David Bowie’s dreamy voice, wrapped in guitar chords and drum beats, blasted through the buzz of a saw blade ripping through wood. A torn-open bag of popcorn sat on a black countertop. Outside the former welding shop in north Minneapolis, flurries filled the air. It was a typical Tuesday at artist Jeff Sherman’s studio.
Dressed in a loose-fitting black T-shirt, jeans and black leather work boots, he peered at the planks of wood that would become the ramp of a garage housing a bright red, four-person, pedal-powered bus.
On Saturday, Sherman and his crew’s double-decker — dubbed Shanty Village Bus Tours — will begin shuttling visitors among the 22 artist-created icehouses for Art Shanty Projects, the (mostly) annual winter artist community that returns to Lake Harriet on weekends through Feb. 9 after taking a year off to regroup.
Sherman hoped this project would be less stressful than his 2018 Cinema Shanty. Inspired by early animation devices, this “zoetrope” contained pictures inside a giant cylinder that, when spun, created the illusion of movement.
“The idea was that people would come in and spin it themselves,” he said, “but then we realized little kids would destroy their hands.
“For the first three weeks we kept it going [ourselves] nonstop for like six hours. It was the workout of my life,” he joked.
Sherman crouched down, measured 12 inches across two pieces of wood, then dropped in seven planks and screwed them together to form a frame. On top of that, he fastened a sheet of wood. This would become the bus ramp.
Each Art Shanty project is funded by a $2,400 stipend, but that doesn’t necessarily cover all the costs. So Sherman relies on salvaged materials, including large sheets of blue-and-yellow plastic from a Best Buy commercial.
“It would’ve been a red sheet if we’d worked on a Target commercial,” joked Sherman, whose wife, Vanessa Miles, is a production designer who works on commercials, films and photography, and often enlists Jeff as art director.
The red bus is powered by a four-pedal bike from another commercial shoot.
Sherman is used to working with his hands. For nine years, he’s worked as an exhibition technician at Walker Art Center, helping with installations that involve audio-visual or electronic elements. In fact, much of the shanty was recycled from the Walker’s 2017 exhibition “Merce Cunningham: Common Time.”
Building an Art Shanty is a totally different kind of art installation.
T-minus one day to launch
Last Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours remained before Art Shanty staffers were due to stop by Sherman’s warehouse to pick up the bus and garage and transport them to frozen Lake Harriet.
Sherman slashed through a sheet of gray plastic that would cover the back window of the bus. Crew member Victor Mercy held down another sheet as Kat Morgan used a screwdriver to fasten it down, careful to keep her long pink dreads out of the way.
“We always jump in and help each other with projects,” said Mercy. He, Sherman and Morgan are members of Nanotako, an audio-video collective that shares the warehouse space.
In the other room, an array of clowns, skeletons and a doll of the late Australian crocodile hunter Steve Irwin sat atop a black cabinet, watching over the construction. Sherman stood atop a ladder, slotting a sheet of blue plastic onto the roof of the garage.
By 7:30 p.m., everyone had a paintbrush or roller in hand. Mercy danced while rolling thick black paint onto the exterior of the garage. Inside, Morgan carefully brushed black on a window frame.
Sherman’s wife sat cross-legged on a soft brown couch. A row of five Styrofoam spheres, painted in shades of brown from light to dark, were nailed to a piece of wood in front of her. These heads would become an updated version of 1990s Fisher-Price dolls.
“We’re kind of taking liberties with that — they weren’t [racially diverse] before,” Miles said as she concentrated on one of the balls, her blond hair — dyed with shades of blue, pink, green and purple — spilling over her shoulders. “The brown took like seven coats.”
At a nearby table, Mary Shanley sipped white wine from a plastic cup while slathering purple paint onto two foam spheres that would become Prince and a Vikings fan. The sounds of Sherman’s drill and saw cut through the slow, deep rhythms from the Japanese trap bass music blasting through the studio. He’d been up until 7 that morning, sawing and driving screws. A bottle of 5-Hour Energy drink helped him make it through the night.
Ready for action on the ice
It was sunny and frigid the following afternoon as Sherman and his crew of six assemblers stood on the ice of Lake Harriet, bundled up in thick mittens, furry hats, water-resistant gloves and insulated snow pants.
“We’re like a village — a Nordic village,” said his wife’s uncle, Steve Kelley.
“And this is the bus stop!” said Mercy, who wore black gloves emblazoned with skeleton hands.
Crouched inside the shanty/garage, Suzanna Sweet peered through her sunglasses and screwed hinges onto the ramp so it could open like a castle drawbridge. This is where they’ll park the bus during weekdays, when Art Shanty Projects is closed to the public.
Sweet, who played a major role in designing the shanty, drove in another screw.
“Here’s the door for it!” shouted Mercy. Morgan hopped over and knocked on its red surface before it was handed over, ready for the final screw.