General 1-17-2007

Art Shanties and the Long Wait for Winter

Suzanne Szucs went all the way to Medicine Lake to check out the Art Shanty Projects as it spread out over the new ice. Come visit us there!

Battle Hymn

Sometime around November 11th I was really ready for snow. After a tough autumn,deep winter is a time for rejuvenation. I feel that if I can just huddle under the blanket of winter, in a crystal fortress like Superman, I will emerge in the spring a transformed woman.

Like the past several years, it’s been dry and barely cold: again, winter’s been on hold. I’m a goofy kid at heart, so I long for a white Christmas; when I flew out to Seattle for the holidays, my sister greeted me, took one look at my snow boots, and laughed. “The eternal optimist,” she called me. It rained every day. I looked longingly out the window, imagining how awesome it would be if it were just a little colder – wishing for that mind-bendingly beautiful blanket of holiday snow.

Finally it did snow on New Year’s Eve. By that time I had gotten tired of waiting and the holidays were pretty well over. I looked out the window at the gloppy stuff, barely able to form into crystals, and shrugged my shoulders. The magic had passed and I was already pining for spring.

Fast forward, January 13, 2007, I’m standing on a frozen lake with fifty or so other winter misfits being led by Andy Sturdevant, Chairman-Elect of the Gentlemen’s Research Society of the Art Shanty Projects, in a rousing rendition of the “Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Ok, so it was only 10 degrees and still no fresh snow… it doesn’t matter. This collection of celebrants just seemed thrilled that the ice on Medicine Lake finally froze enough that we could slide around without danger of crashing through. The artistically ragtag and clever group of shanties, perched gracefully along the edge of the lake, and with a distanced backdrop of inspirational ice houses used for actual fishing, goes a long way towards restoring that lost winter faith.

“Only in Minnesota,” I smiled as I sipped my hot cocoa – procured from the Rendezvous Café Shanty in exchange for recording a fish story. Only in Minnesota do people eagerly await cold, cold weather because they want the ice to be frozen enough to have an art show on it. When I woke on the 12th to see that after weeks of thaw it was only 6 degrees and windy to boot, I got excited. I also felt bad knowing that Jeff Kalstrom was building the shanty out in that wind. When I called him to see how it was going, he really sounded tired.

“Well, yeah, it’s cold out here. I put the plastic sheeting up and the wind ripped it right off, ” he sighed in a nevertheless optimistic tone tinged with Minnesotan roots, “I’ll try again tomorrow… lots of people aren’t even building their shanties until tomorrow.” Indeed, at 2:45 Saturday when I finally got myself out to the lake, there was construction going on throughout the art shanty village. Jeff had solved his problem with canvas and his construction, based on a boatbuilding shed form, looked gorgeous. It was also his birthday. He looked happy, despite the cold, despite working for two days in the finger- and nose-numbing cold. When you got ice, make art.

You can’t fight the elements. That’s something that people who grow up in a place that causes little elemental suffering just don’t get, or really appreciate. Like, it’s something like 70 degrees all the time in Los Angeles. When that changes everybody seems to freak out. Like, oh mi god, it rained and they had all these mudslides. Like million dollar homes were sinking into mud holes. Like, yikes. The other day I watched an episode of “Men In Trees” – it’s a new show this season set in Alaska a la “Northern Exposure”. The episode was about the winter solstice and at one point the dialogue made it sound as if all of a sudden there was this super-short day. As if every day before the solstice was regular and not something that built up (or down) over time as the sun moves lower on the horizon. It was hilariously stupid, I thought it must have been written by someone in Los Angeles who doesn’t really understand what the solstice, or the extremes of winter, is all about.

There’s a cycle to the seasons and living within them – the inevitability of winter, the spectacular return of the sun in the spring, the glory-filled days of lilacs when the entire city is overwhelmed by them, everywhere bursting for the first time and all at once. You feel those days deeply when they happen and carry them with you through the middle of winter standing on a frozen lake singing “Glory, glory hallelujah!” It’s about connecting with other people during those deepest coldest moments, despite the allure of hibernation, and celebrating the clarity and weight of breath, which in my experience you can only feel when it is really, really cold.

The previous Thursday I found myself quite by accident at the Lone Twin performance Nine Years at the Walker Art Center. Gregg Whelan and Gary Winters have been traveling and performing together for nine years with context and intention based around building community connections. Their strategies have included walking across bridges and shorelines, biking around cities, marathon line dancing blindfolded, always meeting with audiences afterwards to share what happened to them during the process. For this performance, they celebrated their experiences, rather than summing them up. Crucial to their projects is simply meeting people and recording the interactions. Like the Art Shanty Project, the work is incomplete without the audience. It’s good to see art being made that is hopeful, and that relies on celebrating not elitist thinking, but everyday humanity.

During this time of bleakest winter, we desperately need to get out on the ice, en masse, risky as it may be, to put our voices together and make a really beautiful sound. That’s when the magic happens.

The Art Shanty Project features art houses on the ice inspired by classic Minnesotan ice-fishing houses. It’s a project sponsored by the Soap Factory, originated 4 years ago by Peter Haakon Thompson and David Pitman. You’ll find shanties as diverse as a karaoke shanty, knitting shanty, Pinhole Camera shanty, The Cactus Conservatory…. as well as the shanty, “Ten Thousand Artists on a Lake.”

There will be ongoing events in the shantytown every weekend and some weekdays, so check the events calendar.

Most pictures for this article are by Brett Kallusky, who is a photographer currently working in
the Twin Cities. His current project is work made
during a recent research Fulbright in Italy. He
teaches photography at the Art Institutes
International MN and speaks Italian.

Suzanne Szucs

Suzanne E. Szucs is an artist, writer and educator living and working in Rochester, MN. A recipient of numerous grants and awards, including an Illinois Arts Council Individual Fellowship and two Minnesota State Arts Board Individual Artist Grants, she has shown her work widely. Szucs has a BFA from the San Francisco Art Institute and a MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She writes critical articles for Afterimage and has recently lectured about her work at SPE, College Art …   read more