Annaliese Bischoff makes progress on her ice shanty, “Fishing for Snowflakes,” which honors the legacy of groundbreaking Vermont photographer and meteorologist Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.
Courtesy of Annaliese Bischoff
Annaliese Bischoff makes progress on her ice shanty, “Fishing for Snowflakes,” which honors the legacy of groundbreaking Vermont photographer and meteorologist Wilson “Snowflake” Bentley.

Art meets outdoor recreation

Artful Ice Shanties exhibit ‘brings together elements of both our natural and cultural heritage through a really funky artistic lens’

The Artful Ice Shanties exhibit returns for the fourth year, presented by the Brattleboro Museum & Art Center and Retreat Farm. Nearly a dozen ice shanties - portable sheds that provide shelter for people who are ice fishing - will be set up at the Retreat Farm courtyard from Saturday, Feb. 17 to Sunday, Feb. 25.

According to publicity materials, the competition was launched in 2021 when the COVID-19 pandemic drove people to engage in more outdoor activities.

Artful Ice Shanties celebrates artistic talent, ingenuity, and New England's rich ice-fishing heritage that continues to this day. Last year, more than 2,000 people visited the 15 shanties on display.

"This is such a fun event, and one that brings together elements of both our natural and cultural heritage through a really funky artistic lens," says Kristin Sullivan, executive director of Retreat Farm.

"I love the interactive elements of the shanties - being able to go inside and experience them - and seeing how artists and builders of all stripes interpret their brief," she says. "We also hope visitors will also take time to enjoy our trails and the farm while they're here; it will be a fun, immersive experience for the whole family."

A panel of four will award prizes for the best shanties: Jenny Crowell, program director at Retreat Farm; Bo Foard, CEO of Foard Panel; Tom Bodett, board chair of HatchSpace; and Donna Hawes, former program director of River Gallery Art School.

The competition selects judges who "have design and art experience that are local to the area," says Crowell.

The judges will award five prizes: Best in Show, Most Creative, Best Craftsmanship, Most Likely to Catch a Fish, and People's Choice. Winners will receive gift certificates to Brown and Roberts Hardware.

The criteria for judging: creativity, craftsmanship, and imagination.

"This has certainly become a beloved event for Retreat Farm and the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center. Each year the entries get more complex and exciting, and it's so thrilling to see what folks come up with," adds Crowell.

Brattleboro's Artful Ice Shanties range from the traditional to the conceptual, from functional to whimsical, from the scientifically inspired to those that feature culture and history.

The only requirements are that the structures be moveable and sturdy enough to withstand Vermont's mid-February weather as well as wear and tear from the public over the course of a week.

"Artful Ice Shanties has become one of Brattleboro's signature winter events," says BMAC Director Danny Lichtenfeld. "It's inspired by the long tradition of ice fishing in our area, and is a wonderful mix of two Vermont passions - art and outdoor recreation."

The Commons reached four artists who are building ice shanties this year who talked about designs and past years' participation. Here they are in their own words:

The beauty of snowflakes

Annaliese Bischoff, 71, of Leverett, Massachusetts, is a landscape architect and professor emerita at UMass Amherst. Last year, she created "A Tree Blooms in Winter," and the previous year "Swimming in Plastic." This is her third year of participating in the Artful Ice Shanties exhibit, which she calls "a tonic for the spirit."

Vermont's Wilson "Snowflake" Bentley (1865–1931) inspired me to create a "Fishing for Snowflakes" laboratory this year.

While researching photographs for a book I'm writing, I came across the photomicrographs of Bentley, a photographer and self-taught meteorologist. When I learned that Bentley caught snowflakes with a turkey feather to photograph under a microscope, I got hooked to learn more.

As a teen, Bentley drew snowflakes, striving to capture their beauty. He went on to study them under a microscope, next pioneering ways to photograph them.

On the ice shanty's walls and ceiling you can see copies of the photo-microscope images he made. You can also see a collection tray, a turkey feather, an old microscope, a repro bellows camera, and faux-glass versions of the photographic plates he made.

You can read some background information about Bentley and draw snowflakes on a slate-shingle chalkboard.

I love discovering the passion of someone from the past and finding inspiration from it for new projects and hope visitors will learn about Bentley's skill in capturing the beauty of snowflakes.

Fishing stories through the generations

Joshua Farr, 35, of Guilford, is executive director of the Vermont Center for Photography. This year's event is his second year participating in the Artful Ice Shanty exhibit.

After brainstorming things from our everyday lives that may vaguely resemble an ice shanty already (albeit something you might not expect to see out on a frozen lake), I decided to build a replica of a vintage phone booth which I'm calling "Fish-Tales," complete with a pay phone.

To encourage active participation of visitors, I have configured the phone to play through the earpiece historical recordings of New Englanders from days past retelling some of their most epic, funny, or memorable fishing stories.

Visitors can stop, listen, and perhaps recall their own fishing stories from their childhood, or stories they heard from their parents or grandparents.

The Artful Ice Shanty melds my passions for the outdoors, the arts (photography, in particular), and practical building/woodworking skills.

Naturally, as an active member of the regional photographic community, I felt compelled to bring that into my design in 2023, leading to my decision to construct an 8-foot-tall scale replica of a vintage twin-lens film camera, which I dubbed "Photomatic."

It featured a doorway on one side inviting visitors to enter, close the door behind them, and experience the optical phenomenon known as a "camera obscura," where light from outside of the camera enters an otherwise completely dark space through a precise hole on the camera's lens and projects an image of the scene outdoors onto the interior wall opposite the lens, clearly representing the most fundamental science behind photographic cameras.

A symbol of navigation and safe passage

Charlie Konkowski, 68, of West Chesterfield, New Hampshire, won Best Museum Exhibit in 2021 for his shanty "Curiosity," and in 2022 his "Moto Magic Bus" shanty won "Best in Show." In 2023 he built a shanty called "Pisces."

When I see fishing shacks out on the ice, it creates a connection with the great outdoors! I ask: What are these small villages that pop up during the winter months? Artful as they are, they evoke emotion.

This draws me to this event, which is an opportunity to be creative and expressive - yet, all the shanties I have built can actually be used for ice fishing.

My construction technique has evolved each year. I build a lightweight wooden frame and clad it with recycled aluminum printing plates from newspaper print shops.

This year, I am building a classic nautical lighthouse. A lighthouse is a symbol of navigation and safe passage and a striking sight in any environment. I also built a keeper's house with a cedar door and window clings of stained glass. My design is 15 feet tall and 7 feet around.

My goal is to create curiosity and evoke artistic expression. If I can put a smile on a few faces I consider my effort successful. As for the build details, I like to leave some of that to the imagination of onlookers and hopefully they will visit the exhibit.

An underwater world of gingerbread houses

Anne Murphy, of Putney, returns this year. "My sister, Amy Nelson, and I had so much fun making the fairy house, the "Fanciful Flower Fairy Fishery," she says. "On my way home after the final day of the exhibition, I started brainstorming ideas for what to do next."

What happens after Christmas to all of the gingerbread houses? A select few are eaten of course, some are composted, and some are fed to hens to produce colorful Easter eggs in the spring.

A few, however, are tossed into lakes, rivers, and streams all over the world, including the waters of the Retreat Meadows.

Legend has it that there are villages of gingerbread houses down there, now occupied by fish. In fact, most rainbow trout spend their formative years in these villages.

This year, we built the "Snug Sugar Shanty," which is inspired by this legend. How better to catch a fish than with a shanty resembling its own habitat?

This one is not made of cookies, candy, or icing, of course. This recipe includes foam - foam board insulation, Styrofoam, and spray foam - as well as cardboard, wood, wire mesh, joint compound, caulking, paint, and a variety of adhesives. Since as many of its ingredients as possible were sourced from scraps of other projects, this shanty is for looking, not licking.

I'm a fan of scale - making big things small and small things big. I appreciate the little twist of the mind that happens when you encounter an ordinary object on a different scale. I especially enjoy making such a thing myself, when there is creativity built into that ordinary object - like with a gingerbread house (or a fairy house, like last year).

I hope visitors come away with a sense of whimsy. Because there is a lot of detail, I hope they are entertained by the whole, then pause to let it all unfold to enrich their experience.

Upcycling with a message

Jason Gragen's grade 4 class at NewBrook School, Newfane, worked on their shanty with Suzanne Paugh, West River District art teacher.

This project encouraged students to think about the ways in which we can use unconventional items (in this case, plastic waste headed to the recycling bins) to create structures and 3D objects.

The project started with a study of the "great Pacific garbage patch" [concentrations of marine debris in the North Pacific Ocean, as described by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration] we learned and talked about the dire situation in our Earth's oceans and then looked at artists who are using plastics in their work.

We learned that this is called "upcycling" - creating something even better out of a recyclable object.

Students processed over 200 plastic shopping bags to be woven into the walls of our shanty. They also repurposed plastic bottles, caps, and other waste to create whimsical fish sculptures that will hang inside.

This project encouraged all our students to work together, persevere and think about how they can send a message through their art and encourage others around them to rethink how they interact with our planet. It's been a really fun project, and we are excited to showcase it!

Toby Bertram, student: "Creating a shanty at NewBrook School was fun. It was really fun, actually. And building it was enjoyable, because it took a long time during several of our art classes."

Cooper Eldridge, student: "My favorite part was cutting the bags into strips for everybody to weave with. My second favorite part of this project was weaving the walls."

An ice shanty amplifies human rights worldwide

Valerie Bills' grade 3/4 class at Wardsboro Elementary in Wardsboro has created a shanty with a message.

The "Human Rights Ice Shanty" is made of plywood and is very colorful.

Students learned what an activist is and researched human rights activists from a list of pre-selected activists. They first wrote a multiparagraph biography and then designed a T-shirt about the activist they chose. These T-shirts will have their biographies posted on the back describing how the activist helped change the world in some way. At the exhibit, the student's T Shirts will be displayed on clotheslines off the Ice Shanty.

Each of the four classrooms (grades 3, 4, 5 and 6) designed and helped paint a mural for one of the four sides of our ice shanty reflecting a human rights idea.

We hope that people will understand the importance of continuing to fight for human rights all around the world.

There is a value in students learning about the struggles people have had to ensure basic human rights, and in making them aware that we have a long way to go to protect the rights of all people.

Brek Ryan Holton, student: "This project made me think a lot. I did a lot of research. The resources for research we used were Epic and Sora (resources our librarian teacher, Ms. Fiona [Chevalier], taught us). I also took a million notes.

"Some classes made a picture representing human rights. Each classroom will vote to pick the image for a side on our ice shanty.

After the exhibit, "we will have the shanty at school to store our sleds and remind us of our learning."

* * *

The Artful Ice Shanties Exhibit will be on display from Saturday, Feb. 17 to Sunday, Feb. 25 in the courtyard at the Retreat Farm, 45 Farmhouse Square, in Brattleboro.

This event is free and appropriate for all ages. Visitors are welcome from dawn to dusk. Park at Retreat Farm, stop in at the welcome hut near the farmhouse, and then head into the square to see the shanties.

For more general information, visit and

This Arts item by Victoria Chertok was written for The Commons.

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