In a crowded garage in south Minneapolis, a new winter driving season screeches into existence. After a couple of misfires on the controller, a small red car skitters to life and shoots off the end of the table.
“Woah!” someone calls out. “Down boy! Down!”
These guys are more artists than they are gearheads, however. Their work will help kick off this weekend’s frozen festivities on Lake Harriet when the Art Shanty Projects return after a one-year hiatus.
For the next month, visitors can enjoy the installations and performances presented by more than 100 artists. And every Sunday, it will feature the “world’s only tiny art car parade on ice.”
"I got a whole bunch of stuff: hot glue and glue guns," Duane Tougas said as he worked on his car. "I got eyeballs if you need eyeballs," he said, pulling out a bagful.
"Yeah, every Sunday at noon until all the cars die," said Jan Elftmann. "I mean not die, but you know, batteries go."
If there is such a person as the doyenne of the local art car community, it's Elftmann. She's better known to many as the “Cork Truck Lady.” Her wine cork-covered pickup has been a fixture on Twin Cities roads for nearly 30 years.
On this particular day, the truck was in the shop, but it was represented by a cork-covered Barbie Corvette.
Big art cars became part of the Art Shanty Projects about 16 years ago, she said. Back then, the shanties were on Medicine Lake. One day, Elftmann and her fellow art car enthusiasts received an invitation to just drop by.
"And I think they had one shanty," she recalled. "They had mostly sculptures and ladders coming out of the frozen lake. All illegal stuff, they didn't know it at the time. And we were hooked! We were like, 'OK, that's it! We are part of the art shanties.'"
That participation took many forms. They did a parade with the full-sized art cars, resplendent in their idiosyncratic decoration.
They offered a free art car taxi service from the shore to the shanties, although Elftmann said some people were afraid to ride out on a lake in a car. Or maybe it was specifically they were afraid to rise in and art car.
Some years, they made food and drinks. Over the years the event moved, too.
"They went from Medicine Lake, to White Bear Lake, and then they went to Lake Harriet," she said.
That’s where they ran into a challenge.
"Lakes in the city don't allow vehicles on them,” said Elftmann. “And so, all of a sudden we were like, 'Oh no! Now what are we going to do?' And we had the brainstorm of, ‘Hey, tiny art cars! Remote-controlled art cars.’”
So that's what they did two years ago. And that's where they learned a bunch of lessons.
Outside on an ice-covered walkway Tougas puts his radio-controlled monster truck, now freshly decorated with rhinestones, through its paces. It's got tall wheels. They learned their first time around to put as much space as possible between the tiny art car and battery-killing ice.
Inside the garage, some of the crew painted a wooden bridge that will be part of a cloth covered track, which may make it easier to control the vehicles.
The crew also learned to make sure the radio controllers were powerful enough. If they aren't, cars may pick up other signals and zoom off in the wrong direction. It happened two years ago “and there was just chaos," Elftmann said, then paused and smiled. "And so it's super fun!"
Standing on the ice at Lake Harriet, Arts Shanty Projects artistic director Erin Lavelle said she loves how the art car parade has reinvented itself for Minneapolis.
"It's so dynamic and dramatic to see that on the frozen lake. The white ground and the sunny blue sky and then these crazy little art cars going around," she said.
Anyone is welcome to bring along their own vehicle for the parade. It’s a good introduction to art car making, and far less of a commitment of doing a real car, Elftmann said. They will have some extra vehicles if people just want to take one for a spin.
Correction (Jan. 19, 2020): A previous version of this story incorrectly identified a past location of the Art Shanty Projects. The event started on Medicine Lake.