A Secret History of American River People is a dialogic and participatory project that gathers and presents the oral histories of people who live and work on major American river from the deck of a recreated 1940s-era shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project explores the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and basic river ecology.
We are entering our fifth year of the project. The shantyboat has traveled over 1250 river miles and 20,000 miles by land. We’ve conducted over 100 oral history interviews spanning 100 hours of video, exhibited nationwide, and talked to thousands of people about the river.
Using material from fieldwork, Secret History reexamines the lifestyles, biographies and labor conditions of river life. Particular attention is given to the invisible stories of women, native people, working people, and people of color, to create a complex and subtle understanding of each river’s historical narrative, to explore the importance of a public commons and to challenge dominant cultural assumptions about the role in society of people living at the fringe.
This piece is a multi-layered art and social history project that presents its rich findings through art exhibitions, photography, social media, digital film, and book projects. A Secret History has been exhibited at art, science, and history museums nationwide in conjunction with explorations on the Upper Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, and California’s Sacramento River.
These untold personal narratives are important cultural artifacts with wide-reaching significance. To people living in river communities across the continent, it offers solutions to shared challenges. The narratives also contribute to the history of the United States, particularly histories that have been previously hidden or repressed
Outcomes of the project include a touring interactive art installation, an extensive website, a comprehensive research archive, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books. The project’s sculptural component is a homemade recreated 1940s-style barge-bottom wooden-hulled shantyboat that serves as both the vehicle for the project and an artifact in exhibitions.
This summer our fieldwork takes us to New York’s Hudson River. Check out how you can help support the project.
Secret History: The Story So Far
In 2012, California artist Wes Modes began building the Secret History shantyboat. Inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he lovingly recreated a traditional wooden-hulled barge-bottom houseboat with friends over two years out of largely rustic reclaimed materials.
In the summers of 2014 and 2015, Wes embarked on epic journeys to discover, present, and connect the personal narratives of river people from the deck of the shantyboat on the Mississippi River. The project combines his experience as a sculptor and digital artist, his enduring interest in people’s history, personal narrative, and river life, and his thirst for adventure.
Meeting people who work and live on the river, Wes collected a digital archive of personal histories — the lost stories of river people, river communities, and the river itself, including the personal chronicle of the artist’s adventure. Wes conducted oral-history interviews with Upper Mississippi artists, boathouse residents, scientists, researchers, historians, business owners, and adventurers. On the journey, he used the project website and social media to share stories, photographs, and video to connect river people with those far from the river.
In summer 2016 in conjunction with exhibitions in the region, Wes re-launched the shantyboat on the Tennessee River. A summer-long research voyage started in Knoxville, Tennessee and traveled 658 river miles through northern Alabama and Mississippi, ending in Paducah, Kentucky where the Tennessee meets the Ohio River. The project exhibited at a half dozen locations.
In 2017, we boated the length of California’s Sacramento River from the mountains to the delta, running through the Central Valley with interviews and exhibitions along the way.
The shantyboat serves as the primary artistic focus of the project, serving not only as the expedition vessel but the project library and archive. Visitors to the Secret History exhibition can explore the archives, see excerpts of interviews, explore the physical library of river-related books and materials, explore the boat, and talk with the artist. Secret History continues to show at art and history institutions nationwide.
In the winter months, Wes returns home to the mountains of coastal California to teach and to work on the Secret History archive and book projects. He is currently working on the first volume of a series of books about the project.
Summer 2018’s fieldwork will take us to New York’s Hudson River, from the lakes and canals of the historic Upper Hudson, through the wild estuary of the lower river, finally to the industrial wastelands of the urban Harlem and East Rivers concluding with exhibitions in New York City.
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About the Artist
Wes Modes is a California artist focused on social practice, sculpture, performance and new media work. He holds an MFA from the Digital Art and New Media program at UCSC. He has exhibited his art and performed regionally since 1996. He is also a UCSC art lecturer and curator for the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History. In other lives, he is a high-tech runaway, writer, community organizer, geek, and mischief-maker.
Special thanks to those who made the project possible, particularly our friends and supporters who gave their time, energy and money to make this happen, those who generously shared their stories for the archive, and our sponsors and granting organizations.
See a more complete peek at who makes this project possible: Our acknowledgments.