A rustic recreated 1940s shantyboat, daring river voyages, a meticulous archive of river stories, and a participatory art installation are all part of a multi-year art and history project, A Secret History of American River People.


A Secret History of American River People is an artist’s journey through the history of a river, a series of epic river journeys to gather a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river. The shantyboat and archive are featured in a touring art installation.

Visitors to the Secret History exhibit can explore the digital archives, see excerpts of interviews, explore the physical library of river-related books and materials, explore the boat, and talk with the artist. Additionally, an interactive feature is available to be screened inside the hosting institution.


When visitors step onto the recreated shantyboat, they step into another world where they can pick up the banjo or a book, sit awhile and overhear the personal stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river.  They can explore issues faced by people on the river, navigating individual stories, multiple histories, and thematic paths.


Visitors are invited to share their own river stories. At each show, dozens of visitors hand-write or type meaningful recollections and experiences that in turn are added to the archive.

Upcoming Exhibitions

Here are upcoming exhibitions:

Jul 1, 2018 World Awareness Children’s Museum, Fort Edward, NY
Jul 6 – Aug 6, 2018 White Box, New York, NY
Jul 12 – 14, 2018 Hudson River Maritime Museum, Kingston, NY
Jul 20 – 22, 2018 Haverstraw Brick Museum and River Arts Fund
Jul 24, 2018 Waterfront Museum, Brooklyn, NY

Past Exhibitions

A list of past exhibitions:

Jul 1-30, 2017 Sacramento History Museum, Sacramento, CA
Jun 3, 2017 Ebb & Flow River Arts Celebration, Tannery Arts Center, Santa Cruz, CA
May 27, 2017 Felton Remembers Parade, Felton, CA
Aug 22 – Sep 7, 2016 River Discovery Center, Paducah, KY
Aug 5 – 8, 2016 Kennedy Douglass Center for the Arts, Florence, AL
Jul 26 – 27, 2016 Ditto Landing, Huntsville, AL
Jun 25 – Jul 5, 2016 Knoxville Museum of Art & Volunteer Landing, Knoxville TN
Apr 7 – May 1, 2016 In Conversation with UCSC Studio Art Faculty, R. Blitzer Gallery, Santa Cruz, CA
Nov 21, 2015 Radical Craft Night, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz, CA
Aug 1 – 5, 2015 National Mississippi River Museum, Dubuque, IA (Photos)
Jun 26, 2015 St. Paul Yacht Club, St. Paul, MN (Photos)
Jun 30, 2015 Nine Nights of Music, Minnesota History Center, St Paul, MN (Photos)
Jul 1m, 2015 River City Revue, St. Paul Yacht Club, St. Paul, MN
Apr 23 – 26, 2015 UCSC Digital Art and New Media MFA Show, UCSC, Santa Cruz, CA (Photos)
Nov 21, 2014 Radical Craft Night, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, Santa Cruz, CA
Nov 8, 2014 FIGMENT Oakland, Mosswood Park, Oakland, CA (Photos)
Jul 24, 2104 Open House, Boom Island Park, Minneapolis, MN (Photos)
May 15, 2014 UCSC Art Department Open Studios, UCSC, Santa Cruz, CA

A Secret History Exhibit

Major goals of the project are to create a powerful tool for learning about the river and people’s relationship to it, to create a multi-perspective and multi-path take on historical narrative, and to challenge assumptions about the role in society of people living at the fringe. Most of all, we want to inspire audiences to take river history and draw parallels in addressing challenges in their own time and place.

The project is dedicated to hands-on learning and participatory engagement. It is a multidisciplinary project that brings together divergent threads of artistic creativity, adventure, and academic research.


A hosting institution can work with the project to connect visitors to the stories of those living along the river, as well as engage visitors in participatory opportunities to share their own river stories and experiences. These visitor stories become part of the Secret History archive and travel onward downriver with the project. Sharing and exploring these river stories offer visitors a door into wonder, discovery, and emotional connection with river people and the river itself.


An exhibition of the Secret History project, even a short engagement, can be useful in meeting an institution’s goals of meaningful artistic engagement, drawing new audiences, and connecting with regional issues. 

Through a participatory tour of the shantyboat and the Secret History archive, the exhibit allows people to step into the past and bring something forward to inform their present, challenge their assumptions, and consider their own forgotten histories.\

Exhibition Specifications

The principal parts of the Secret History exhibit are the shantyboat and the indoor installation.

Housed within the shantyboat are the project library and archive. In the archive, there is an increasing amount of ephemera and artifacts associated with the project which could potentially be located on the walls of the exhibition space.

The indoor installation includes the Secret History interactive feature exhibited in a kiosk supported by a small pier and the project’s jonboat.

Contents Shantyboat containing library and archive. Optional installation including video feature to be sited inside. Artist available for talks, opening, and other special events. Links to Secret History website for online visitors.
Options The exhibit can be featured with or without the indoor installation. Given space and access, the shantyboat itself can be moved inside off of the trailer. Framed portraits of interviewees and contextual narrative are available. Additional screens for featuring the interactive feature or longer-form interviews can be available. Interviewees may be available to offer public talks about their experiences on the river.
Funding Exhibition fee negotiable. Additional funding secured independently through grants, partnerships, and in-kind donations. Institutional support is welcome and helps offset travel and exhibition costs.
Institutional contribution Space for installation. Promotion through regular channels, including website. Volunteer docent during exhibit open hours.
Size and Weight Shantyboat: approximately 800 square feet, 6000 pounds approx. Installation: suggested minimum 100 square feet. Optional indoor installation 200 square feet.
Security Medium. Security guard for unprotected overnight outdoor siting suggested.
Contact Wes Modes, 831.704.6690 (artist)
Special requirements Shantyboat on trailer is 8 feet by 24 feet by 13 feet high. It can be situated in any accessible indoor or semi-protected outdoor space. Entry by gangplank (provided) or stairs (not provided). Not handicap accessible. Boat can be removed from trailer by special arrangement during longer engagements. Off trailer dimensions are 8 feet by 22 feet by 11 feet.


Secret History is exhibiting in California’s Bay Area and Central Valley until August 2017.


Secret History can be configured as a short-run small-scale exhibit (on trailer) or as an entire full-run dedicated exhibit (off trailer inside). The installation ideally augments group programming: for instance, larger shows about river ecology, river communities, or regionally-connected art. Alternately, it could be a pop-up or stand-alone exhibit to bring additional participatory interest to a program of events or to provide variety to an otherwise homogenous program of exhibits. The nature of the exhibit (modest space requirements, short run possibilities) may open up opportunities for a curator on a more short timetable.

3 comments for “Exhibition

  1. April 27, 2016 at 4:28 am

    Such an awesome project. Hope to experience it at some point!

  2. Nick Normal
    August 19, 2016 at 7:56 pm

    This is an excellent project – I love telling people about ‘Secret History of American River People’ – thanks for all you do.

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