by Ivy Potter
Several artists have made their way to Portsmouth, courtesy of their rustic recreated shantyboat, to gather information and personal histories of those living along the Ohio River.
The Secret History of American River People, the name of the project, operates to build a collection of personal stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of the shantyboat. According to the project’s website, “The project examines the emerging crises facing current river communities dealing with economic displacement, gentrification, environmental degradation, and the effects of global climate change. The project attempts to preserve the endangered history of people who have long lived on and adjacent to the river with a multi-layered, project that includes a touring participatory art installation, a research archive, short and feature documentaries, and a series of books.”
Wes Modes, primary artist behind the project, is an educator at University of California Santa Cruz and California State University Monterey Bay. Modes and fellow artists are currently traveling their 6th summer with the project, and have traveled 1500 river miles and 26,000 miles by land and conducted over 125 oral history interviews. The shantyboat has previously traveled the Mississippi, Tennessee, Sacramento, and Hudson rivers, and set out this summer along the Ohio River.
While in Portsmouth, Modes and his crew visited the local farmers market, the floodwall, several area restaurants, and the Southern Ohio Museum and Cultural Center, all which were documented on the projects website. Modes also conducted interviews with Scioto County residents to gather their stories.
The project started in Pittsburgh, traveling through Steubenville, Wheeling, Parkersburg, Huntington, Ashland, and will continue on to Cincinnati, Louisville, Owensboro, Evansville, and more river communities in between.