How to build an art shanty

Earlier this week, Mark told you about a couple of the cool art projects happening on a frozen lake in Minnesota. The Art Shanty Projects are a semi-annual wintertime tradition up here. And it's a sort-of send up of a much older tradition.

Every winter, there's a lot of ice fishing that happens in Minnesota. On the smaller lakes in Minneapolis, people set up temporary tents to shield themselves from the wind while they drill through the ice and wait and drink. But out on the larger lakes, the shelters become a lot more elaborate. Ice fishing "shanties" might come with bunk beds, carpeting, satellite TV, and kegarators. They're left on the lakes—which turn into temporary neighborhoods—all season long. From the outside, some of these fishing shanties just look like a trailer camper, or a plywood box. But it's not unusual to see fishermen get creative—decorating their shanties with tropical paint jobs, designing them to be fish-shaped. There's even a fish shanty parade in a small town in northern Minnesota.

This is where the Art Shanty Projects come in. Basically, they build on things Minnesotans have been doing for years, but with the priorities flipped. At the Art Shanty Projects—which run through this weekend on Minnesota's Medicine Lake—the emphasis is on art and creativity, rather than fishing. It gives artists, makers, and groups of friends with a good idea the chance to build something wild and whimsical and wonderfully interactive.

This year, I got to follow one group of shanty builders as they built their "Monsters Under the Bed" shanty at the Minneapolis Hack Factory, and then took it out on the ice.

This is Cali Mastny. I met her, and several other members of the "Monsters Under the Bed" crew in early January, when they were rushing to get their art shanty finished and ready to go out on the ice.

Cali and her friends aren't professional artists. Instead, they're people who like to build things and turn crazy ideas to real-life objects. They do projects for Convergence and Burning Man. And they've built an Art Shanty before, too. A couple of years ago, they created "Tiny Shanty", where everything—from the chairs, to the windows, to the front door—was sized to fit a toddler. This new shanty was built on the bones of the old one. Instead of constructing it from scratch, the team had to take apart Tiny Shanty and repurpose the parts for the new theme.

The crew—about seven core planners, plus five helpers—split up the labor. This list was tapped to the shanty when I visited, reminding people about all the tasks left to be done. The funds for building come from the Art Shanty Project organizers, who raise money and distribute it to the teams whose ideas are selected for the event. One of the reasons the Art Shanty Projects happen every other year, Cali told me, is so the organizers can give groups bigger grants. This year, the grant to build Monsters Under the Bed was $1200. It was enough to cover all the costs of construction. Two years ago, they only got about $450 to build Tiny Shanty and had to raise a few hundred more themselves.

Once you've got an idea for a shanty theme, there are two things that make the process of executing it a little difficult. First, Cali says, there's the safety issue. At Burning Man, the team doesn't have to worry too much about whether someone could get hurt on the contraptions they build. But the Art Shanty Projects draw a lot of families. They're also, naturally, set on slick ice. so safety has to be a priority. Here, Cali's teammate Scott Raleigh is constructing some of the lofts that people will be able to climb on inside the shanty. You can also see a tongue-shaped object in the center of the photo. That's the ramp to the shanty's front door. It's also a great example of how safety and fun can be combined. The team knew they'd need some kind of traction built into the ramp. Then it occurred to them: Real tongues have taste buds. The traction taste-buds make sure people don't slip off the ramp, and fit into the theme of walking into a giant monster mouth.

The other issue that makes building an Art Shanty tough: Planning events. Every shanty has to have some kind of interactive element. And it needs to be something that can appeal to a wide variety of visitors. It would be easy, Cali told me, to make a shanty that was very kid-centric. But her team didn't want to do that. They wanted something whimsical and silly (and certainly kid-friendly), but that wouldn't marginalize adults. That's why, when they built monster arms into the side of the shanty, they put some at kid height, and others at grown-up height. The goal is to make something fun for everyone.

This is what the Art Shanties looked like on opening day. I got there early, before the crowds showed up. It doesn't usually look this desolate.

It's also usually not this close to shore. The Art Shanty Project works with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources to make sure the ice they set up on is thick enough to support shanties that can weigh up to a couple thousand pounds. This year, it hasn't been very cold in Minnesota, and there's not much thick ice far from shore. So the shanties had to butt up next to the beach.

I'm pleased to report that The Monsters Under the Bed Shanty came together in time. In fact, they were ahead of several other groups. When I visited on opening day, you could hear electric drills buzzing inside several shanties, as people scrambled to finish construction before the first batch of guests arrived. But the Monsters Under the Bed were already set to go, and dressed in their monstery finest.

There were a couple of small hiccups. The bed part of the shanty, up on the roof, was supposed to have a head and a foot board. But the foot board had fallen off during the assembly process. It was made of metal and, in the cold, the fall caused it to snap. So no footboard. The other issue: When I visited, the group's wood stove—built for them by a friend—wasn't quite yet getting the shanty warm. Luckily, the monsters were dressed in layers.

Next door, looking for all the world like a little gingerbread cottage just waiting to be attacked by monsters, was the "Sashay Shantay"—a grandma's attic of taxidermied birds, books, and boxes full of dress-up clothes and masks.

Another awesome shanty: "The Sit-and-Spin Shanty". From the exterior, it's a giant wicker egg ...

... Inside, it's a self-propelled carnival ride of awesome. Sit on the bench, turn the big wheel and spin like a top. Here's my friend Grady looking dizzy.

There are 24 different shanties out on the ice this year. Some of my other favorites included: "The Naughty Shanty", a shack that looks like a gypsy-wagon and is filled candy cigarettes, cookie jars to steal from, and slingshot-making lessons; "Robot Reprise", a giant robot that can actually move across the ice under the power of humans hidden in it's appendages; "Camera Head", where visitors can construct and play with head-mounted camera obscuras; and the "Letterpress Shanty", home to a delicious collection of old-fashioned metal and wood type blocks, used to print a Shanty newspaper and make prints of Shanty-related tweets.

Special thanks to Cali Mastny, Rachel Bendtsen, Matt Mackall, Caly McMorrow, Aaron Prust, Scott Raleigh, Cole Sarar and the rest of the Monsters Under the Bed team for letting me get a look at their process!


  1. The emphasis is on art rather than fishing but you can still fish, right?

    There are times when I can understand the appeal of having one’s own little private room out in the middle of a frozen lake solely for getting away from the world, but I’ve always suspected that the primary reason for ice fishing shanties is that walleye really are that tasty. 

  2. Was wondering how the heck they were still having the art shanties this year given our mild winter.  Just have ’em ten feet from shore.  Thanks Maggie.

  3. “The Art Shanty Projects are a semi-annual wintertime tradition up here.”

    It’s strange though: For some reason the July installations aren’t nearly as successful.

  4. I made this for the last minnesota weirdness thing you posted, so I’ll be damned if I don’t leave it in this thread, too

    1. At least one of the shanties had holes drilled, but they weren’t far from shore, and not in deep enough water to do any fishing. Going there with kids though, it was nice to have a short walk to the shantytown.

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