White Bear Lake is home to Minnesota’s most unusual streetscape. It’s not in the town of White Bear Lake; it’s on it.
For the month of February, 20 artist-designed ice fishing houses are set out on the lake to celebrate winter, the tradition of fish houses and making art — all Minnesota trademarks.
The distinctive event, perhaps the only one of its kind in the world, includes a flamenco procession, a snowblower ballet, art-car and art-bike parades and an opportunity to “water” an ice garden.
“The shanties are really beautiful little structures,” said Dawn Bentley, director of the Art Shanty Projects. “But when you add the interaction with the artists, it becomes public art.”
And when you add visitors (tens of thousands are expected over its four-weekend run) you get something more than a sculpture collection or an architecture show. It becomes a village — with the fun of a carnival and a sense of community heightened by the surrounding snow and ice.
According to its website, the mission of this temporary community is “exploring the ways in which relatively unregulated public spaces can be used as new and challenging artistic environments to expand notions of what art can be.”
But the projects also show how lively streetscapes come from more than high-style buildings and static public art. They also come from people, engagement and a variety of events.
Every shanty is designed not just to look interesting, but to offer sensory experiences — the richness of sound, the smell of wood smoke, the feeling of a rough wood door handle. In this cold, temporary place, there is the sense that art is for everyone and that it can be everywhere in civic life.
Take the Vehicle of Expression shanty, for example. It’s a minibus transformed into a writing studio, which offers “literary-ish games, writing, readings and drama.”
The Ghost Shanty houses Minnesota-related objects (such as a Norwegian cheese slicer) suspended from the ceiling. Visitors are invited to “interact with / translate / interpret / and/or abstract the artifacts through art-making, leaving behind a trace (or ghost).”
With its all-black exterior and steeply pitched translucent roof, the Ghost Shanty is austere and clean-lined — hardly surprising, given that five young architects created it.
“The shanty itself is intentionally unobtrusive,” said Sean Higgins, leader of the Ghost Shanty team.
The idea is not to distract from objects inside. The all-white interior walls are the canvas on which visitors are invited to paint. The team will offer a specific paint color for each of four weekends — starting out with blue, then red, green and orange. At the end of every weekend, the walls will be papered over to preserve the “ghosts” of newest artwork.
There’s also the Sci-Fi Book Club, which looks like an escape pod crashed onto the frozen lake. In this shanty, visitors can write letters to the future or check out books from the sci-fi library.
Within the shanty village is a shared sense of shelter. Between the structures, the shoveled paths act as streets and the open spaces become outdoor rooms equipped with bonfires, signs and food vendors. And there’s a sophisticated accessibility plan so that people of all abilities can visit either with the help of a powered sleigh or on foot.
Sometimes the best ideas for urban design come from places that aren’t urban — or even permanent. Events like the Art Shanty Projects can help propel urban design because they challenge assumptions about what makes a successful public space, who can be an artist and where art can be made.
These are questions especially relevant for Minneapolis, St. Paul and other cities that are rich in architecture and poor in vibrant street life, chance encounters and new experiences.
As Bentley observes about the community on the ice: “Every time you visit it’s different, depending on who you meet.”
Frank Edgerton Martin is a Minneapolis-based writer and landscape historian.