by Christian Snyder
Backyards tell stories, Wes Modes says, and Modes is willing to listen while floating by on what looks like a hut on a raft.
On Wednesday, the California-based artist will set off on a shantyboat from the head of the Ohio River to explore the communities along the more than 950-mile long river. It’s the sixth major expedition of an archival art project, “The Secret History of American River People.”
The project began in 2014 when Modes was working on a master’s degree in fine arts at the University of California Santa Cruz, where Modes now works as a lecturer. Each time, Modes and a small crew document the people who live on rivers and their stories in an effort to archive histories and ecologies erased or damaged by development and time.
“The first trip was the Mississippi, because the Mississippi loomed so large in history,” Modes said. “Each time we’ve tried to explore a different part of the country through different rivers.”
Modes first traveled by homemade boat in 2005, long before “Secret History” began, after a train-hopping friend who called himself Hobo Lee told Modes stories from the rails. Modes was inspired and banded with a group of friends to attempt to float a homemade craft on the Missouri River.
They built their raft from inner tubes fitted beneath a few sheets of plywood. Over the years, they made several trips on various rivers, just for the enjoyment of being on the water. But those rudimentary rafts couldn’t handle longer river trips. So Modes decided to build something better, inspired by Harlan Hubbard’s “Shantyboat Journal,” a collection of diary entries from the 20th-century artist who lived with his wife in a homemade houseboat.
Modes’ boat is 20 feet long, with a rectangular flat bottom. The ceiling is more than 8 feet high at its peak, creating an interior which comfortably fits a bed, an extensive collection of art and books, a small kitchen and a deck, where Modes can often be found drinking a gin and tonic. The boat is named Dotty, after Modes’ grandmother.
“In truth, she didn’t like the nickname Dotty. But Dorothy seemed too grand a name for the ship.”
She’s proven seaworthy, however. After the Mississippi River trip in 2015, Modes and the “Secret History” team floated Dotty down the Tennessee River in 2016 and the Sacramento River in 2017. Last summer, they floated on the Hudson River. Modes has always wanted to explore the Ohio.
“It’s a river that’s loaded with such history and such contradictions. It’s a river people love and treasure, and it was also used as a dumping ground.”
Sometimes considered the western extension of the Mason-Dixon Line, the Ohio River represented the border between free and slave states before the Civil War. Where it narrows, the Ohio was a crossing point for enslaved people seeking refuge in free states. Large cities like Cincinnati and Louisville are situated where the river widens, until it feeds into the Mississippi near the tri-state border of Illinois, Kentucky and Missouri.
“In most places, the people that have lived on the river for generations have been displaced,” Modes said. “[New development] doesn’t feel like a living river culture.”
Modes hopes to document stories that show how development kills river culture and wants to create an archive of the surviving communities before they’re gone. The website www.peoplesriverhistory.us contains a few videos, a map of Dotty’s travels and blog posts about the people Modes meets.
“There’s definitely a similarity between small town people in general,” Modes said. “But while [river] people aren’t homogeneous, some of the issues are things we see come up again and again.”
“Secret History” began as Modes’ master’s thesis, but it would also work as a museum or art exhibition.
“For me, it’s always art. If people want to see it as a history project … it’s fine with me. I don’t have to be completely beholden to a process that would be given to me as a sociologist or anthropologist.”
Modes wants to cover roughly 600 miles of the Ohio by Aug. 1, which means the team will have to float 12-15 miles per day. After that, Dotty will go on display in art galleries and exhibitions around the country until Modes has to return to California. Modes is on sabbatical from the University of California Santa Cruz next year, meaning there may finally be time to finish the “Secret History of American River People” book and documentary.
After that, it’s on to the next river.
“I don’t know if it will ever stop.”