Breaking the Ice

Tema Stauffer

A crowd has begun to form around a Reddy Rents van that has just pulled into the middle of Medicine Lake in Plymouth. "Dude, get ready," says an onlooker in a voice muffled by a stuffy nose and two layers of scarves. "Seriously," he says. "You're gonna wanna see this."

The door slides open and an avalanche of rainbow-colored water balloons spills onto the ice with a thunderous roar. There must be hundreds of balloons, frozen solid and clinking together like bowling balls. As if on cue, bystanders bend over, despite their layers of constrictive clothing, and begin peeling the colored casing away from the ice forms within them. The shells come off easily, like frostbitten skin that's being peeled away piece by piece.

"Ohhh!" says a guy whose every inch is covered by knitted fabric and coveralls. He holds the clear sphere up to the sun's rays. "It looks like a sea urchin inside!" The frozen water bubbles inside the ice ball have formed a translucent, spiky creature that looks like it could've been plucked from the seas of Jupiter's moons and encased in glass--a perfect alien paperweight. It's hard to believe that tap water and plastic sheathing could create something so beautiful.

Local artist Chris Pennington made the frozen balloons with his friends, and for the past few days, he has stored them in his front yard, which looked like a Chuck E. Cheese ball pit exploded on it. "My landlord thought we were crazy," he says. Pennington begins stacking the ice globes into a wooden box that's the size of a telephone booth. In the center of the frozen spheres he places a clear orb, part of an old street lamp he found at the University Avenue bridge. Blue electro-luminescence wire is woven inside it; Pennington will attach the wire to a motorcycle battery so that the completed structure will emit a neon-blue radiance. Once the ice globes freeze around the orb, Pennington will remove the wooden box to reveal a glowing glacier that looks as if it has emerged from the lake's center. "It will glow for two weeks straight like this," he says excitedly. "Dude, it's going to be so awesome."

Pennington's cube will be displayed on Medicine Lake through February 19, along with the 28 other artist-created shanties, ice paintings, and sculptures that make up the Soap Factory's Art Shanty Projects. (The exhibit will move inside the gallery this July.) The project was originally the brainchild of photographer Peter Haakon Thompson, who built the first art shanty last year, with the help of his friends Kari Reardon and Alex DeArmond, using plywood-shelving pieces donated by the Walker Art Center. The structure was originally intended to be a place for escape, a retreat in the middle of the city that allows local artists to become inspired by the lake. But when Haakon Thompson introduced the art shanty idea to David Pitman, the installation manager of the Soap Factory, Pitman was immediately intrigued by the idea of using the lake not as only an artist studio, but also a public-art space. "Everything has become so regulated [in the art world]," Pitman says. "This is a place that doesn't have building codes. It's more limited by environment and common sense than anything else."

While living in Oakland for 11 years, Haakon Thompson began thinking about the frozen lakes of Minnesota differently than he had as a kid. Though he grew up on the north side of Medicine Lake, he had never fished or even stepped into an icehouse until last year, when he built his first art shanty. He and his friends created a heart-shaped ice rink for Valentine's Day 2004 and used a homemade camera obscura to project the skaters onto the walls of the house. "I started seeing ice houses as these places where anything can happen," he says.

The current works of the 40 or so collaborators in the Art Shanty Project wouldn't necessarily be labeled iconoclastic: The artists are not seeking to battle the ice fisherman in turf wars or redefine the sacred art of ice fishing. But they do take cues from Fluxus artists and other performance artists of the '60s, who sought to redefine art and space while forcing the audience to become active spectators in their own environment. And like the lake itself, which has always transcended its austere boundaries to become a central communal spot for Minnesotans, the artists have found new ways to incorporate the seasonal challenges into their art, creating a mini-museum that uses ice as its display case.

Inside Haakon Thompson's eight-by-eight Original Art Shanty, the walls are painted lime green, the gray floor has become slick with a coating of dragged-in snow, and tea candles illuminate the windows. Two of the circular windows open, like peekaboo fishing holes or windows on a submarine. Twelve people have somehow crammed themselves into the tiny shack, their heavy coats adding at least the space of two other people to the aluminum-sheeted structure. They're here for Catherine Campion's hatha yoga class, which will be conducted entirely while standing.

Campion fiddles with a miniature toy house, a plastic pet store that has been made into a radio transmitter using a circuit board and double-A batteries, something she made as part of the Radio Re-Volt project at the Walker last fall. Her hope is that houses within a two-mile radius can tune into her yoga class on 97.7 FM, or that cars can pull up around the shanty and tune into a play or performance. Today, bits of Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" compete with a gospel choir for Campion's air time. "Ay, Ay, Ay" segues into "Hallelujah," as Campion's voice hovers between the two like a hallucination.

Campion sets down the little house and instructs everyone to begin taking deep breaths. She's wearing a red snowsuit and a knitted cap with long, Scandinavian-girl braids. The temperature has peaked at negative six, the coldest day in nine years. Snot has frozen on the upper lip of almost everyone in the room. It's not exactly a serene sanctuary for meditation, but somehow a Lil' Buddy heater and collective hot breath have turned the space into a cozy hideout, a fort that turns its guests into kids willing to try anything once.

Coats and snowsuits squeak as people extend their arms to the sky and arch their bodies in quarter backbends. Campion tells them to hold this position for three deep breaths. They look like stunted trees that have been bent and frozen by strong winds. At that moment, the door creaks open and a woman with a thick Minnesota accent peeks in: "Oh," she says. "It's got people!" She pauses long enough for the group to take two long breaths. "'s got fake people!" she says, thinking that somehow these are perfect human statues, arranged in yoga positions. The door slams shut and everyone erupts in laughter.

Here in the yoga class, as strangers touch each other's shoulders, backs, and legs while they maneuver their stretches in the small space, random conversations about phrenology erupt, led by a guy who says he can tell what kind of math people like by the shape of their heads. One girl removes her hat and the amateur phrenologist squints in order to get a better reading, despite the fact that any determining skull shape has been hidden by a mound of hat head. "Matrixes," he says, nodding with confidence.

"Ummm, I don't even know what that is," the girl says.

Outside, dogs in booties bound across the lake past Stephen Rife's enormous knife sculpture, appropriately titled Ice Knife, and around the ladders of varying lengths that ascend from the lake, a piece by photographer Xavier Tavera. There's also an exquisite translucent painting of a shadowy fisherman with his catch that's been erected like a lake tombstone by Mike Hoyt. It was created on Mylar and encased in layers of ice--water that was taken from the lake itself.

Back at Pennington's gleaming cube, which is still only half-done after six hours of work, Pennington and his new friend Dan Corradini are the only two remaining workers, diligently removing balloon skin with pruned, half-frozen fingers. Pennington only met Corradini over the phone a few hours earlier. He thought he was talking to Corradini's brother Greg when he asked him to come out and help. Instead he was talking to Dan, who had just returned from Montana after clearing brush for a year.

"Dude, I didn't even know him, and he still came out here," Pennington says.

Corradini shrugs. The wind chill is nearing negative 30, but Corradini isn't even wearing a hat or a scarf. "I thought it was a cool idea," he says.

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