The Soft Shop

February 8, 2007

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Music: Waylon Jennings - "Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?"

It looks like a fabric store's going out of business sale. Piles of brightly colored materials, tangled knots of yarn, and heaps of shiny silver emergency blankets spill into the hallway of a cozy Humboldt Park apartment. Buried within the mess are four young friends in the midst of a very ambitious art project.

Ilana: I wanted to do art, we all wanted to do an art project – we think this is a really interesting concept. Also it's kind of like a physical challenge – and who doesn't like that? (laughter)

That was Ilana Percher. Together with Aay Preston-Myint, Rebecca Grady, and Charlie Vinz, they are busy creating their dream shanty: a heptagonal ice fishing shack inspired by Mongolian yurts, built entirely from salvaged materials, and mounted on skis.

Grady and Preston-Myint explain:

Rebecca: It's basically going to be a 3 dimensional crazy quilt. Things will be like hanging from the ceiling and popping out of the walls.

Aay: We just have like this really bizarre design and it's going to be filled with all this – stuff that by itself might be a little weird, but all together will be like totally nuts. (laughter)

Music: The Rolling Stones - "Shake Your Hips"

The whole idea sounds rather wonderful, but concern does run in the group. Will they finish building in time? Will people really visit the shop? Will they survive the cold? Shanty architect Charlie Vinz worries about the structure itself.

Charlie: I just hope that the outside comes together (laughter) and forms a quality barrier between the elements and us.
Music: The Magnetic Fields "I Think I Need a New Heart"

December proves to be a frantic month collecting supplies and starting to build. The group trades their pencils, needles and thread for power tools and moves the operation from the cozy apartment to a drafty, dimly lit Bridgeport storefront. (SFX, taping, drilling, saw, router, wood)

Finally, after many sleepless nights of non-stop work, the group packs up their U-Haul and sets out to the land of 10,000 lakes.
("I Think I Need A New Heart" – fade to black)

It's 4 degrees outside with a wind chill of -14.

The conditions make setting up shop a real challenge. Preston-Myint develops a minor case of hypothermia and their truck gets stuck in the snow and the sand, twice.

Rebecca: at like 5 when it's too dark to do anything else out here, we go back the U-haul and like can't leave…and triple A wouldn't come out here because we're off the road.

Ilana: And then like two hours later we finally got the truck out of the ditch and then like I tried to drive my car away again – and I was like what's the problem, and they were like we're stuck again. And they called me on the cell phone again and I was like "Oh – how…great." (laughter).

Music: AC Newman - "Miracle Drug"

But their resolve and unfailing optimism proves the stereotype wrong that artists can be a little too sensitive when the going gets tough. Smiling through his beard icicles, Charlie Vinz:

Charlie: I think I've built a lot of character so far, in these past couple of days.

What he, Percher, Grady, and Preston-Myint have also built is a remarkable, livable art piece. With a shimmering silver roof, orange vinyl siding, and an illuminated green light dome, the Soft Shop contrasts the wintry white surroundings.

Music: "Battle Hymn of the Republic"

Andy: Thank you everyone for assembling. What you are going to see now is a brief tour of the history and environs of Medicine Lake, the lake that you are presently walking on…(fade under)

Opening day festivities are a spectacle. Visitors are greeted by a geometric wonderland of plywood, particleboard, glass, foam, and even life-sized Lincoln logs. Bundled up dogs in booties and wide-eyed, red-nosed kids wander amazed through the makeshift village.

With his giant rabbit fur mitten, festival co-founder Peter Haakon Thompson points out a few of the 20 neighboring shanties.

Peter: There's the vista shanty, the shanty of misfit toys, the norae shanty, the knitting shanty, there's the Soft Shop…

And in answer to the question on everyone's mind – yes – there is a port-o-potty shanty – and that makes both artists and visitors very happy.

Art car woman: It was a little chilly on the butt (brrr!) but very relieving!

Despite the temperature hovering around zero, the atmosphere created by the artists and community is undeniably warm. Festival co-founder David Pittman explains:

David: You're sort of going to get a new experience of interacting with artists on a level that's not the typical stuffy – nah – that's mean – you know your normal gallery whitewall experience inside everything – don't touch! You can touch out here!

Not only can you touch you can crochet, broadcast, develop photos, practice yoga and even send and receive mail. And if you can visit, look for the Soft Shop, in the bright red-range yurt with the silver roof.

Mike: Alright – this is the Soft Shop coming up with some ahhh – some B52s…

And if you don't see them – just listen… they're probably warming up the mic in that karaoke shanty next door.

The Soft Shop members singing "Love Shack"

For Chicago Public Radio, I'm Jennifer Brandel.