There are very few things more Minnesotan than an ice house. When the lakes freeze solid enough to drive a pickup on, across the state you can find small cabins popping up on the ice, solitary or in close groups. These are ice fishers, a particularly obsessive group of fishing aficionados, who drill holes in the ice to catch perch, walleyes, or even eelpout. Some are hardy enough simply squat on a bucket out on the lake, undefended from the driving wind or snow. Most, if they can manage it, prefer an ice house, from spare shacks to heated, opulent cabins complete with TVs . At least, so I’ve heard, I’ve never actually been. However, another group of people endemic to the Twin Cities has, for the last ten years or so, also been making the ice house their milieu; artists. The Art Shanty Projects has come to be one of the things I really look forward to in February. Moving from its previous home on Medicine Lake in New Hope, this year the Art Shanty’s have set up on White Bear Lake.
February 1st, 2014 was a perfect day, at least for February in Minnesota. Temperatures approaching a balmy 20, sunny in that Minnesota midwinter way, glare off of the ground covered in snow. We have had our share of both cold and snow this year, which I guess I find comforting. What better way to celebrate the snow than with a hot cup of tea and hanging out in ice houses? I could not think of anything better, so I set out for Verdant Tea on Franklin Avenue and the Art Shanty Project 2014, currently camped on White Bear Lake.
I was visiting my parents and we decided to take advantage of the fact that everyone had Saturday off to head off to the Art Shanty Project’s current home at White Bear Lake. Just like childhood, my sister and my mother and father left their house on the far edge of the western suburbs and piled into the mini-Van for a day out. On the way to that far flung suburb, we started with breakfast and tea at Verdant Tea at 2111 East Franklin Avenue. In spite of Mom and Dad’s long time coffee addiction, both my sister and I rebelled by becoming total tea snobs.
We’d been meaning to check out Minneapolis’ newest tea venue, intrigued by capitalizing on the local craze for craft beer by offering tasting flights of tea, and were not disappointed. I have been a loyal customer of the TeaSource (a later topic) for years, but I think that Verdant Tea is a worthy addition to the Twin Cities tea scene. The “tasting room” offers some good food in addition to a wide variety of loose leaf tea varieties. We were there for the “morning happy hour,” offered daily from 8-10 am, in which one can have a bowl of congee and a bottomless cup of hot tea, along with snacks, for less than $10 a person. The congee, a satisfying rice porridge, was delicious. Both gluten free and vegan, it is offered in both a gingery, coconut infused sweet version and an equally good savory version with plenty of shiitake and green onions. The tea, though, that was great, a rich black Chinese variety which tend to be my favorites. They offer such a wide variety of teas that I only just scratched the surface of on this visit and I will definitely attend one of the tea tasting events in the future. The location was open, airy, and comfortable and it looks just perfect for a book or writing group.
I have lived in the West Metro for most of my life, so I have rarely made the trip out past St. Paul into the eastern suburb of White Bear Lake. I think I can recall visiting only once before, at least 20 years ago. It seems like a nice town (in my experience, a bit like Hopkins) with a historic downtown featuring various shops and restaurants. But we were here for the art shanties.
The Art Shanty Projects 2014 was, as expected, great. We visited it in its last two years, 2010 and 2012 at its last location on Medicine Lake; an outdoor art installation celebrating the joy that is Minnesota in the winter. I know, I know, right? It’s great! Each shanty is put together by a different group of artists or other creative types, with a different theme or activity attached, from the profound to the absurd. There is so much imagination on display, suspended above a lake on a shelf of ice. The best part, they are totally hands on, inviting the visitors to interact and create as well, leaving their own marks upon the snowy little village. Walking up the plowed road to the art shanty village, it was hard for us to decide which direction to take on the circle of little houses, each promising a different idea or activity. While we did not get a chance to visit each of them, we experienced a lot of fun and interesting ideas.
At the Curling Clubhouse Ice Shanty, we tried our hands at some curling, first time I ever attempted this archetypal northern sport. I knew it involved pushing large, heavy rock like things across the ice, but I did not know how fun it is to do that. You wear a little slick shoe covering to make your foot slide on the ice even more smoothly, and then you launch yourself onto the ice in an attempt to hurl the weight towards a target, while another person attempts to smooth the ice with a little stick to quicken its journey. I am probably doing a bad job explaining this, but you can learn a lot more by trying it out here. I actually enjoyed it a lot and may have been inspired to try out it more seriously in the future.
The Jigsaw Shanty was also really fun, featuring walls made out of huge, foam board puzzle pieces; inside the heated shanty, you can take a break from the chill by painting bizarre, whimsical scenes which will be the next day’s giant jig saw, which visitors can endeavor to piece together in the snow next to the shanty.
Like most years, the Dance Shanty is a great way to work off some of those winter blues, and they play some great music too, I heard some Air while I was there. It is also a great place to warm up as well, as a bunch of people jumping around in a small, enclosed space dressed in snowsuits and jackets heats the place up nicely. The Elevator Shanty was just fun, pure surreal weirdness. I particularly loved the little lobby set up in front of the shanty and the elevator attendant uniforms worn by the operators. My favorite was definitely Ice Ice Maybe shanty, a “boutique” offering a variety of random kitsch for “sale,” each frozen in a little block of ice, from plastic dinosaurs to a ninja throwing star. In order to purchase the merchandise, one must explain to the proprietor just how this piece fits into your life, and it is not a sure deal. I did manage to talk my way into a vintage Minnesota State Fish postcard, owing to my love of the state, travel, and bizarre desire to accumulate postcards as a kind of way to prove to myself I was really there.
I also enjoyed the Mailroom Shanty, a shiny cube that, when entered, reveals a charmingly tilted floor with a tiny desk at the back, which actually gives the illusion of walking down a long hallway. At the desk, visitors can write letters and stuff them into one of the many little shelves or read what others have already written.The Creep Shanty, developed by the same group who brings you the Soap Factory Haunted House every October (I will brave it this time, I swear!) looked really interesting as well, but unfortunately was still under construction while we were there. As we got ready to leave, the vibrant scene was capped off by a parade that was, to me, the very image of Minnesota creativity. While a wind band played ska-tunes, the many polar bear bycycle contraptions of Pedal Bear patrolled about the art shanties. It was a great last image of the festivities.
The Art Shanty Project 2014 will be staying around each weekend for the rest of the month, so check it out soon! It is located just off the shore from White Bear Lake County Park. I was told that they will be returning to a yearly schedule so that art shanties will be reappearing on a frozen Twin Cities lake next February and we will not have to wait until 2016 for more, which is a good thing. I highly recommend checking it out as soon as possible!