by Rochel Leah Goldblatt
HAVERSTRAW – Wes Modes stood on the bow of his shanty as it bobbed gently at Admirals Cove Marina on Friday morning, a cup of coffee in a mason jar and his four-legged companion, Hazel, at his side.
Modes, a Santa Cruz artist and lecturer at two California universities, arrived in Haverstraw on Thursday night as part of his journey down the Hudson River for his art exhibition, “A Secret History of American River People.”
The Hudson is the fifth river Modes has floated down in his homemade floating shanty, a shack built with reclaimed materials.
Over the weekend, Modes plans to talk to people in Haverstraw about their river community, and is inviting folks to visit his boat, which will be docked at Emeline Park on Saturday and Sunday afternoons.
“We have an open house,” he said. “We’re inviting people onto the boat to hear their stories, for them to hear about the project or get a tour of the boat.”
The exhibition was made possible through the Haverstraw River Arts Fund and the Haverstraw Brick Museum.
It’s important to use art to start a dialogue and get diverse parts of the community to interact, and this river project could get people to do just that and also show people outside the community what the town has to offer, said Richard Sena, president of Haverstraw RiverArts and a trustee of the Haverstraw Brick Museum.
Sena said that he hoped this exhibition will be displayed next year at the newly renovated Brick Museum, which is set to reopen in September.
Shall he or shanty?
Modes has a background of what he called “punk” rafting, in which he and his friends would build rafts out of trash, truck tubes, construction plywood and other salvaged materials and float down major rivers.
“I loved that,” Modes said. “The hard part was at the end of the journey. We’d have to take the whole thing apart. I wanted something a little more permanent that we could just drop in the water.”
Over gin and tonics, “Dotty,” the shanty boat, was conceptualized.
It took two years to build, and he embarked on his first adventure on the Mississippi River in 2014.
“Historically, there’s a culture of shanty boating, which are people who just build boats out of whatever they could find,” Modes said. “In every small town, there used to be … shanty boats up and down the rivers.”
Along the way, he stops and talks to the people in the river communities. He records their stories.
Since he began, he has compiled over 100 videos and has hundreds of hours of audio and video from people he has met along his journey. He posts blurbs on his blog and at the exhibits.
“We wanted to build something that we were floating down the river in, but we didn’t want to just be tourists,” Modes said. “We really wanted something that felt authentic, that felt like we were giving something back to those communities. People love the idea that we come into their town and, rather than tell them what we’re doing, we’re really interested in hearing their lives and their world, their communities and the joys and hardships of living in each place.”
Modes embarked on his Hudson River journey on June 24. He will culminate his trip and open an exhibition of the stories in Manhattan and Brooklyn late next week. The exhibition will be at WhiteBox on the Lower East Side of Manhattan and the Waterfront Museum in Red Hook, Brooklyn, starting Thursday.
He spends a month to three months on his river expeditions “talking to people and exploring the river and walking around river communities and sharing our observations,” he said. He is sometimes accompanied or joined by other artists.
His stories are also cultivated from communities along the Mississippi, Tennessee and Sacramento rivers. He is planning to travel down the Ohio River next summer.
Modes spends the off-river months editing the stories, planning the next trip, working on the boat and forging necessary connections.
Art versus history
“The project is principally an art piece versus a history project,” Modes said. “If I was a historian, I would have to be a lot more rigorous.”
Modes said the project works better as an art exhibit because it lets him work on several levels and connect more inter-personally.
“The whole project as an art piece brings together threads of history, art, adventure, storytelling,” he said, adding that there is even a sculptural element with the shanty boat itself. “I think it can bring more threads together. As a history project, I think it would kind of be a little dry.”
He said by not attempting to tell the entire history of Haverstraw or other river towns, he is able to better tell the stories of the people who live there.
“I think it gives, if not a truer picture, I think it gives a more unique picture than if you were to pick up a history book,” he said.
Modes said he has already interviewed Virginia “Ginny” Norfleet, a Haverstraw resident with deep roots in the community who organizes the village’s annual Juneteenth celebration celebrating the end of slavery.
“This is the reason I do this project,” Modes said. “Not just the history, which is important, but the personal stories. She didn’t just share with us what history was present in Haverstraw. She told us about her own personal history. Her family’s history. How that intersected with 400 years of African-Americans being in this area.”
He said he really enjoyed how his conversation with Norfleet was increasing the visibility of the African-American population that has historically been in Haverstraw.
“There’s this revolutionary consciousness that’s really present, but the African-American presence is really invisible in the Husdon Valley,” Modes said. “As we go down the river, instead we are talking to people who are working-class folk. People’s whose stories don’t always get recorded in the dominant historical narrative.”
He said this approach also helps him be more impressionistic in terms of what he puts together.
“We’re exhibiting the project and listening to people at those exhibitions,” he said. “In some ways, we exhibit to open up doors that allow us to have a two-way dialogue with folks.”
If you go:
- What: A Secret History of American River People sponsored by the Haverstraw RiverArts Fund and the Haverstraw Brick Museum
- Where: Emeline Park, Haverstraw
- When: Friday and Saturday noon to 4 p.m.