Grumpy old artists

Artists transform the ol’ Minnesota ice fishing tradition into something not involving Muskies.

Sara Nicole Miller

Even on the most crisp of days, the recently frozen waters of Medicine Lake stretch out in lumpy sheets of pale ice, contouring around a speckled perimeter of barren trees, boat docks and distant lake houses. The air is blurry and still.

Yet near the beach, shards of colored wood, oblong silver huts and geometric infusions of raw materials protrude out from the icy lake’s surface, disrupting the stagnant white fuzziness of the landscape. Clusters of bundled up human bodies gather near the shapely, jarring shelters. Laughter emanates from the area.

Ice fishing is a most unique pastime for those who reside in the high latitudinal places of the world. Cut from the same cultural cloth as Friday night fish fries and “you betcha” dialects, it celebrates a bone-chilling fondness for cold weather, freshwater marine life and, most of all, the shelters which house its participants.

However, this odd temporary village on Medicine Lake is not your average ice fishing encampment.

Now in its fourth year, the Art Shanty Projects has tickled the shores of Medicine Lake, entertained hundreds of visitors and has given traditional wintertime fishery activities a run for their money.

Photographer Peter Haakon Thompson is the man behind the Art Shanty vision. He wanted to build a shanty-like fort away from home, a place to play cards and such in an austere outdoor environment. He shared his ideas at a local artist’s talk, and caught the attention of artist David Pitman. They built their first ice shanty in 2004.

Pitman, a local artist with a history of community-based art, is taking a temporary hiatus from his usual means of artistic expression to engage in more large scale projects like the Art Shanty. “I’m a painter, but I’m mad at painting right now,” Pitman said. The Art Shanty Projects allow him to engage in a refreshing, three-dimensional construction project with limitless opportunities for unregulated creativity.

“When you’re building a house, pretty much down to where you put the screw is predetermined by a code, versus when you’re building out on the lake – man, the only thing that you’re up against is Mother Nature and common sense,” Pitman explained. “So you’re sort of free to be able to do and build things in different ways.”

Inspired by a love for nature, unregulated lake tops, and a dying sense of community utopia, the two artists teamed up with the Soap Factory in 2005 for logistical help. Since the Soap Factory has no winter programming (due to no indoor heating systems), they decided to partner on the project.

The exhibition, which began on January 13, is a five week jubilee of crafts, science, performance art and anything-goes exploration. More than 60 artists are participating in the project, and each shanty offers up its own unique artistic undertaking.

“It’s a little social experiment, I guess you could say,” said Gabe Welker, the self-described lead anthrax inspector of the Postal Shanty.

Every year, Pitman said, someone makes a token effort to try their hand at ice fishing, in honor of the shanty’s utilitarian roots. However, most of the shanties aren’t equipped to facilitate ice fishing. In fact, the Art Shanty Projects are set up away from the fruitful ice fishing areas so they don’t impede on prime lake-top real estate.

On opening day, the ice was crackling with hundreds of curious visitors, sliding and cascading their way across the ice, eager to peek their heads into one of the village’s 20 or so shanties. An art car taxi service – complete with a wine cork-covered vehicle and an alligator car – was set up in the shore side parking lot.

At 3 p.m., a patchwork six-piece marching band, led by the comically effervescent Medicine Lake Gentlemen’s Research Society chairman-elect Andy Sturdevant, summoned the crowd for a brief historical ice-capade tour. Armed with a brochure diagram of the lake and corresponding historical events, the crowd listened as Sturdevant pontificated about saucy, moustached French voyageurs, a muskie attack on a boy’s arm and the Methodists and Ukrainian actresses who once called the shores of Medicine Lake home.

This year, Pitman has turned his looming fish house into a low watt radio station and “drive-in” movie headquarters. K-ICE, as the station is appropriately titled, broadcasts from a low watt transmitter (tuned to 97.7 dial) with a motherboard computer inside the shanty. The technical guts of K-ICE are actually housed in a cooler on wheels, with battery power that allows Pitman to broadcast audio pleasantries from different places on the ice.

Pitman’s station is far from your average regulated radio frequency. “I don’t play Johnny Cash. I just play someone singing Johnny Cash in the Norae Shanty,” he laughs. The Norae Shanty, created by artist Michael Hoyt, houses a miniature karaoke bar.

All artists seem to carry an air of noble bravado about their respective shanties. Like highly devotional participants of the Great Lakes region equivalent of the Burning Man Festival, they carry their pride (and their apple cider and Black Label) for all to see.

“The audience is coming out here and experiencing something,” Pitman said. “It isn’t your Uptown Art Fair; it’s not your gallery opening. It’s just like you go out and have these odd experiences of singing karaoke inside of a shanty with strangers or see a puppet play performed with fire out on a frozen lake.”

Although the activities are worthy of a rhapsody all their own, what really keeps the artist folk coming back, week after week, fighting frostbite and initial warnings of thin ice, is the sense of camaraderie and creativity that comes from stretching the boundaries of the everyday living experience.

“It’s a very Minnesotan thing,” said Minnesota College of Art and Design M.F.A candidate Angela Zammarelli, who cheerfully handed out glittery white cloth cut-outs of Medicine Lake for visitors to pin on their coats. Her and fellow student/artist Molly Roth sat cross-legged in the Soft Lake Shanty, their smiling faces peering out from flowing folds of colorful scarves and winter caps. “People are in the cold, making the most of it,” Zammarelli said.

Shanty Guide

The Soft Lake Shanty

Inspired by both old school arts and crafts and the natural contour of Medicine Lake, the Soft Lake Shanty invites visitors to pin hand crafted felt objects onto a large, felt version of the lake. They also relish the activity of tracing bodies onto the ice out of natural materials.

Artists: Adam Collignon, Molly Roth and Angela Zammarelli

Rendezvous Café

This uncanny café, which derives its name from the once-held meetings of yesteryear’s fur voyageurs, offers a stellar selection of winter beverages and sweet treats. The refreshments are free, but there are strings attached: visitors must either write or record (via K-ICE) a tale of the Minnesota water-related variety.

Artists: Monica Sheets and Jane Powers

The Shanty of Misfit Toys

The sheer, plastic walls are insulated with unwanted toys from a local toy factory. The family friendly shanty provides an intriguing commentary on throw-away culture, the materialism of parenting and the joy of toy sharing (as some of the toys used will be sent to orphanages in Siberia and the Philippines).

Artists: Karen Kasel, Willie Pike, Marlaine Cox and Kurt Allis

Norae Shanty

This shanty gets its name from the Korean karaoke sensation rooms, called “Norae bangs.” Inside is a miniature version of a karaoke bar, where even the most timid of performers can comfortably belt out show tunes among a small group of supportive (or vicious) peers.

Artist: Michael Hoyt

Postal Shanty

Don’t let the Pepto Bismol-colored walls and charming nearby loiterers fool you: this shanty is a real post office. Come in and send crafty mail to anywhere in the world from atop the frozen waters. All you need is pocket change for postage stamps.

Artists: Jes Schrom, Robert Marbury, Brian Lesteberg and Gabe Welker

Knitting Shanty

A cozy, egalitarian circle of chairs, friendly faces, knitting needles and piles of colorful yarn. What more could one possibly need?

Artists: Bob and Marilyn Thompson