ice

A lopsided tin shed creeps along the surface of the frozen lake. Inside, a handful of rosy-cheeked passengers are pedaling their hearts out. The shanty’s skipper keeps the little icehouse on its snowplowed track by manipulating a rudder-like steering apparatus. His first mate is feeding small pieces of cedar shake into the miniscule wood-burning stove that warms the shanty’s passengers and brings a snow-packed teakettle to whistle.

The Mobile Home Shanty circumnavigates the 2008 Art Shanty Projects, a curated community of 20 artist shacks humbly populating a small section of Medicine Lake, just outside Minneapolis. Along its route, the mobile shanty passes a monolithic shanty comprised of inward-facing refrigerator doors, a shanty with clear plastic walls insulated with castoff stuffed animals, a menacing 20-foot robot shanty, an ice museum, a radio station, and a camera obscura.

At the heart of this makeshift community is a small, piecemeal shack sporting a bold, red letter A and a sign proudly exclaiming Auto Ethnographic Guide Service HQ.

Inside is Peter Haakon Thompson, who started the Art Shanty Projects together with fellow artists David Pitman, Kari Reardon, and Alex DeArmond with a single shanty back in 2004. The idea: to transform the traditional ice-fishing shack into a public art space. That year, the team had about 30 visitors, mostly friends and other artists.

The following year, the team was awarded an art show through the Soap Factory gallery, involving ten projects created by 20 different artists on the lake during the winter. The team put out a small press release, and much to their surprise, 300 people showed up the first day — one of the coldest days in 70 years, around –36°F.

For the 20 teams selected each year to participate, the only limitations are the temporary nature of the exhibit, extreme conditions, respect for the lake, small grants, and state and county regulations for fish houses (they must have at least three walls, a door that opens from the outside, and at least two square inches of reflective material on each side). The rest is up to their imaginations and resourcefulness.

“It’s like forts for adults,” says Thompson.

Thompson believes that the real magic of the project comes in pushing not only the artists but also their art out of their studios, galleries, and

disciplines, and challenging them to be more inspirational and engaging to the bundled-up families, ice fishermen, and occasional game warden who come to visit.

Near what looks to be a crashed plane, the residents of S.U.R.V.I.V.A.L. Shanty (Serious Undertakings Regarding Visionary Investigations into the Vital Attributes of Longevity) are improvising a workshop on the aesthetics of improvised shelters.

Nearby, a shanty built out of green chalkboard quakes in response to the Drawing While Dancing workshop that’s taking place within. A stunningly handcrafted wooden fish breaks through the ice just feet away from the line of people waiting for the Norae Karaoke Shanty. And the Mobile Home Shanty picks up a new group of inhabitants, and lazily (as seen from the outside, at least) takes another lap.

Find the annual Art Shanty Projects on Medicine Lake from mid-January through mid-February. Come on the weekend. Plan on spending the afternoon. Dress warmly.

» For a list of the 2009 shanties and more information, visit artshantyprojects.org.