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A rustic recreated mid-century 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.

For a schedule of upcoming events and a list of past exhibitions, please see our Upcoming Events page.

Shantyboat Dotty at FIGMENT Art Festival in Oakland, California where the shantyboat served as a stage for a variety of old-time musicians

A Secret History of American River People is a dialogical and participatory art project that explores the oral histories of people who live and work on major American rivers from the deck of a recreated mid-century shantyboat over a series of epic river voyages. The project examines the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and basic river ecology.

The project is a contemporary art piece that recalls Suzanne Lacy’s dialogical works, the community-based work of Helen and Newton Harrison, the land art movement, and the contemporary water-based practice of Marie Lorenz, Mary Mattingly, Duke Riley, Eve Mosher, and others. In the humanities, it recalls the work of social documentarians, Dorothea Lange, Walker Evans, Alan Lomax, and Howard Zinn. The project thoughtfully examines both our ongoing river journeys and the conversations with river people that result. It includes a substantial installation with built elements, project artifacts, photographs, audio, video, new media, and participatory components.

Shantyboat at Ebb & Flow River Festival in Santa Cruz. Photo by Bredette Dyer

Using material from fieldwork, Secret History reexamines the lifestyles, biographies and labor conditions of river life. Particular attention is given to the invisible stories of women, native people, working people, and people of color, to create a complex and subtle understanding of each river’s historical narrative, to explore the importance of a public commons and to challenge dominant cultural assumptions about the role in society of people living at the fringe.

The piece is a multi-layered art and social history project that presents its rich findings through a touring interactive art installation, an extensive website, a comprehensive research archive, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books. A Secret History has been exhibited at art, science, and history museums nationwide in conjunction with explorations on the Upper Mississippi River, the Tennessee River, California’s Sacramento River, and New York’s Hudson River.

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 installation, 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.

A Secret History Exhibit

The project can be featured in either a full installation or short pop-up exhibitions. While we are in the midst of fieldwork, an exhibition in proximity to the river can feature the project shantyboat which the public can tour and explore. Outside of fieldwork, the shantyboat can be featured at your location, typically trailered. For a longer exhibition outside of fieldwork times, if facility entrances allow, the shantyboat can be moved inside of the gallery.

Secret History shantyboat at Santa Cruz Ebb & Flow River Festival
  • Artist: Wes Modes
  • Title: A Secret History of American River People
  • Date: 2014-present
  • Medium: Installation
  • Dimensions: Variable (minimum 1000 sq ft)
  • Installation Components:
    • Shantyboat: The Shantyboat Dotty can be exhibited within the gallery space provided there is an entry large enough to accommodate the boat. Alternately, the shantyboat can be exhibited outside the gallery on a trailer. The shantyboat (off-trailer) is 8 feet by 22 feet by 11 feet high. Shantyboat on-trailer dimensions are 8 feet by 24 feet by 14 feet high.
    • Photographs: Suspended from above, portraits of interviewees, stills from the project, and moving video images on sheer silk organza, flow like a river through the gallery space.
    • Dock: includes dock, media cabinet, and full-sized rowboat.
    • Table: includes wooden table, art, history and river reference books, river maps, a lantern, fire whiskey, ship’s log, and story cards upon which visitors can leave their own river story.
    • Stories: The stories of river people and of our journey are displayed on a series of rustic media cabinets throughout the gallery with headphones or without
    • Ambient audio and video: A video loop of sunlight glistening on water accompanies ambient audio of water gently sloshing against the hull of the shantyboat sets a tone in the gallery.

Proposed Dates:

Fieldwork typically happens during summer months, usually late June to early August. During fieldwork, our exhibitions are usually restricted to the river we are traveling. Outside of fieldwork time, exhibition dates are flexible.

Secret History installation at R. Blitzer Gallery, Santa Cruz, California

Installation Plan

While the installation has variable dimensions and can be tailored to many exhibition spaces, the full installation optimally requires a minimum of 1000 square feet. If the shantyboat is included in the gallery space, an additional 1000 square feet is required. An abbreviated installation can fit in a space as small as 500 square feet. If other artists are included in the exhibition, a larger space would be required.

Full Secret History exhibition at Portland Museum in Louisville, Kentucky
Plan view of exhibition in 60’x60’ space
Full Secret History exhibition at Portland Museum in Louisville, Kentucky
Plan view of exhibition in 60’x20’ space

Installation contains a dock that anchors one end of the installation. A full size row boat is moored to the dock. Several rustic media cabinets show footage of interviewees and from the journey.

Detail of dock, video cabinet, and boat.

A wooden table anchors the other end of the exhibit, and contains artifacts from the expeditions, including hand-compiled notes about the rivers, art, history and river reference books, river maps, a lantern, a bottle of homemade fire whiskey, the ship’s log, and cards upon which visitors can leave their own river story.

Detail of table with shantyboat artifacts, ship’s log, and visitor story cards

Suspended from above, portraits of interviewees, photographs from the project, and moving video images printed on sheer silk flow like a river through the gallery space. Visitors wearing provided headphones can hear interviewers stories and river sounds via iBeacon/BLE technology.

Exhibition with suspended photographs and video on sheer silk organza
Exhibition table and participatory story cards
Exhibition media cabinet, dock and rowboat

During the period that the artist and shantyboat are in town, the shantyboat can be located at the nearby waterfront or brought via trailer to the gallery. Visitors are encouraged to examine the boat, ask questions, sign the ship’s log, and leave their own river story on prepared Story Cards. At exhibitions, visitors step onto the recreated shantyboat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and overhear the stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river.

The shantyboat can also be sited directly in the gallery, if it can be accommodated. The shantyboat (off-trailer) is 8 feet by 22 feet by 11 feet. On-the-trailer dimensions are 8 feet by 24 feet by 14 feet high. It can be situated in any accessible indoor or semi-protected outdoor space. Not handicap accessible.

Exhibition with shantyboat in gallery

Exhibition considerations: The media cabinet and a few strategically ceiling-mounted handheld-projectors need power. An optimal light configuration would backlight the photos. Some thought will have to be given to how to suspend the photo tracks. If the timing works, the artists are available to deliver, setup, and breakdown of the exhibition.

Shantyboat sited at local riverfront
Shantyboat Dotty at Pop-Up Exhibition in New Richmond, Ohio


Wes Modes artist talk in Florence Alabama

When the shantyboat arrives in town via the river, visitors can tour the shantyboat either at the nearby waterfront (such as a local marina) or on the trailer outside the gallery.

Artist talk at Portland Museum in Louisville, Kentucky

The artists are available for talks, opening, and other special events. Other options include an art walk first/third Friday open house, school tours, cross-promotion and shared content on the museum’s website or blog. Before and after our visit, your fans can follow the journey on social media through stories, photos, and video introducing the people we meet, the places we explore, and the adventure of the trip.

Budget Overview

The project supports itself through fundraisers, occasional grants, and exhibition fees. For the traveling exhibit, we typically request $3000-5000 for an exhibition, on a sliding scale depending on the budget of the institution. Exhibition fees help cover the cost incurred while traveling down the river and gathering interviews for the archive.

For a longer and more complicated engagement, we will work with institutions to secure funding for an exhibition through grants and sponsorships.

The entire project had a $35K budget in FY2019, with roughly half being reserved for summer fieldwork and maintaining the project shantyboat. As with previous years, in-kind artist contributions make up the difference between expenses and income sources.

FY2017-2018 Funding Sources

We understand that exhibition fees are not within the budget of every institution. If so, we would ask that staff commit to helping us find local funding partners to meet our budget requirements.

Exhibiting Artist Info

Wes Modes is a California artist focused on social practice, sculpture, performance and new media work. He holds a MFA from the Digital Art and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz. He has exhibited his art and performance since 1996. He is an art and design lecturer at UC Santa Cruz, California and State University Monterey Bay. He has served as Summer Curator at the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History for the well-received Art Works exhibition and residency. Wes worked in the tech industry for 25 years as a software engineer, systems administrator, and systems architect.  He is also a writer, performer, adventurer and community organizer.


Exhibitions & Artist Talks

  • East Bay Mini Maker Faire, Oakland, CA, pop-up exhibition & artist talk, 2020, 2019, 2018
  • Visual Culture, Arts, and Media at Haverford College, artist talk, 2020
  • Kindling, Burning Man Project, Reno, NV, artist talk, 2020
  • Endless Summer Paddle Company, Louisville, Kentucky, artist talk, 2019
  • New Richmond Historical Society, New Richmond, OH, pop-up exhibition, 2019
  • First Friday, Marietta, OH, pop-up exhibition, 2019
  • Grave Creek Mound Complex, Moundsville, West Virginia, pop-up exhibition and artist talk, 2019
  • Ebb & Flow, Santa Cruz, CA, pop-up exhibition, 2019, 2018, 2017
  • Beacon Sloop Club, Beacon, NY, artist talk, 2019
  • Felton Remembers Parade, Felton, California, 2019, 2018, 2017
  • Portland Museum, Louisville, KY, full exhibition, 2019
  • North Brooklyn Boat Club, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, open house, 2018
  • Sunview Luncheonette, Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY, artist talk, 2018
  • White Box, New York, NY, full exhibition and artists panel, 2018
  • Waterfront Museum, Brooklyn, NY, Exhibition and artist talk, 2018
  • World Awareness Children’s Museum, Fort Edward, NY, pop-up exhibition, 2018
  • Waterford, Waterford, NY, pop-up exhibition, 2018
  • River Maritime Museum, Kingston, NY, pop-up exhibition, 2018
  • Haverstraw River Arts Fund, Haverstraw, NY, pop-up exhibition, 2018
  • Design Tech High School, Burlingame, CA, artist talk, 2017
  • Sacramento History Museum, Sacramento, CA, full exhibition, 2017
  • River Discovery Center, Paducah, KY, full exhibition, 2016
  • R. Blitzer Gallery, Santa Cruz, CA, full exhibition, 2016
  • Kennedy Douglass Center for the Arts, Florence, AL, full exhibition, 2016
  • Ditto Landing, Huntsville, AL, pop-up exhibition, 2016
  • Knoxville Museum of Art / Volunteer Landing, artist talk, 2016
  • Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous, University of California Santa Cruz, artist talk, 2016
  • National Mississippi River Museum, Dubuque, Iowa, pop-up exhibition, 2015
  • River City Revue, St. Paul Yacht Club, St Paul, MN, pop-up exhibition, 2015
  • 9 Nights of Music, Minneapolis History Center, St. Paul, pop-up exhibition, 2015
  • Radical Craft Night, Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, pop-up exhibition, 2015, 2014, 2013
  • DANM MFA Exhibition, UC Santa Cruz, full exhibition, 2015
  • Leonardo Art Science Evening Rendezvous, University California Davis, artist talk, 2015
  • Friday Forum for Graduate Research, University California Santa Cruz, artist talk, 2015
  • FIGMENT Art Festival, Oakland, pop-up exhibition, 2014
  • 11th Annual Graduate Research Symposium, University California Santa Cruz, artist talk, 2014
  • 10th Annual Graduate Research Symposium, University California Santa Cruz, artist talk, 2014
Shantyboat Dotty at FIGMENT Art Festival in Oakland, California

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