Dubuque Telegraph Herald
by Megan Gloss
Visit the shanty boat
The shanty boat will be at the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium at the Port of Dubuque beginning Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28, for an informal exhibition. Tri-state visitors are invited to stop down to see the boat, as well as share their river stories with artist Wes Modes.
A rustic shanty boat, a daring river voyage and a meticulous archive of river stories encompassing a multi-year art and history project.
It might sound like something out of the fictitious works of Mark Twain.
But for California artist Wes Modes, it has been his reality for the past year-and-a-half.
“It has been lovely,” Modes said in a phone interview during a stop in Guttenberg, Iowa. “Visiting all of these beautiful towns and hearing the stories of the river, I feel like I’m just beginning to scratch the surface of the history found here.”
Last summer, Modes set out on a journey in a re-created 1940s-style homemade shanty boat on the upper Mississippi River to gather the narratives of people who live and work on the river.
Inspired by historical accounts of shanty boaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he floated Huck Finn-style for a summer, listening to and recording the stories of those he met.
This summer, he is spending his days afloat on the Mississippi River’s Driftless Area.
Modes anticipates docking at the Port of Dubuque, near the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, for an informal exhibition Monday-Tuesday, July 27-28. He’ll remain throughout the week for visitors who would like to climb aboard the shanty, pick up a banjo to pluck or a book from the boat’s library or share their stories of life on the river.
“I wanted to design a project for my MFA (master of fine arts),” Modes said. “I was trying to come up with something that would capture both my interest in stories and people, as well as my love of history, adventure and travel.”
He came up with the idea of traveling America’s great rivers. And, what better river to explore than the mighty Mississippi.
Modes constructed the boat in California, transported it by trailer across the country, garnered funding through a Kickstarter campaign and set out on his excursion at the source of the river.
After winter, Modes’ traveling commenced where he left off, along with his dog, Hazel, and two Twin Cities-based artists collecting sounds of the river.
Modes calls the journey a river expedition of research, dubbed “A Secret History of American River People.”
“I find that the real history can be found from the not-so-everyday people who live on the fringe that don’t always have an opportunity to give an accounting of their lives and history as they have seen it, experienced it and been affected by the river,” Modes said.
At recent exhibitions in the Twin Cities, the project featured a touring participatory installation, an interactive Web documentary and a research archive. The documentary allows visitors to experience the journey and get to know its subjects.
It’s Modes’ hope that the research archive will make the stories readily available to future generations.
“After Dubuque, we’ll continue traveling down the river to other river towns,” he said. “I’m pretty excited to meet more people, learn their histories and hear their stories.”
The journey and the project are detailed at peoplesriverhistory.us.