Jean-Michel Arrigona is a local artist with an interesting medium
The walls are covered in bugs. Everywhere I turn there’s something that crawls, flutters, skitters or slithers. Of course, they’re all dead—mounted on frames or under glass domes. There are hundreds of them, though, around the tiny shop. They’re each displayed in striking poses that captures their brilliant patterns and colors, bringing the natural beauty of the specimens back to vibrant life.
I’m standing in the Nātür Showroom, a little storefront in Midvale just west of UTA’s TRAX Blue Line. It’s tucked away inside an unassuming strip mall with no foot traffic that’s all-too-easy to miss. Luckily, patrons treat it as a destination, coming from all over to look at the variety of natural beauties for sale and on display.
The showroom is owned and operated by Jean-Michel Arrigona. For 24 years he built custom furniture in Salt Lake. During that time, spurred by a life-long interest in the natural world, he began collecting, posing and mounting insects—selling a few of the pieces to museums and galleries. When he and his wife decided that 24 years was enough time to spend making custom furniture, his hobby became his new full-time passion and Nātür was opened.
Jean-Michel is an interesting man who exudes friendliness. It’s hard to pin a title on him, though. As he’s entirely self-taught in the field, some might call him an amateur entomologist or maybe a recreational naturalist. But a title like that only diminishes the immense talent and skill that Jean-Michel has in his work. In truth, “artist” seems to be the only moniker that really seems to fit.
While most artists will take to working with paints on canvas or maybe mastering an instrument to make beautiful music, Jean-Michel’s chosen medium is the natural world. Taking each specimen, he carefully examines it and decides how it should be preserved and presented.
“You get a feel for it,” he says as we sit in his workshop, a tiny room in the corner of his store. One wall is stacked high with boxes full of specimens from around the world, waiting to be posed by him. Behind us is the tiny skeleton of a bird, glued to a perch and held up with little clamps as it dries in place. “You’re spreading claws, you’re opening mandibles, you’re posing antennae—you have to find the right sound.”
All these creatures, both great and small, have become his masterworks. Butterflies and moths sit behind minimalist frames. They’re frozen in time, as if they were plucked from their perch on a delicate leaf and carefully preserved in that natural splendor—their wings are spread out, showing off their bold and beautiful patterns.
But his business isn’t just those flying insects. Some of the frames have beetles that are as big as a child’s hand, their mandibles open showing off their fierceness and majesty. Next to those are delicate skeletons of birds, fish and reptiles. They’ve been put back together and posed under glass domes. Even with just the bare bones, they look alive, as if the birds were about to fly away and the lizards about to scurry.
The specimens come to him from around the world, collected by a series of gatherers. Jean-Michel acts as one part of an intricate ecosystem made up of this network of collectors, sellers, importers and exporters. The specimens are wrapped and preserved carefully, some on cardboard and others in glassine packages. Mandibles and legs are carefully folded under, fragile wings are closed. They’re shipped from exotic locations—Asia, South America, Africa—and have to be treated with care to survive their long journeys.
The showroom has been open since May of 2013, and in that time, Jean-Michel’s practice has grown. He’s expanded his vision and his expertise, tries new techniques and gleaned a library’s worth of new information from the specialists that come to visit his shop. He’s ventured into all different parts of the natural beauty the world has to offer as he’d learned about fossils, minerals, sea life, and flora.
“I’ve been fascinated with the natural world my whole life, but it was really—since I was a kid—really the insect world that got me,” Jean-Michel says. “Almost immediately after I opened, it seemed like such a perfect thing to bring in the skulls, the skeletons, the sea life. It just all built and it seemed—no pun intended—so natural to do it.”
Jean-Michel grew up in Europe. His father, a Eureka, UT native, moved to France where he met Jean-Michel’s Parisian mother. They were married and Jean-Michel spent his life on the continent moving from France to Germany and to Belgium—returning to Utah after high school. While it was there, in Europe, that his fascination with the natural world began, it was here in Utah that it truly began to blossom.
“A little while ago, I recalled having this thought when I was a little kid,” he says. “I had seen a dead bird and all of a sudden I had what some people might consider a morbid thought, but I thought how cool it would be to have a drawer full of birds’ claws—pairs of birds’ claws—all clean and nice, lined up. I just remember looking at those claws and how amazing they were. The strength they looked like they had.”
That early dream has more or less come true looking at the shelves of beautiful natural specimens he has. He shows me the skeleton of a seahorse. It’s delicate, light and I feel like I’m going to break it. Jean-Michel excitedly tells me about its remarkable qualities.
“Do you know what’s amazing about the seahorse?” he asks me. “It’s the only animal in the world where the male gives birth.”
He goes on to teach me about how the seahorse skeleton works. It’s covered in armor, and can be compressed to 50 percent of its size. Say the seahorse is bitten by a predator; it has a good chance that the bite won’t do anything, its skeleton just springing back to its original shape. Engineers, he says, study the seahorse, trying to figure out how to produce something equal to its intelligent design. He tells me all of it in an excited tone and there’s a touch of wonderment coupled with true humility before the power of nature.
It’s impressive how much Jean-Michel knows. He tells me that his memory isn’t even that great, but because he’s so passionate about the topic, all the information seems to just stick. Even though the results are truly magnificent, some people might find it odd or unsettling to be surrounded by so much morbidity. Jean-Michel says that he likes it when people have enough curiosity or boldness to ask where his specimens come from and how they died.
“One of the obstacles for me was that very thing,” he says. “I’m going from this beautiful thing that was living to this beautiful thing that’s now on my wall. So what I’ve learned is first of all we have to remember that the reason there’ll all so big, so beautiful, is this is the end of their life. They live the majority of their life, 90 to 95 percent of their life as a caterpillar, as a grub, as a larva preparing for the 10 days of their adult life.
“It helped me to know that this is the end of their life. It helps me to know that instead of rotting on the jungle floor, it’s now on somebody’s wall. Maybe there’s appreciation that kicks in. An interest in maintaining, sustaining.”
Jean-Michel began collecting, posing and preserving insects before there was Internet. It’s become much easier since then to talk to other hobbyists and entomologists to learn from them, but in those early days he was determined to learn it anyway. He wrote to different entomologists, some of them shared secrets, others didn’t. He learned enough, though, to get started. Jean-Michel’s is a very private business and even he is hesitant to give away any of his own techniques he’s developed through his years of trial-and-error.
“I have to put it through a process that relaxes the insect so then I can open it up,” he says with a dried butterfly in hand, telling me about the long process. “Depending on the size of spider, butterfly, or whichever specimen, it can take one day to five, six, seven days before I can begin to open them up. Then you shape it and it can take another three of four days before it’s dry and ready to mount.”
It’s a delicate, patient process that requires practice and a good eye for design. He tells me that he’s always loved working with his hands. He built models as a kid and making furniture was an extension of that. “My wife still buys me Legos,” he says, laughing.
All these skills and interests have come together for Jean-Michel and have given him a way to find dignity in death. It’s obvious the care he has for the world around him. His fascination is infectious and he’s more than willing to share it with all those who come into his shop.
As a customer walks in, Jean-Michel springs from his chair. She’s buying a present for her young nephew. Jean-Michel opens drawer after drawer of specimens he’s already posed, looking for the right one. Finally he helps her settle on a beautiful moth. He picks it up by the pin and gingerly points to the striking design on the wings. He moves it in the light letting the pinkish-purple and mother-of-pearl coloring catch the light. It comes from Africa he tells her, still holding the moth in his hand.
It’s a moment that seems to reflect everything that Jean-Michel does so well. He’s showing something beautiful, something he’s carefully posed and sharing the knowledge he has of it. He’s excited and happy to be doing the work. He’s creating interest, planting that seed of knowledge and intrigue that’s obviously so important to him.
“There’s so much to be interested in,” he tells me, and it’s true—it’s the Nātür Showroom’s greatest commodity.