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Brattleboro Museum celebrates 'artful ice shanties' as winters warm

Six ice shanties  — small portable houses that ice fishers use — sit in a snowy field.
Marlon Hyde
Vermont Public
Sixteen colorful and creatively decorated ice shanties were on display at Retreat Farm for this year's Artful Ice Shanty exhibit in Brattleboro.

The Brattleboro Museum and Art Center recently hosted a unique art exhibit of sixteen colorful and creatively decorated ice shanties.

Matt Neckers is showing me his ice shanty.

“For this year, I built this kind of your classic ice shanty thing, like a 1950s ice shanty being pulled by kind of an adult-sized tricycle with some sort of whimsical surreal elements," he said.

It looks like a small white house with wood on the inside and a metal outer shell. In the center is a hole where you would drop your line.

“It's not just kind of like the typical art project that you'd put into a museum," he said. "It has to actually withstand weather, has to be safe, it has to be all sorts of different things.”

A man on a bike pulling an ice shanty behind him.
Marlon Hyde
Vermont Public
Matt Neckers of Eden, Vermont took about six months to create this classic ice shanty being pulled by an adult-sized tricycle.

This is his first year participating in the Artful Ice Shanty outdoor exhibit. He says it took him about six months to build his creation.

An ice shanty is a portable shelter that ice fishers will place on a frozen lake when they are fishing. Many Vermonters have memories seeing a sea of shacks on frozen lakes during the winter months.

Kirsten Martsi works at the Brattleboro Museum and was one of the main organizers of the exhibit. She remembers a time when the second the lake froze, shanties would be everywhere.

“I was talking with some of them last year and it's really changed the culture for ice fishing like they used to have these villages these ice shanty villages out on the ice that were there all winter," she said. "And that's becoming increasingly rare that that’s possible.”

At the onset of the pandemic three years ago, the museum’s staff was searching for ways to bring art to people outside so they didn't have to come inside the museum. At the time, there was an exhibit of photographs of real ice shanties at the Brattleboro museum and that is what inspired this exhibit.

It is a way to shine a spotlight on this piece of Vermont and New England culture.

"That's part of why Artful Ice Shanties are important is it kind of calls attention to the this culture of the ice fishing shanty towns which is kind of disappearing,"
Kristen Martsi, Manager of Education & Community Engagement Programs at the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center.

“That's part of why Artful Ice Shanties are important is it kind of calls attention to the this culture of the ice fishing shanty towns which is kind of disappearing," Martsi said. " And kind of brings people's attention to it and reminds people what's great and important about these communities in a really fun and inviting way.”

It is unclear exactly where Ice Fishing started, but some historians estimate that it started around 2,000 years ago. Today, ice fishing is done largely socially. Many First Nations that rely on fishing and hunting still employ this method.

Typically, anglers will drill a hole in the ice and pull fish from underneath. Ironically the exhibit has never been on the ice. They were hoping this year would be different but the warm winter made it too risky.

More from NPR: 3 men in 3 days die after falling through ice on Vermont's Lake Champlain

Three Vermont ice fishers have lost their lives this year due to unstable ice conditions. This January was the warmest on record in Vermontwith a relatively light snowpack.

“So often, when we think about climate change, we think about little steps, incremental changes. But in fact, we could have a year like this where winter is particularly warm, which is almost like a super step," said Gillian Galford, a professor in the School of Environment and Natural Resources at the University of Vermont.

Galford said that we need to start rethinking how we understand climate change.

“That's like fast-forwarding quite a bit to a future Vermont that is much warmer, particularly in winter months," she said.

This winter could be indicative of the effects of climate change ramping up in New England.

More from Vermont Public: A warm start to winter adds to challenges for Vermont’s logging industry

According to Vermont’s 2021 climate assessment, winters are getting warmer. Temperatures have increased by nearly 2 degrees Fahrenheit on average over the last century. Lakes and ponds are thawing sooner, too – typically one to three days earlier per decade.

Galford does not expect every winter to be like this, though.

“Most of the model projections suggest that we'll be cold, we'll be having snow, those thirds sorts of things while into 2050, maybe out to 2070," she said. "And then after that, we start to reach a point where it may be so warm that we're not always getting snow.”

Back at Retreat Farm, fortunately, it is snowing and cold.

As people are shuffling around, a bright blue shanty with holes in it made by Angus McCullough is drawing some attention. He used local repurposed materials and a lot of small reclaimed mirrors to create a portal effect.

“It creates this sort of infinity effect where the mirrors are reflecting back and forth and back and forth to one another," he said. "And you peer inside and it's showing you 500 to an infinite number of these portals.”

A person looking inside of an ice shanty filled with mirrors.
Angus McCullough
This shanty by Angus McCullough uses local repurposed materials and a lot of small reclaimed mirrors to create a portal effect. 16 shanties were delivered to Retreat Farm.

Another shanty has been designed as a scale replica of a camera and it has a small hole that lets light in. When you’re inside, an inverted and reversed image of whatever is in front of the hole displays on the wall.

One by one, people looked in. The snowy field was filled with shanties of different colors, shapes and sizes.

There’s a beautiful wood cedar shingle shanty that is also a small artist's studio. A mammoth head with a trunk and tusks made of wood hangs off the front.

Kristin Martsi says watching the young children and adults alike running around and exploring this village of ice shanties feels like the community she looks forward to seeing every winter.

“So hopefully, you know, even as things get warmer, we're still able to hold on to that culture through programs like this,” she said.

For now this event remains and the tradition holds on.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Marlon Hyde was Vermont Public’s first news fellow, from 2021 to 2023.
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