Phenomenal absurdity: Art Shanty Projects return to Medicine Lake

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Cold weather hardiness is a virtue in this state.

Many Minnesotans also take pride in their patronage of the arts, which makes a visit to the 2009 Art Shanty Projects a kind of two-birds-with-one-stone opportunity for proving your North Star State bona fides.

Arrive at Medicine Lake in Plymouth on cross-country skis or snowshoes — or at least in a vehicle bearing critical habitat license plates — and you score 100 percent on your Minnesota citizenship test.

The ambient air temperature at Medicine Lake (just a 15-minute drive from Uptown) was around -2 degrees Fahrenheit the morning of Jan. 24. Factor in the wind whipping across its frozen surface and it pretty much felt like a million below.

(If you can’t make it to Medicine Lake before Art Shanty Projects closes Feb. 14 but still want to share the experience by proxy, stick your head in a bag of ice cubes. Then go to www.swjournal.com and watch a video shot on the lake in January. You’ll feel like you’re there.)

Despite the ice-pick-to-the-face effect of the wind chill, it was nice and toasty inside Le Depanneur de la Front de Liberation Quebecois, an ice shanty assembled by Lyndale neighborhood’s Art of This Gallery. No heating element was required; the well-insulated shack was kept plenty warm by the sunshine pouring in the windows.

Art of This members Daniel Palahniuk and David Peterson were keeping their energy up by munching on some ketchup-flavored potato chips, a favorite snack north of the border.

Another Canadian treat, poutine — French fries and cheese curds slathered with white gravy — was set to hit the buffet table at 1 p.m., just around 90 minutes from then.

Consider it Method acting, not mindless snacking. Palahniuk and Peterson were playing the part of French-Canadian separatists running a convenience store somewhere in frozen Quebec, an act Peterson said combined "political theater, absurdist mercantilism and high-cholesterol foods."

Yum.

It’s high concept delivered with a tongue between the molars. Peterson compared the Quebec separatists’ dreamed-of independent state to Medicine Lake’s "autonomous shanty town, separate from any local municipality."

"We’re on land that doesn’t really exist for more than three months of the year," he said.

True. But as for autonomy, well, we’ll see what the city of Plymouth has to say about that.

Art Shanty Projects is in its sixth year on Medicine Lake and continues to draw weekend crowds even in the midst of what natives like to call "a real Minnesota winter."

As usual, there are a number of artists who live and work in Southwest out on the frozen water. The location, about 10 highway miles from Lake Calhoun, makes it a convenient outing for Southwest residents fighting cabin fever.

The Heigles, a family of four from New Hope, had an even shorter drive. Cindy and Greg Heigle bundled up their boys Peter and Jacob and spent the morning going from shanty to shanty.

"Last week, we were up at Lake of the Woods ice fishing, and so we thought why not check out some other ice fishing?" Greg Heigle said.

(In case you were wondering: Yes, some ice fishing does go on every year, although it takes a back seat to the art making, generally.)

In true Minnesota fashion, Greg Heigle described the temperature as "not too bad."

"That’s why you buy the gear," he said, his chuckle muffled by the fleece scarf wrapped around his face. "Use it."

That’s good advice. Visitors need to dress in layers if they plan to spend much time on the ice.

There’s plenty to see this year. A Paper Shanty is ingeniously insulated with cardboard. One of the most creative constructions is the U.S.S. Walter Mondale, a shanty in the shape of a nuclear submarine breaching the ice.

Bring a swimsuit and climb into Sweat & Drink, Inc., a fully functional sauna shanty whose operators also use their oven to distill potable water from snow. Take in a show at the Black Box Theater Shanty, which hosts live music and performances every weekend. (The theater’s maximum capacity is limited by the number of people wearing bulky, down-filled winter coats.)

The Third Level must be among the tallest ice-fishing structures ever built, and offers a wonderful perch to take in the full scope of art shanty activities.

Peter Sowinski was on the team of artists who built a two-story shack last winter and invited anglers to drop in a line from the top. When they realized how much visitors simply enjoyed being high up, they expanded to three stories and added an observation deck this year.

A three-year veteran of the Art Shanty Projects, Sowinski said there’s nothing quite like January on Medicine Lake.

"It’s a pretty phenomenal community of people," he said. "And the absurdity of the entire scenario … you just can’t get anything else like it in the Cities."

There’s a lot more to see and, really, the cold is bearable. Take it from Brittny Burton, a San Diego native who moved here to attend Minneapolis College of Art and Design (MCAD).

"It’s a little different from the beach but still good," Burton said as she and two MCAD classmates huddled in The Third Level. "The shanties are warm."

Go see it
The Art Shanty Projects run through Feb. 14 on Medicine Lake in Plymouth. Shacks are open on weekends, with limited additional events scheduled on Wednesday and Friday nights. For a listing of artists and art shanties, calendar of events and directions, visit www.artshantyprojects.org.