wants to make these classes as interactive and personal as possible.
"I would really like to do one where we go out and we forage, so people can have their own connection to the things they find and create their own memories," she says.
The Terrorium Shop, which offers plants, jewelry, art and more, is located at 3611 West 49th Avenue in Denver. For more information, go to the shop's Facebook and Instagram pages. Out-of-towners can purchase pieces through the Terrorium Etsy shop.
Keep Westword Free... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Denver with no paywalls.