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Making the Most of a Frozen Lake: Minnesota's Art Shanty Projects 

by Jay Gabler

An aerial view of a frozen lake dotted with small, colorful, handmade shelters and small groups of people. There is a line of people walking towards it dressed in winter gear, holding car-shaped costumes around their hips.
Photo Credit: Max Haynes
The 2022 Art Shanty Village near the shore of Bdé Umáŋ, Lake Harriet in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

Frozen lakes dotted with ice fishing shanties are a familiar sight during Midwest winters. In 2004, two Minnesota artists decided to use the milieu as a jumping-off point for creativity and community. Since then, the Art Shanty Projects have been coming to terms with climate change.

The word “shanty” doesn’t evoke a lot of positive associations — unless, that is, you’re living in a place where bodies of water regularly freeze over. Across the Upper Midwest, wintertime sees ice shanties pop up on lakes’ solid surfaces to shelter people as they auger holes and drop fishing lines. 

Embracing that spirit of ephemerality, Minnesota’s Art Shanty Projects invite people out onto the ice each winter to experience pop-up villages of creative whimsy. 

In recent years, Art Shanties have included a Chapsicle of Love, with a Universal Life Minister standing by to perform ceremonies that could be legally binding or just for fun. Inside a Rock Box shanty, DJs and live performers created a cool soundtrack. (“Doors 10 a.m. — all ages show!”) One shanty used consumer plastic waste as sculptural material to “invoke the aquatic life” below. 

The annual Art Shanty experiences aren’t just about what’s inside the boxes, though: the shanty towns are month-long community gathering places hosting the likes of theatrical performances, environmental education programs, jazz dance on ice skates, and all-around silliness. 

The projects’ genesis was in 2004, when artists David Pitman and Peter Haakon Thompson created a single shanty just west of Minneapolis on Medicine Lake. By the following year, the project had grown to 11 shanties — then, the next year, 25. Ultimately, the projects settled on Lake Harriet in the heart of South Minneapolis. Partnering with various arts organizations and funders, each year’s organizers curate a mix of physical installations and creative programming. 

There’s nothing else quite like the Art Shanty Projects, which epitomize Midwesterners’ determination to make the most of a strongly seasonal climate. One artist said that the 2022 project “was like a group polar plunge while wearing glitter tutus; a slightly insane and dazzling experiment in thickening communal connections as collective immunity against the harshness of winter and the real insanity of our shared pandemic/climate crisis reality.” 

There’s no escaping that reality, even on a lake that’s frozen — or, that should be. Organizers have a “Plan Beach” to execute when ice conditions are unsafe, which is increasingly a problem as winters gradually warm. The Art Shanties have confronted global warming head-on, with projects like one in which a group of “fashion disasters” paraded across the ice in outfits evoking different climate catastrophes. 

Dawn Bentley, who led the projects from 2014 to 2017, wrote a 2019 op-ed in MinnPost, recounting her struggles to sustain the project amidst unreliable ice conditions. “The arts are telling us a story about this particular time,” she wrote, “one that we must listen to.”