Times Daily: Telling secrets: California artist gathers river stories from a shanty

Times Daily
By Monica Collier

Wes Modes’ 1940s era shanty boat is docked on the bank of a river. Modes is in the Shoals and will be part of “A Secret History of American River People,” sponsored by the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts, Friday through Sunday.

For four days, Friday through Monday, the Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts and Florence Harbor and Marina will host Wes Modes and “A Secret History of American River People.”

Modes, an artist and oral historian from Santa Cruz, California, has been traveling American rivers in a 1940s era recreated shanty boat for the past three years gathering local river stories.

“I don’t know if historians would call me a historian. I am an artist that is interested in history,” Modes said. “My practice involves gathering oral history and tracking down the history of the places we go. I love history.

“I’ve always been a fan of Howard Zinn’s ‘A People’s History of the United States,’ which is sort of a different way of doing history. It’s where you’re talking more to the individual people living their lives, not necessarily the people who are in power.”

In recent years, he was on the Upper Mississippi River. This year, he’s journeying through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky. Modes said it’s his first visit to Florence and only his second to the state.

He said while in Florence, he will continue to collect oral river histories.

“We’ll be talking to people in Florence who have stories of what it means to live in a river community,” he said. “We’re especially interested in people whose stories don’t usually get told in the mainstream.”

Mode said earlier in the week he spoke to a man in Decatur who literally grew up on the river.

“We’re constantly discovering these stories,” he said. “This young man had such interesting things to say about what it’s like growing up in a medium to small town on the river. He literally swam or boated when he got home from school.”

Wes Modes stands on the deck of his 1940s era shanty boat he uses to travel the rivers. During his journeys, Modes gathers stories about the river from local residents.

Christi Britten, program coordinator at the arts center, said in addition to Modes’ in-house multimedia presentation from his travels, the exhibit will include river folk art from local artists.

“I included some pieces that will complement what they have,” she said. “People will see some regional and local folk artists who are inspired by the river. A lot of these pieces are on loan from the Frith family collection. We’re pulling some from our collection as well.”

Britten said she expanded the exhibit to include the Handy Gallery and used local artist John Morgan’s work.

“John Morgan painted a lot of historic scenes between 1983 and 1990 of pioneer days when the river was really starting to build up,” Britten said. “It’s a good opportunity to show his work.”

Britten said the center is thrilled to be part of the river project and they’re especially excited about Modes and the exhibit being in town for First Fridays. The center is having a welcome reception at 5:30 p.m. Friday for Modes and his crew.

“Friday, we’ll be here until people stop coming. We hope people will walk over from First Fridays and see the exhibit and listen to the Shoals Dulcimer and Folk Music Association on the front porch,” Britten said. “We’ll be open through the weekend while he’s here. Saturday our hours will be 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. and Sunday is 1 until 4 p.m.”

Modes is docked at the Florence Harbor and Marina and the shanty boat will be open to the public 4-8 p.m. Friday,  from 10 a.m. until 4 p.m. Saturday, 2-4 p.m. Sunday and 4-8 p.m. Monday.

“In a way, the shanty boat is the art project,” Britten said. “It’s an art installation that is actively recording these oral histories. It’s a multi-faceted project he has going on. We hope this will give people ideas about how to start oral history projects of their own.”

The center is hosting a gallery talk with Modes 1-3 p.m. Sunday. He will show slides from his recent travels, tell stories of interesting people he’s met along the way and answer questions.

Kennedy-Douglass Center for the Arts is at 217 E. Tuscaloosa St., Florence. Admission is free.

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