This ice is anything but vanilla

The Soap Factory’s Art Shanty Projects house good times on Medicine Lake

Erin Adler

This winter, as she has the past two, artist and real estate agent Keri Reardon spends her time on Medicine Lake in an 8-foot silver cube with portholes for windows, a trapdoor for fishing and a lime green interior for, um, decoration.

It’s been a good three years, she said, but she’s looking to sell. She’s spattered “open house” signs all over the area and handed out color fliers telling of the property’s amenities.

It’s hard to gauge whether Reardon, in her tiger snowmobile suit, is completely earnest about the sale ” and whether she’ll get any takers on the $2,999 price tag.

But then, the success of the shanty projects was unpredictable in itself. In 2004, Reardon and friend, photographer Peter Haaken Thompson, first set up their lone shanty on the frozen lake. This year, 29 other artists dwell there.

On the first bitterly cold Saturday in February, 18 shanties squat on the ice. Despite small square footage and seasonal limitations, each shack has a purpose in life ” to sing, to make toys, to knit. And the collective community the shanties create, coined “Shantytown” by several residents, has become greater than the sum of its parts.

Here, a tour of four of the structures and the artists who call them their one-room home with no thermostat:

The Noraebang Shanty
When Mike Hoyt talks about “ice” and Jay-Z, he’s not referring to the diamonds the rapper wears around his neck.

He’s talking about the kind that covers Medicine Lake in a 10-inch-thick sheet. And along with Jay-Z, he mentions Abba, Journey and Vanilla Ice.

The three are the most requested artists in Hoyt’s shanty, where untrained voices and music blare.

“There have been a lot of requests for ice songs,” he said.

Journey’s “Cold as Ice” and Vanilla Ice’s infamous “Ice Ice Baby” appear scrawled on small sheets of paper. Hoyt has hung the evidence of more than 250 songs sung here on his walls with red electrical tape.

He calls it the Noraebang Shanty; noraebang means “song room” in Korean.

“A group of us used to go to noraebangs when I was in Korea,” he said. “This ice house space reminded me of that nice group energy. I wanted to see how people out here connect as an Art Shanty community.”

Hoyt was an artist before he created this project ” he mostly paints and works in installation pieces.

“This is the first installation piece I’ve done where people have engaged in it over a portion of time,” he said. “It forced me to be here.”

Hoyt said that most of the visitors, who choose which song to sing from thousands on his laptop computer, have been “pretty tame.”

He remembers a 10-year-old girl and her father, though, who sang a duet to the Clash song “Train in Vain.”

“They both knew the words ” it was kind of a retro thing,” he said.

The Science Shanty
Graduate students Jacob Egge, Brett Nagle and Ed Hall have arguably the least attractive shanty on Medicine Lake. Although it’s among the largest, at 8 feet by 12 feet, its “roof” is a plain blue tarp and its wooden exterior is unadorned.

But the trio isn’t in this for aesthetics. They’ve set their house nearly 20 feet away from the nearest structure, and the interior boasts three microscopes and plenty of slides and cover slips.

Nagle, Egge and Hall are Ph.D. students at the University, and their fields of study include fish evolution, conservation biology and limnology.

This means they really like to talk about plankton.

“Lots of people are surprised that the algae in lakes is doing all the things it does in the summer, just at a much slower rate,” said Egge, pointing at a slide with lake water on it.

Hall agreed the lake is “pretty active” this time of year, with “a lot more mitochondria, more oxygen and biogeologic chemistry and carbon cycling going on,” he said, enthusiastically identifying daphnia under the microscope and praising them as “charismatic.”

Nagle has a more general reason for being on the lake with thousands of dollars worth of scientific equipment on loan from the University.

“The more people know about the environment, the better,” he said.

To obtain specimens, the team opens a trapdoor in the ice, where a jagged hole is cut through almost 10 inches of ice.

“We’re not trying to make it science versus art,” Hall said.

But if the question were posed, who would win?

“Science would win, of course,” he said.

The Knitting Shanty
Photographer Peter Haaken Thompson gets credit for the genesis of the Art Shanty Projects. But in a way the residents of the Knitting Shanty gave birth to the idea. It was built by Thompson’s mother and father, Marilyn and Bob, who are first-year Art Shanty participants and Medicine Lake residents.

The dome tops the round structure, and cream-color insulation covers the walls. On the inside, pliant strips of brightly painted wood encircle the space, mimicking the appearance of yarn, Marilyn said.

“Building things round is not the easiest,” said Bob, a University alumnus, who created the structure. “Lumber comes square.”

Bob built the structure for his wife and her friends who “love to knit,” she said, and wanted to teach others how to do it.

“We kind of thought, “Wool and knitting ” that’s how people learned to survive the winter for centuries,’ ” she said. “They wore their wool underwear from fall to spring.”

Marilyn said the “coolest thing” that’s happened on Medicine Lake was hosting a visitor from the Philippines.

“She sat down and learned to knit,” Marilyn said, pointing at a snake-like, multicolored strip of wool, composed of dozens of colors and textures of yarn and various stitches. It’s called the “Shanty Scarf,” she said, and it’s where newbie knitters learn the craft.

“She was really excited to be on the ice and in the cold,” Marilyn said.

And while Marilyn, her friends and visitors sit, they knit. The Knitting Shanty will donate finished blankets to Project Linus, which provides baby blankets to infants through Tubman Family Alliance.

Bob’s contribution ended with the shanty. He doesn’t knit, but does “hang out” there on weekends.

“I always say, man hath no greater love for his wife than to build her a knitting shanty,” he said.

The Vista Shanty
The wind chill dipped to 10 below zero and the Shantytown residents were more than a bit cold.

That is, until they entered University student Sarah Peterson’s Vista Shanty.

Vista visitors are invited to revel in the 70-degree warmth (solar heat rocks!), stretch out on the emerald green shag carpeting and enjoy the view, Peterson said.

Peterson and three friends assembled the structure ” an isosceles triangle ” inside the Soap Factory. Quito Ziegler, Sarah Peters and Kristen Murray also put together the light-filled space.

“We want people who come here to think, Wow, it’s really warm, it’s really cozy. I wanna stay here,” Peterson said. “The body gets to have a different experience.”

Other than that, the space is expectation-free; visitors are invited to “do nothing,” she said.

San Francisco visitor Janaki Ranpura, who was brought to the lake by a friend, said that the “do-nothing” aspect is part of what she likes about the Art Shanty projects.

“It’s fun to go to a place where there’s lots of strangers with free time,” she said, taking off her boots to reveal long underwear under her yellow plastic skirt.

Ranpura said that when she first heard about the “ice shanties” she thought they were actually carved out of ice.

“I really didn’t know what to expect when I came here, but each has an activity in which you can engage,” she said. “It’s very much an all-day activity.”