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A Festival on a Frozen Lake: The Art Shanty Projects of Minnesota

article-imageThe rolling Pedal Bear at Art Shanty Projects (all photographs by the author)

Atlas Obscura’s recent article on the historic Thames Frost Fair, where a festival was held on London’s frozen Thames River, brought a smile to this Minnesotan’s face. Up on the North Coast, we take winter seriously — and we bring our celebrations outdoors. We have the St. Paul Winter Carnival, created in 1886 as an indignant response to a New York journalist who reported that St. Paul was “another Siberia, unfit for human habitation in the winter.” International Falls, where you really can see Canada from your house, has hosted Ice Box Days every winter for nearly 35 years. Pranksters in the small North Shore town of Finland came up with St. Urho Day, in honor of a made-up saint to counter that Irish legend, St. Patrick.

In recent years, a new tradition has gained traction: the Art Shanty Projects. The art shanties got their start in 2004, when local artist Peter Haakon Thompson put up a shack similar to an ice fishing house on Medicine Lake in the Twin Cities and used it as an art installation with film screenings, ice skating, and sleepovers. The lone shack was enough of a success that the following year, Thompson partnered with arts group the Soap Factory and put out a call for artists. From one shack came several, and now a shanty town that’s part sculpture park, part art residency, and part social experiment.

Within two years, the group honed its jury selection process, secured an additional partnership with MN Artists, received funding from the McKnight Foundation, and became a full-fledged winter art installation and festival, popular both within the arts community and with families (and people in general who suffered from cabin fever in February).

article-imageNoah’s Art Shanty

article-imageThe Dance Shanty

The simplicity of the projects rests partly in it being on a frozen lake — and away from forbidding building codes. The artists all choose their own theme, build their shacks to loose standards, and create activities and events. Some of the themes change every year, while others (like the Dance Shanty) return. In past years, there have been shanties were you could write your confession on a chalkboard, only to have your sin wiped away at the end of the day; an overturned rowboat was once used to recreate Ernest Shackleton’s South Pole expedition. There’s also been a tea shop shanty and a karaoke shanty.

This year (through February 23), the shanties moved to White Bear Lake, a suburb of St. Paul. Participants include a curling shanty (a tip of the hat to the Winter Olympics); Noah’s Art Shanty, where visitors can dig into sculpting clay; an elevator shanty, complete with a lobby and appropriate elevator music; a retail shanty, with items for sale that are frozen in ice, where the price to purchase doesn’t involve cash, but a series of questions from the proprietor; and, among many more, the Cook Yourself Kitchen, a sauna shanty.

article-imageThe Elevator Shanty

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Curling on the lake

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Jigsaw Shanty

Beyond the shanties themselves are the activities. A Pedal Bear, similar to a Pedal Pub, gives visitors the chance to work up a sweat while pedaling around the shanties while sheltered by a giant polar bear. Visitors can also have a Tarot reading, try Reiki, watch the Art Car Parade, or practice Snowga (winter yoga).

Unlike the Thames Frost Fair, the Art Shanty Project doesn’t tend to lead to wild drunken debauchery, but maybe that’s because the project’s slogan is: “Art Shanty Supporters Walk on Water.”

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