West Kentucky Star
by Rosemarie Steele,
Paducah Art Alliance
PADUCAH, KY – A rustic recreated 1940s shanty boat, a daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories are all part of a multi-year art and history project, “A Secret History of American River People.” Santa Cruz, California artist Wes Modes is currently floating his homemade houseboat on the historic Tennessee River.
Modes has exhibited the project in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Florence, and will end his historic journey at the Port of Paducah.
Over the last few years, Modes floated for months at a time on the Upper Mississippi River to collect the stories of people who live and work on the river. This year Modes, his crew and dog Hazel launched in Knoxville for a journey through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.
Modes seeks out people whose stories are not typically part of the historical record. “I try to find our elders who grew up here and remember a different time and a different river. I talk to poor and working folk and people who grew up poor along the Tennessee River. I find the stories of African-American folk and the stories of native people.”
The project is exhibiting for two weeks starting August 24th in partnership with the Paducah Arts Alliance. Artists talks are planned at the McCracken County Public Library on August 30th at 6 pm, and at the River Discovery Center on September 3rd at 3 pm. Open House hours will be throughout the next two weeks.
Visitors can step onto the recreated shanty boat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and hear stories of people who live and work on the river, or tell their own stories. The project has an ongoing photography and story blog, and will result in a series of books, short and feature documentaries, as well as an archive of river stories available to future scholars.
The journey and the project are detailed in the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us/