Muscatine Journal: California artist stops in Muscatine on river odyssey

Muscatine Journal / Quad-City Times
By Peggy Senzarino

Wes Modes and his shanty boat

Wes Modes, Santa Cruz, California, is on the second leg of a trip down the Mississippi River collecting stories of river life and the people who live along the river. His shanty boat has a sleeping loft, small galley kitchen, library, and toilet. He been traveling for nearly three months and is hoping to reach St. Louis, Missouri before the weather turns too cold to travel.


MUSCATINE, Iowa — California artist Wes Modes and his Australian cattle dog Hazel are on an expedition down the Mississippi River this summer in a homemade shanty boat and have docked in Muscatine for a few days.

Modes, who teaches at the University of California, Santa Cruz, is collecting stories of the river and the people who live in the communities along it as a part of a multi-year art and history project titled “A Secret History of American River People.”

The pair pulled into Muscatine on Thursday and plan to spend several days learning about the community and hopefully talking with local residents about life on the Mississippi.

He started last summer in Minneapolis and got as far as LaCrosse, Wisconsin. This June, he took off from Winona, Minnesota, and plans to end his journey in St. Louis, Missouri, weather-permitting.

He has been documenting his travels with a blog on his web site http://peoplesriverhistory.us. Anyone wanting to share stories with Modes is asked to contact him by email by clicking on the contact link at the top right of his website.

This was not Modes’ first foray on the river. He had built homemade boats and floated down the Missouri and Sacramento rivers.

“I love river communities. A lot of places, the communities have turned completely away from the river,” Modes said. “I started doing research about rivers and river towns and river communities and river people and there just wasn’t that much written about it. There was a lot written about the ecology of the river but there is very little written about the social ecology of the river.”

He has had three exhibitions in the Twin Cities including a web documentary, research archive and a chance for visitors to step onto a recreated shanty.

“It’s been delightful. I’ve had 50 oral history-style interviews,” he said.

“The people have continued to impress me with their generosity, and openness. When I talk to them, people are willing to share parts of their lives, things that worry them and things that excite them.”

Rivers fascinate the California man.

“I sit by the ocean which is kind of a big deal to some people but to me the ocean just kind of sits there. The waves come in and the waves go out. But a river is on the move. A river is going somewhere,” Modes said. “You can throw a stick in the river and that stick will end up in the ocean at some point. A river by nature is dynamic and the scenery is ever-changing.”

The 1940s-style shanty boat was built with mostly recycled materials.

“This is kind of what took shape,” Modes said standing in the small living area.

Within arms reach is a small galley kitchen, a work table, library, toilet and a loft sleeping area. It took more than two and a half years to complete with the help of friends.

The kitchen counter is constructed from a piece of 100-year-old redwood. Part of the structure of the boat is a recycled chicken coop.

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