Ice ice baby: Art Shanty Projects celebrate 20 years on Minnesota lakes

A red shanty sits on a frozen lake
Art Shanty #1 stands on the frozen surface of Lake Harriet. From Jan. 27 to Feb. 11, the frozen lake becomes a temporary arts community with about 20 shanties.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

In the winter of 2004, something funny was afoot on Medicine Lake.

There were ice fishing houses like always. But on the frozen lake, away from the fishing holes, was another shanty. This one was made with shiny red vinyl, a circle window and a wood sign hanging from the door that said “The Poet is In.”

An art shanty
"I had been talking with a couple of friends and was trying to convince them that we should build this shanty, that we were going to put on Medicine Lake for the winter as our sort of fort-clubhouse-art studio," artist Peter Haakon Thompson says of the original art shanty, pictured here in 2004.
Courtesy of Peter Haakon Thompson

The inhabitants weren’t fishing. Instead, they hosted birthday parties and built a heart-shaped ice skating rink for Valentine’s Day. They had a sleepover and screened the icy horror flick “The Thing.”

This was the first-ever Art Shanty, created by local artists Peter Haakon Thompson and David Pitman.

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“I had been talking with a couple of friends and was trying to convince them that we should build this shanty that we were going to put on Medicine Lake for the winter as our sort of fort-clubhouse-art studio,” recalls Thompson.

An ice shanty on the lake
The shanty that started it all: Artist Peter Haakon Thompson with the first art shanty in 2004 on Medicine Lake.
Courtesy of Peter Haakon Thompson

“Just the creativity of what the possibilities were, were endless,” Pitman adds. “As we’ve sort of seen 20 years later.”

Twenty years later, one shanty has become a village, and a circle of artist friends became an arts nonprofit — Art Shanty Projects —  annually programming two weeks of free art events on ice.

Now on Lake Harriet, Jan. 27 to Feb. 11, the frozen lake becomes a temporary arts community with about 20 shanties, each with a different theme, which host live performances, yoga sessions, and a polar bear (“Lady Bear”) that walks the grounds

A movie screening on a lake
A movie screening in the early days of the Art Shanty Projects.
Courtesy of Peter Haakon Thompson

This year, Lavelle says they expect around 27,000 visitors and 2024 art shanties include a “disco inferno” for dancing, “Thakápsicapi” for Native lacrosse playing and the “three-ring goose circus.”

And to mark the 20th anniversary of the little red shack, the Art Shanty Projects team has recreated it, calling it Art Shanty #1.

“I had been going through old photos,” says Erin Lavelle, the artistic director for Art Shanty Projects. “And the picture of the original shanty is just so iconic — our logo is modeled after it — and we just thought, you know what, to celebrate the 20th, let’s go back to our roots, back to the origin where it all started. Let’s recreate this.” 

Three people in an art shanty
Recreating Art Shanty #1 in the Ivy Arts Building in South Minneapolis. From left to right, Art Shanty Projects artistic director Erin Lavelle and artists Tony Chapin and Richard Parnell.
Alex V. Cipolle | MPR News

Lavelle wanted to bring in new artists to activate the classic shanty, so she tapped Richard Parnell and Tony Chapin, both based in Minneapolis and longtime shanty artists. During December and January, they rebuilt Art Shanty #1 in the Ivy Arts Building in South Minneapolis, using photos of the original as a guide. 

The original shanty was built with found materials and red-vinyl-covered plywood lifted from a Walker Art Center dumpster, says Thompson. 

“In the spirit of the way they had built theirs, we repurposed a lot of materials,” Parnell says. Parnell volunteers in public schools so had access to gymnastic floor mats and plexiglass COVID shields that were being thrown out. The floor mats are now insulation and the shields are windows.

A person with flippy lens glasses
Art Shanty Projects artistic director Erin Lavelle watches as artists begin installing their shanties on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“We adjusted a few things like we made a slant to the roof so snow can come off,” Chapin says. 

They also added skylights and larger doors to the 8-by-8-foot structure.

“When they did it, they just had a group of artists inside basically doing various activities,” Parnells says. “But we’re going to be having users, thousands of users, coming through, and they’ll get to sort of experience what that original shanty was like.”

Thompson and Pitman, who are no longer officially involved with the event, say they are excited to see the shanty recreated, and the art shanty village flourishing two decades on.

Two people stand on a frozen lake
Richard Parnell and Tony Chapin install Art Shanty #1 on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

“I don’t think either of us anticipated that it would be something that would continue hardly for any time at all,” Thompson says.

Pitman, Thompson says, was the force behind making Art Shanty Projects the public event it is today. And that creativity and drive was — and is — fueled by the fact that building codes on a frozen lake are more lax than on land.

“What really excited me was seeing all these other people coming up with ideas for similar things within the limitations that were kind of set in this unregulated land,” Pitman says.

“Relatively unregulated,” Thompson adds, laughing. (The Hennepin County Sheriff’s Office Water Patrol board and the Department of Natural Resources require permits.)

In 2005, Pitman reached out to the now-defunct Soap Factory art center to sponsor. For the second annual event, they put out an open call for artists.

“From the very beginning, our idea was that this was open to anyone that wanted to say that they were an artist,” Thompson says. “Even our early call was like, ‘Artists, fisher people, scientists.’”

In the following years, Pitman would create a drive-in movie theater shanty — “the Monoplex” — and a radio station shanty. Thompson’s parents created a knitting shanty one year, and the event hosted a parade of art cars.

The growing art village hopped from Medicine Lake to White Bear Lake and now Lake Harriet, and has had a few evacuations due to melting ice. In 2023, Art Shanty Projects moved it ashore for “Plan Beach.” 

For the 20th anniversary, the Minneapolis gallery Modus Locus has collected “shantiquities” for a retrospective exhibition.

Today, the Art Shanty Projects is sometimes jokingly referred to as “Burning Man on Ice.”

“I’ve always been rankled by the whole Burning Man, Frozen Man comparison,” Thompson says. The ever-expanding Nevada festival has become infamous for its impact on the environment.  With the art shanties, Thompson says, “We’ve followed this ‘Leave No Trace’ ethos on the ice.”

Two people embrace
Art Shanty Projects artistic director Erin Lavelle and artist Richard Parnell embrace as they begin installing art shanties on Lake Harriet in Minneapolis.
Ben Hovland | MPR News

The goal: “How do we share this really beautiful and semi-desolate and inhospitable place with other people, but not necessarily turn it into something that just takes over that space and makes it entirely different than what it is inherently.”

“We were wrestling with what was our footprint on the ice,” Pitman adds. “We found these boundaries on the lake that we needed to keep so it didn’t encroach on the rest of what people were using the lake for.”

Unlimited growth of the event is not the goal. Lavelle says the number of shanties will always be around 20.

Pitman and Thompson hope that folks take the idea of an art shanty with them wherever they are. 

“An art shanty is just a state of mind,” Thompson says.

“It is, it is,” Pitman adds, laughing and nodding.

“I still want to see people just sort of making their own art shanties that they put on their own lake, wherever they are,” Thompson says, “and use it for their own sort of fun activities with their friends and community.”

This activity is made possible in part by the Minnesota Legacy Amendment’s Arts & Cultural Heritage Fund.