by Mason Blanford
Paducah Arts Alliance artist-in-residence Wes Modes and his 1940s-era shantyboat landed recently in Paducah for two weeks to discuss his ongoing project, “A Secret History of American River People.”
The shantyboat will be docked in front of the River Discovery Center at 117 S. Water St. and open for visitors from 4 to 7 p.m. today and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturday. The Santa Cruz, California, artist will speak at the River Discovery Center at 3 p.m. Saturday.
Modes also spoke at the McCracken County Public Library on Tuesday night.
The shantyboat project is in its third year, but Modes said it has roots in his life that go further back.
Modes has been referred to as a writer, lecturer, sculptor and self-proclaimed mischief-maker, but it was the title of train hopper that led Modes to his “Secret History” project.
He had been train hopping for decades when a friend told him about a group in Minneapolis that was building rafts and floating down the river. The idea immediately excited him.
After years of punk rafting (building a raft out of found and scavenged materials and floating), Modes struggled to come up with an idea for his thesis project at U.C. Santa Cruz when a return to the river gave him an answer.
“What I really wanted to do was float down the river in my newly completed shantyboat,” he said.
The shantyboat’s construction began in 2012, and Modes set sail in 2014 on the Mississippi River. Where to begin the project was an easy choice for him, inspired by the river’s looming presence in American literature.
That summer was able to satisfy Modes’ wanderlust, at least for a few months, and it also accomplished the project’s goal: traveling to different river communities and learning the stories of the people who lived there.
“I wanted to hear from people whose voices might not have been prevalent in history,” he said. “People with unique perspectives.”
Since then, Modes and his crew have spent their summers all over the Midwest. Their “Secret History” archive contains over 200 hours of oral histories gathered from the self-described “river people” they’ve met.
“Through the oral history interviews, I’m hoping that river communities have something to learn from each other,” Modes said.
“While people living along the Tennessee have different lives than people living along the Upper Mississippi or the Hudson or the Yukon, river people have many of the same concerns: pollution, invasive species, flooding, difficulty making a living in river communities and the difficulty in preserving river history in the face of development pressure.”
Recently, the project launched a 650-mile journey on the Tennessee River, from Knoxville to the Port of Paducah by request of the Paducah Arts Alliance. Modes was invited to stay by the city for the same reason that he loves his work: to hear new perspectives.
“It’s about engaging with the community,” said John Romang, a member of the Paducah Arts Alliance. Romang said he’s seen the local community enjoy the presence of several well-known artists and their work and hopes Modes’ stay will inspire other artists to visit Paducah as well.
Modes’ artist residency runs through Tuesday. Before leaving Paducah, he and his shantyboat will also participate in the Labor Day Parade on Monday.
For more information about “Secret History,” visit the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us/