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Insider Louisville: Exhibit on America’s river heritage finds berth at Portland Museum

Insider Louisville
By Mark R. Long

Wes Modes will bring his shantyboat down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to Louisville this summer. | Photo by Wes Modes

Ahead of a shantyboat trip down the Ohio River this summer, California artist Wes Modes will open a window onto the history and culture of the nation’s rivers on Saturday, Feb. 16, at the Portland Museum.

Modes is entering the sixth year of his “Secret History of American River People” project, which documents stories from residents along some of the nation’s great waterways. A former tech worker who lectures at two universities, Modes says the bug for river meandering first bit him in the early 2000s. Ideas and questions that came up during summer floats coalesced into the multimedia project.

“I didn’t want to be a tourist moving through river communities,” says Modes, 53. “I wanted to be a person who was offering something up to these places I was going. The thing I could offer was listening to stories.”

Wes Modes

The exhibit of the project and Modes’ summer trip come amid a monthslong, citywide celebration of art, culture and history called “Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life.” The Filson Historical Society is holding related events and exhibits, as is the Asia Institute-Crane House, Garner Narrative and Swanson Contemporary galleries, New Albany’s Carnegie Center and others.

Modes says he’s done 125 interviews and gathered hundreds of hours of video footage from more than 1,200 miles of floating down the upper Mississippi, Tennessee, Sacramento and Hudson rivers. Along with recordings and artifacts, the exhibit will feature photographs printed on translucent silk. 

“It’s important to recognize that there’s no one story to the river,” Modes says. “When it came to representing those stories, at least photographically, I wanted to have them overlapping in a way that suggests layeredness.”

For Portland Museum Manager Ash Braunecker, hosting the exhibit — which continues through Aug. 3 — provides an opportunity to remind people of the city’s deep connection to the Ohio.

“It’s a great fit because we have this rich history with the river and we have this rich history of shantyboat communities,” says Braunecker. Like Modes, “we interpret history and heritage through the arts and culture. Plus, it gets us into the regional conversation.”

Modes will be at the Portland Museum on Saturday, Feb. 16, from 1-4 p.m. to help open the exhibit. The museum is located at 2308 Portland Ave.

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