by Michael Kelly
The culture of people who have grown up and lived on the banks of America’s great rivers has largely been left out of history, and Wes Modes has set out to tell what he believes is a big volume of untold stories.
The California artist will make the Ohio River his next project, setting out from Pittsburgh in June and floating into Marietta at a date yet to be determined. His vessel is a shantyboat, a traditional means of traveling and living on the river that has fallen into the past.
“It’s loosely based on boats built throughout the 20th century,” he said. The vessel is basically a small cabin built on a barge, about 20 feet long and eight feet wide. “People lived on them,” he said.
Modes said he traveled through America in the 1990s by hopping freight trains.
“I met people, saw the backyards of America, and when I stopped doing I missed that. I heard about some people going down the Mississippi in homemade boats, and I built this shantyboat with some friends. But I didn’t want to be a tourist just sucking up the vibe, I wanted to be giving something back to those communities. I’ve seen some forgotten places that people often aren’t aware of.”
He’s traveled summers on the Mississippi, the Tennessee, the Hudson and the Sacramento, and this year he’s taking on the Ohio, a 600-mile voyage.
He said he’s documented formal interviews with about 125 people he’s met in exploring the river culture and talked informally to thousands of others.
“The people are the most noteworthy part of the traveling, they spark your imagination,” he said. “A lot of towns have turned their backs on the river and re-centered themselves on Walmarts, highways. But there are also those who have suddenly remembered the rivers and turned their attention back, but it’s a sanitized version with parkland, and the people who have lived along the river, often those relegated to the poor part of town, are being displaced. We’re interested in people living by the river who have stories to tell.”
Modes said he is working on books and periodically posts short documentaries on his website and his YouTube channel and photos on his Flickr account.
Shannon Foults at the Marietta-Washington County Convention and Visitors Bureau said during her seven years there she has seen a number of people who have traveled to Marietta by river.
“They sometimes stop and stay for a while,” she said. Any attention Modes can bring to Marietta’s prominence as a river city at the confluence of two major waterways would be welcome, she said.
“Any kind of promotion people out there can give us helps Marietta, it always shines a good light on us,’ she said. “There are opportunities to visit us by road or by water, and it showcases us as a very welcoming place. And we love hearing stories of individuals and their way of life.”
Modes’s work can be seen at peoplesriverhistory.us, which also has links to his photo and video work as he travels the great rivers of America.