If you happen to spy a much-larger-than-life polar bear lumbering across the frozen expanse of White Bear Lake in coming weeks trailed by its not-so-tiny cub, don't presume that this brutal and interminable winter has, at long last, sent you over the edge.
That's no polar mirage; it's just art.
The massive bears are part of the Art Shanty Project, which, after several years on Medicine Lake in Plymouth, is coming to White Bear Lake this year. The event starts Saturday and runs on weekends through the month of February.
The project, described by organizers as part sculpture park, part artist residency and part social experiment, plays off the ice fishing houses that become their own wintry villages across Minnesota's lakes. It involves the creation of 20 such shanties created by artists, sculptors and designers who build each one around a theme.
Besides being creative, the shanties can evoke laughs and serious discussion. The emphasis is on interaction, a chance to shed the monotony of the bleak midwinter.
The temporary shanty village going up on White Bear Lake has been taking shape since last weekend, with its creators braving a biting cold and fierce winds.
There's the Puzzle Shanty, which promises to challenge visitors with brain teasers and mind benders. If visitors tire of crosswords and Sudoku combinations, they can take a crack at putting the shanty itself back together — one wall is itself a large puzzle.
Nearby is the more staid-looking Town Hall Shanty, with its faux-brick facade that suffered the indignity of being blown over in a stiff wind after being set up.
The shanty was set right and repaired as its builders danced to keep warm, accomplishing what they blithely noted was a great moment in pun history: The government had been overturned.
That shanty will serve as the governing center, with visitors creating a code of law as well as designing a flag and seal.
Sculptor Lea Devon Sorrentino and graphic designer Kayla Campbell were, on Wednesday, leading a crew assembling the Ice Ice Maybe shanty.
The shanty is styled as a high-end boutique, Sorrentino said, with friendly consultants trained to guide each customer through an individual shopping experience. Money is no object, she added, because everything is free — kind of.
"There is a question-and-answer period that people will have to go through" to explain why they are drawn to an item, she said, and there is one other catch: Everything is encased in ice. That includes the packets of taco sauce, the sunglasses and "The Mystery of Cabin Island" Hardy Boys book.
"It's designed to start a about how we use objects and how they define our identity," Sorrentino said.
The bears, too, are roaming shanties. Underneath the bamboo-and-metal framework holding up the big bear's massive pelt made of recycled construction plastic is a pedal-powered vehicle mounted on a couple of Volkswagen axles, said Richard Parnell. It has been used at the May Day Parade in Minneapolis put on by In the Heart of the Beast Puppet and Mask Theatre.
Suzi Hudson, executive director of the White Bear Center for the Arts, a partner with the project, is thrilled that the art shanties have moved east and hopes the event is here to stay. The center opened its new $2.9 million privately funded arts center building and gallery in July, after a decade in the city's armory building.
In the weeks leading up to this opening weekend, the Arts Center held classes and workshops — including one on designing Arctic clothing by renowned explorer Will Steger — to set the stage for the project.
"We feel it fits in so neatly with our vision for how our arts center fits in with our community," she said.
The energy for the Art Shanty Project is artist-driven and grass- roots-based, she said. "That is something that this organization is very interested in, and it's something we're seeking."