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How to Build a Terrarium with Phoenix's Ian Christiansen of TerrarIAN

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The workshop is tucked away in a tiny corner of a kitchen in a downtown Phoenix apartment. An array of glass containers has been arranged neatly on top of the refrigerator, some tall and skinny while others are fat and bulbous. Where most would entertain a window-side breakfast nook, a table is full of lush, green moss that looks fluffy to the touch. Beside them: six fully naked women and six male photographers.

The apartment, the workspace and the dozen (miniature figurine) people all belong to Ian Christiansen who will, in an hour or a few weeks or a month, bring each of them together to create a small, seemingly self-sustaining ecosystem: a terrarium.

See also: How to Refurbish a Vintage Volkswagen with Randy Slack

Today's common decorative garden is thanks to a British man named Dr. Nathaniel Ward. These "Wardian cases" were an early sealed protector of plants, so that Europeans could import foreign plants from overseas, keeping them alive in glass bottles and out of exposure to the elements.

Christiansen, a 40-year-old artist and actor who can currently be seen on stage through the end of the month in "National Pastime" at Theater Works in Peoria, stumbled upon the craft almost by accident.

"I was on a really awful date at the Desert Botanical Garden when I found myself in the gift shop," he says. After browsing seemingly aimlessly, Christiansen came across a book on terrariums written by the owners of a successful retail space in Brooklyn, New York.

"I thought, 'Why am I not doing that?'" he says. "I love miniature. I'm totally obsessed."

That was a year ago. Since then his hobby has turned into a full-fledged endeavor: TerrarIAN -- a play on, well, the obvious. Now he spends his time hunting for vintage glass shapes and sends away to Oregon and Arkansas for particular moss types like fern, mood, and pillow.

"It's a way to have outside inside, which is hard here [in Phoenix] because outside is dirt and sand and rocks," he says.

He sells these sustaining scenes in a variety of sizes (ranging between mini to extra large at $48 to $150) at For the People in the UNION at the Biltmore, makes custom orders for friends, and, starting Thursday, March 13, at Frances, will host how-to workshops.

The event, which has room for 20 people, teaches the green- and black-thumbed alike how to make and sustain a thriving miniature garden. Attendees are asked to include their own vessel (lidded and not too thick, Christiansen says) but the rest of the materials -- from plant life to tiny people -- are included in the $30 price.

"I think with the demands of today, people are living in smaller places [or] are on the go and can't spend all day Sunday in the garden," he says. "It's a way to feel like you still have a hand in caring for something.

Back at his kitchen table, he thumbs through piles of boxes divided into quadrants. There are snow people in petite jackets and coats, pieces of fencing and luggage, glass tigers and polar bears, made-in-China unicorns and Pegasus.

A man in traditional Arab dress stands next to misplaced 1950s office drone looking as though he's being blown over by an imaginary gust of wind. Across from them: a lightsaber wielding Darth Vader and a meticulously detailed R2-D2. The Star Wars scenes he's made have flown off the shelves, Christiansen says.

The figurines, which are barely inches tall, are from the Preiser company, known for manufacturing miniatures for train sets and towns that are housed "in the garages of men who don't sleep with their wives anymore," he says, laughing. They tend to run between $12 to $24 either online or at area hobby shops.

He hesitates to call terrariums fully "self-sustaining," but does insist that they are low-maintenance. He's perfected a layering system that keeps the moss alive and growing while minimizing the possibility of bugs or of unwanted plants taking root.

The base of each glass bottle is a layer of pebbles, which helps with the drainage that results from condensation. He adds charcoal on top to keep everything clean, following that with sphagnum moss, a dried moss typically found on bogs that he buys in bulk from Home Depot. The last two components, soil and other moss, are added to create the basis for the scene, primarily for visual appeal.

Each layer can be as thin or thick as a mini-gardener desires, and fluctuates depending on the scene. Christiansen likes to have his still lives play out in the middle of the bottle -- it's a better line of vision and still allows enough breathing room.

"It's design and nature together which is really cool," he says.

It's a process Christiansen has studied religiously. He's watched every YouTube video and television special on these projects and spent a recent trip to Portland, Ore., going from store to store to get ideas and talk about effective plants.

"I want to find a way to do bigger plants and moss together," he says. "It's really hard to kill moss. It's very pliable."

The process is cathartic, taking anywhere from half an hour to 90 minutes depending on the intricacies and how much time he can devote to one sitting. It keeps him from fretting in between acting jobs, Christiansen says, and it's like a subversive way to still act -- he approaches it like directing a scene.

And sometimes the scenes are salacious. His first extra large piece, currently on sale at For the People for $150, features five figures, a dump truck, two tombstones and a zombie. One of his favorite scenes featured an open-flapped tent, a Boy Scout, and a woman lifting her shirt to expose her breasts.

"I called it, 'First Time,'" he says.

He titled another unique creation "Monster in the Park," which depicted a clawed monster chasing a little kid through a field.

He likes putting these characters in precarious situations. It's akin to that sometimes-grandiose feeling that causes one to stop and pause for an unprompted moment: when life seems too large and individuals too insignificant in the ultimate scheme of things. It promotes a sense of control.

"It's a way to feel a little less vulnerable," he says, without a hint of irony or dramatizing in his voice.

Build your own terrarium from 6 to 8 p.m. Thursday, March 13, at Frances, 10 West Camelback in Phoenix. Cost is $30 per person; space is limited. Call 602-279-5467 or visit www.francesvintage.com to reserve a space.

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