On a shantyboat in Alabama, nights are hot, food is good and stories flow
by Dennis Pillion

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Smack dab in the middle of the Tennessee River, between the O’Neal Bridge stretching from Muscle Shoals into Florence and TVA’s Wilson Dam, a recreated relic of river history is stuck like a catfish on a line, its anchor snagged on God only knows what at the bottom of the river.

The shantyboat Dotty, a floating art project crafted by California-based artist Wes Modes, is late for an open house at the Florence Harbor Marina, and after 20 minutes of trying to navigate the anchor free, Modes and ship’s mate Adrian Nankivell are starting to wonder if they’ll have to cut the line and figure out where to buy a new anchor.

Modes is working the 8-horsepower Mercury motor for all it’s worth, chugging against the current to get the boat upstream of the anchor in hopes that it might detach from whatever lies in the depths. Nankivell stands at the bow mirroring the direction of the anchor line with his outstretched arm as a guide for Modes as he maneuvers the boxy craft.

1940s-style shantyboat floats through Alabama to document 'American River People'

1940s-style shantyboat floats through Alabama to document ‘American River People’

Wes Modes built this 1940s-style shantyboat to document “A Secret History of American River People.”

Finally, Nankivell tugs the anchor line up and it pulls free, releasing the boat from its hold.

Ship’s mate Adrian Nankivell and captain Wes Modes take a shot of moonshine to celebrate getting their anchor unstuck from the bottom of the Tennessee River near Florence, Ala. Modes is taking his shantyboat Dotty down the river this summer for his project “A Secret History of American River People.” Photo by Dennis Pillion |

Because it’s a shantyboat, Modes and Nakivell have to celebrate immediately with shots of homemade moonshine that someone gave them along the way. It just seems right.

Modes built Dotty from found materials about three years for his ongoing project “A Secret History of American River People,” in which he cruises along major rivers seeking out local people who’ve lived large parts of their lives on the river and recording lengthy interviews with them about the river lifestyle.

The¬†interviews are sometimes shown at exhibitions along the way, like one¬†earlier this month at Florence’s Kennedy-Douglas Center for the Arts, and he maintains an active web site chronicling the journey.

Sometimes the people he interviews even leave him gifts like the moonshine, a six-pack of beer or an official framed certificate from the non-existent National Association of Shantyboaters.

“People have been amazingly generous with their stories,” Modes said. “Sometimes they thank me as if I’m the one bringing them a gift by listening.

“People bring us fruit and vegetables, bread, books, their family photos and old newspaper articles. The outpouring of generosity we get when we travel through these towns is just so amazing.”

Before this year’s jaunt down the Tennessee, Modes and his shantyboat spent two summers on the Mississippi, starting in Minnesota and working his way down through St. Louis. This year, Modes¬†started in Knoxville, Tenn., spent about three weeks in Alabama and worked his¬†way¬†to Paducah, Kentucky, where he just started¬†a two-week exhibition.

Life on the water

When you’re out on the water in a shantyboat in northern Alabama, the summer days are hot, the nights are short and sleep can be elusive.

Modes said that when he’s on the water in between marinas, he usually waits to start cooking dinner until well after dark, 10 p.m. or so, when it finally starts to cool off a little. Firing up the shantyboat’s two-burner gas stove or small, foldable oven heats up the entire cabin. This year, the shantyboat features screens over the windows to allow for ventilation without inundation by mosquitoes.

With dinner at 10, it’s hard to get to bed¬†early¬†and the morning sun brings light and heat that makes it hard to sleep in.

The kitchen on board the shantyboat Dotty doesn’t have much square footage, but artist Wes Modes still manages to make good dinners and drinks. Photo by Dennis Pillion |

Even though his kitchen is the size of many people’s pantry, Modes makes a point of serving up quality meals for himself and his crew, which consists of a ship’s mate and a ship’s hound, Hazel.

“This stove works better than my stove at home,” Modes said. “When we’re underway we have plenty of fresh vegetables and fruit, meat if we want it.

“We end up making glorious meals, like a breakfast of dirty grits and bacon and scrambled eggs, omelettes, biscuits or whatever.”

The shantyboat’s ceilings are surprisingly high, probably nine feet at the apex, but the interior is pretty sparse. There is a loft with a mattress, above the kitchen and command console, but that’s for the captain.

“There’s kind of a crampy, uncomfortable, hot bed up here,” Modes said, pointing over his head. “But it’s very cushy. On colder nights, it’s delightful.”

Nankivell, or whoever the ship’s mate is at the time, can choose from a very worn leather loveseat or the deck itself when it’s time to bed down.

Modes has been through several ship’s mates over the three years of the project, though Nankivell traveled the farthest to participate of anyone. He lives in Queenstown, New Zealand and spent a large chunk of his stateside vacation on board the shantyboat. He said he’s been to the States a few times before, mostly on the west coast, so this trip offered him a different view of the country.

“It’s pretty awesome,” Nankivell said. “It’s a side of America that not many tourists or people from overseas would get to see and I’m right up amongst it.”

Artist Wes Modes aboard the shantyboat Dotty, floating down the Tennessee River this summer as part of Modes’ oral history project “A Secret History of American River People.” Photo by Dennis Pillion |

On the boat, every wall boasts either bookshelves or enclosed cabinets. There is extra storage under the floor, and when no one’s sleeping in the loft, things are likely to get tossed up there as well. Bags of oranges, onions¬†and garlic hang under the loft area.

When Modes stops for mid-afternoon refreshments on the river outside the Florence marina, he pulls out liquor bottles and club soda from seemingly hidden compartments and makes vodka tonics with fresh cut lime wedges for himself and Nankivell.

Casey Edmonds, of Sheffield, Ala., who toured the boat when it got back to the marina, said it was like a floating tiny house.

“I really like tiny houses and this is like the boat version of a tiny house,” she said. “I knew I had to come out and see it for myself.”

Alabama’s river people

Modes and crew spent almost three weeks in Alabama before moving back into Tennessee on the way to Paducah. He said he saw many differences and some similarities between those he met in other states.

Among the Alabamians he met and interviewed for the project are the archaeologist at Redstone Arsenal, an openly transgender woman from Florence, the chief of the Guntersville Police Department, and Tori Bailey, who runs WZZA radio, a locally-owned station started by her parents that’s been broadcasting soul to the Shoals for 44 years.

Modes said some towns have been more excited than others about his project, but overall the reception he’s gotten has been positive.

“What I found was people were generous and sweet and there were smart people and not-so-smart people, but uniformly everybody’s been super decent to us,” he said. “We haven’t met anybody we didn’t like yet.”

What’s next for Wes and Dotty?

When he’s not floating down a river somewhere, Modes is a professor in the art department at the University of California Santa Cruz. After his exhibition in Paducah, Modes will tow his boat back there and teach classes this fall, all while planning next year’s journey.

Modes said there will undoubtedly be at least one book that comes from his project, as well as documentary film footage, but that the goal isn’t to produce some kind of commercial project.

“It’s interesting to¬†be talking to people and introduce the concept of social practice art,” Modes said. “Art that doesn’t have necessarily a tangible component and telling them that ‘Hey, me floating down the river and listening to your stories is itself the art.’

“It’s a lot harder than saying ‘this is a painting you can touch, or this is a book that’s written.’ But there are other layers. There’s an ongoing web site, there’s short and feature documentaries that I’m working on, and yes, there¬†are¬†going to be a couple of books that come out.”

He has some ideas for next year, but hasn’t¬†announced where he and the boat will be headed. But after three years on the river, he has no plans to stop.

“People ask me all the time when I’m going to be done,” Modes said.¬†“I just tell them that I’ll be done¬†when I float the last river on the continent, which I don’t think will happen any time soon.”

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