It’s not every art installation that instructs visitors to take small steps like a penguin. Then again, there’s nothing quite like the Art Shanty Projects, in which intrepid Minnesota artists in insulated jumpsuits and ice cleats annually recreate traditional ice fishing huts, called shanties, in their own eccentric style on a frozen lake in Minneapolis.
The structures they dream up — such as a “Hot Box Disco Inferno” wrapped in space blankets, with a pulsating LED floor — draw thousands of visitors to a temporary public space resembling a Burning Man on ice.
This year, it was thin ice.
The idea that 19 artists’ shanties would rise on Lake Harriet — Bde’ Unma in the Dakota language — for this three-weekend event was never a foregone conclusion. A cold snap in late November followed by a balmy early January and then subzero temperatures led to wildly inconsistent and potentially dangerous ice conditions on many of the state’s famed 10,000 lakes. Already this winter there have been four fatalities from people driving vehicles onto the ice. In late December, more than 100 people had to be rescued from an ice floe that broke free from a fishing area on a northern Minnesota lake.
But on Jan. 27, for Art Shanty’s opening, there was a miraculous 13 inches of solid ice on Harriet, and some 10,000 people showed up on ice skates, fat tire bicycles and sleds packed with bundled little ones to commune with zany interactive huts.
Then, this week, March-like temperatures wreaked havoc on the event, leading its organizers to conclude that the lake was no longer safe for crowds. On Thursday they ended the program. Moving the structures to shore, which is snowless and muddy, was not an option.
“It was 52 degrees yesterday,” Erin Lavelle, the artistic director of the projects, lamented, “and 32 degrees at 5 a.m. — but only for two hours. We didn’t want to be in an emergency situation.” The artists, wearing life jackets, began dismantling huts one by one.
At least two other cultural events and numerous ice-fishing tournaments were also called off because of rising temperatures.
Diminishing ice has become status quo in Minnesota. Winters have warmed five to six degrees since 1970, “one of the strongest signatures of climate change,” said Kenneth Blumenfeld, a senior climatologist with the state’s Department of Natural Resources. The current spike, with 40- to 50-degree highs, is because of natural El Niño weather patterns on top of human-caused climate change, he said.
“We see where things are headed, so there’s a bittersweet edge to our festival,” said Kate Nordstrum, the artistic director of a concurrent event called the Great Northern, whose partner organization, U.S. Pond Hockey Championships — which draws players from as far as Belgium — was canceled because of water on the ice.
To safely accommodate the shanty village and visitors, county officials required that lake ice be at least 10 inches thick. Right after New Year’s, Lavelle began drilling a hole in the ice and sticking her bare arm into the frigid depths, assessing the results. On Jan. 18, Lavelle postponed the event one week, and the much-awaited day when the ice was smooth and pristine finally arrived last weekend. “I think I’m the only artistic director in the country wielding an ice auger,” she said of a tool resembling a giant corkscrew.
Among the highlights of opening weekend were “Klezmer on Ice,” where spectators danced the hora without slipping. Then there was “Fro-Gahhh,” the opposite of hot yoga, in which the ice was strewed with colorful mats and yogis in hats and boots, who downward-dogged, their breaths visible in the cold.
At the center of the erstwhile village square stood a bright red hut from “shantiquity,” a re-creation of the original shanty — part clubhouse, part art studio — built 20 years ago by the artists David Pitman and Peter Haakon Thompson on a lake west of Minneapolis. In keeping with the Art Shanty Projects’ D.I.Y. aesthetic, the insulating walls were made from gym mats recycled from Minneapolis public schools, with Covid barriers for windows.
“Frozen lakes are beautiful, desolate places where you wouldn’t expect to find art,” Thompson said. The artists’ mission was to engage viewers as active participants; more than half of the project’s $200,000 annual budget typically comes from visitor donations and goes toward paying the artists. Those funds are now in jeopardy, organizers said.
Like snowflakes, which were conspicuously absent, no two shanties were alike, each built over ski-shaped boards that allow them to be moved close to shore when fickle conditions prevail. “Folks park their sense of propriety at the lake’s edge,” said Robin Garwood, a 44-year-old printmaker and installation artist who was on his fourth shanty. Called “NatureGrafter,” it was a homage to the Minnesota wild, with images of animals, plants and aquatic life handsomely wood-burned onto boards.
Garwood, who has canoed the length of the Mississippi River solo, an odyssey that lasted 84 days, has a deep reverence for his home ground, and the winter that is part of a Minnesotan’s identity. But he is gradually accepting the inevitable. “We can’t depend on having reliable winter ice in Minnesota,” he said. “We stand to lose a lot of things we love about our state.”
Some of the shanties’ themes had presciently focused on the warming planet. In one, named “A Poem for Entangled Living,” a young team of environmental activist-printmakers crafted a pyramid with seesawing arms meant to suggest a world out of balance. Visitors added their own pithy quotes and images. The idea was to “engage with climate grief,” said Dio Cramer, 26, one of its creators.
Young architects gravitated to shanties too, a very different exercise than the stereotypical one of designing a first house for one’s parents. In an effort bristling with cleverness, four master’s degree graduates from the University of Minnesota College of Design built a hut from construction waste that doubled as a xylophone, incorporating a dismantled chain-link fence and sawed-off struts from a metal bed frame. They distributed xylophone mallets to those waiting in line.
Jerry Carlson, an emergency medical technician, helped his family create a mock “Banned Books Reading Room” with crocheted blankets, a fake fireplace and shelves lined with banned volumes, and paper flames inserted into the pages. Among them were E.B. White’s classic “Charlotte’s Web” (banned by a Kansas school district) and Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” (banned in at least two states).
Carlson grew up ice-fishing, a hallowed tradition in the Upper Midwest, where anglers typically pursue perch and walleye (and are often fortified by alcohol). Before current vexing conditions, most Minnesota lakes were dotted with colorful shanties, and sometimes custom R.V.s with underwater cameras that project fish strikes onto 65-inch flat screens, a phenomenon captured on the YouTube series “Show Us Your Shanty!”
On Wednesday, he said, a man in an A.T.V. misjudged conditions and rolled his four-wheeler onto what he thought was solid ice. Before his vehicle sank into frigid open water, he was rescued by Carlson’s E.M.T. colleagues.
So this Sunday’s nighttime stroll through lit ice sculptures — including the Icecropolis and Icehenge — has been moved to land. “It’s a struggle to keep them from melting,” said Claire Wilson, executive director of the Loppet Foundation, a group dedicated to getting people out in nature.
While they still could, the Outdoor Painters of Minnesota set up their easels, capturing greens and blues in the ice-scape that perhaps only their artists’ eyes could discern. The shanties were pops and flecks of color in the distance. “It’s a dynamic environment,” said Jack Dant, a product development engineer who paints for pleasure. “Every time you look up it’s different.”
Mikha Dominguez, 36, who moved from Caracas, Venezuela, to teach Spanish and Portuguese at the Concordia Language Villages in Bemidji, Minn., had infused his shanty with a fever dream of a tropical paradise brimming with blossoming trees. He built “La Casa de los Sueños de Colores” (“the House of Dreams of Color”) with his German husband, Alexander Aleman. Last weekend, Dominguez fit right in, dressed as a billowing psychedelic puffer fish that enveloped most of his face. (“Listen,” he told a reporter, “it’s keeping me warm, OK?”)
On Thursday, he dejectedly dismantled the shanty, which was in about three inches of water. “It felt like a humid summer morning with steam coming off the lake,” he muttered about the warming trend.
Still he was grateful that their shanty paradise had had two days of life. “I think land is more predictable,” Dominguez said. “But there’s power and beauty on the lake.”