by Linda Cook
If you happen to see Wes Modes, 48, of Santa Cruz, Calif., and his dog, Hazel, floating around the Quad-Cities, stop and have a chat.
He’d love that. And you might become part of Mississippi River history through his “Secret History of American River People” art project.
Modes, 48, is traveling through the Quad-City area on his homemade “shanty boat” to collect stories of people who live along the river — especially people whose voices always might not be heard. He earned his master of fine arts degree from the University of California–Santa Cruz. He’s now a “practicing artist. And this is my practice,” he said Sunday as he enjoyed the Blue Iguana restaurant in LeClaire, where his homemade “shanty boat” was docked Sunday at nearby Green Gables Marina.
Modes, who formerly was an information technology employee at a university library, has done a lot of homemade boating as a hobby. This led him to read memoirs by people who traveled the river. Many of those memoirs were written many years ago.
“There is a huge gap in the literature,” he said. “Not much has been written about problems in river communities and what river people deal with.”
His boat, which is based on designs from the 1930s and the 1940s, built from scratch with the help of friends. The flat-bottom, barge-hulled boat, has a gabled cabin built from recycled and reclaimed materials — some from a 100-year-old chicken coop.
Modes says it took him 2 ½ years working with friends on weekends and holidays to finish the vessel.
His job in IT “was fine, it just was not super inspiring,” he said. “The shanty boat was my escape pod.”
As he continued to consider his project, he realized he “wanted to have a project that deeply involved listening and hearing people and opening up to people myself,” he said. For researchers, the stories he is collecting as he navigates the Mississippi River will serve as a primary source about what the river was like in 2014 and 2015, including the struggles of the communities along the way, such as Asian carp and mayflies.
He set out in June 2014, and floated from Minneapolis to Brownsville, Minn. This year, he exhibited the boat in the Twin Cities, “and picked up where we left off, launching in Winona, Minn.” After a few-day Quad-City visit, he’ll head to St. Louis, he said. He’s looking for a place to exhibit the boat in the Quad-Cities and would welcome invitations.
Modes regularly updates his website, through which people can chat with him. His project eventually will involve books, an interactive online documentary, and a research archive that will contain full interviews he does with people. (He’s in talks with the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis as a possible host for these).
“I’m open to hearing from people. I don’t always know the best places,” he said. “Who should I talk to? Who has a unique perspective on the river?
“For me, to talking to ‘river rats’ is awesome, and so is trying to hear the voices that don’t get included into the dominant narrative,” he said.
His rotating series of shipmates — which for a time included his “sweetheart” and her two daughters from California — always includes Hazel.
Modes, who still lives in California, said his expenses are minimal as he travels the river. He uses money from a grant from the University of California and a Kickstarter campaign, “and then my savings, such as it is, to sustain the project.”
At the end of September, Modes will return to California. “When I go back, I will process all the interviews I have, and work on the website,” he said. “A publisher is interested in the book. And I’ll start making preparations for next year.” In 2016, he will travel a different river in a different part of the country, he said.
“The idea is that it’s a multi-year, multi-river project,” he said.