Marshall County Tribune-Courier
by Rachel Keller
In general, when people are posed with the question, ‘What is art?’ the answers align with ideas of paintings created by the greats like Vincent Van Gogh or fantastic photographs that capture space and time in unique ways like the work of Ansel Adams. The answer might vary a bit and turn into a deep philosophical discussion if the question is posed to a literature major, but we can all agree that contemporary art has forever changed and continuously challenges what sorts of work fit into the category of ‘art.’ One such artist, Wes Modes, of Santa Cruz, California, who is etching his name on the wall of contemporary art, uses the untold and perhaps previously unrecorded stories of people and places turned invisible with time.
“Some people paint and some people make music and some people do photography; I build a boat and I float down the river and I talk to people and that is the art,” he said.
While sipping coffee with the two shipmates with whom he completed the final leg of his journey down the Tennessee River, Penske Pocketknife and Adrian Nankivell, in the shantyboat built by hand with friends that was briefly parked at Kenlake Marina, Modes recalled the events that inspired the project, ‘A Secret History of American River People.’
“In 2005 I had a hobo friend, I had done a lot of train-hopping, who had some friends that were doing what’s called ‘Punk rafting’ or ‘Punk boating’ trips and they were building and sailing these crazy boats made out of cars and junk and trash and floating down like the Mississippi River or the Ohio River and all kinds of rivers,” he said. “I thought that was the best thing ever and I wanted to do that. So in 2005 I took my beat-up old truck all the way across the country to Omaha, Nebraska and built a raft out of trash and floated down the Missouri River and that was great and it felt life changing.”
Modes said the following year there were approximately 12 boats and 20 people who took the journey together and while he enjoyed the experience, he wanted to “build something that felt a little more permanent.” It was around that time, he said, when he first heard the term ‘shantyboat’ and after a little research decided that was exactly what he needed. But while researching shantyboats, he found inspiration to do more than just float down rivers.
Shantyboat by Harlan Hubbard, Modes said, is a story about an artist who abandons his large home and artist studio to float down the Ohio River for five years with his wife in a boat the two of them built on the bank of the river.
“It’s just an amazing story and I started thinking I wanted to do that, I wanted to do a journey that feels meaningful; not just one where I’m just floating and meeting the occasional people. I don’t want to be a tourist; I want to give something back to the communities where I’m floating through so I had this idea,” he said. “What I’m most interested in and what I didn’t get on a lot of punk rafting trips, I’d always imagined there would be rickety porches with people playing banjos on them and stuff and what we found was that people had largely turned away from the river. I was largely interested in that story and interested in how that happened and in the places where the towns had turned their faces back to the river, what happened in those towns especially when they looked really shiny and clean but also kind of sterile.”
Modes said he began with the Mississippi River because it’s one that is significantly important both historically and in literature. He made his first trip in the shantyboat in 2014 along the Mississippi River traveling from Minneapolis, Minnesota to La Crosse, Wisconsin. The second year, in 2015, he made the trip again on the Mississippi River but began in La Crosse and ended near St. Louis while displaying exhibits in art galleries along the way. For his third year, again inspired by a book, he chose the Tennessee River.
“The Tennessee River in particular, what I was interested in, after the Mississippi, I had read a book, Suttree, by Cormac McCarthy, and it’s about a guy who lives in a shantyboat in the 50s on the Tennessee River in Knoxville and he has these experiences,” he said. “It’s kind of like a Kerouac like he’s rambling but it’s really an interesting book and very inspiring so I thought I needed to experience that and that’s why I started in Tennessee.” (*editor’s note: Jack Kerouac is a famous American 20th century author known for his spontaneous prose method, his best-selling novel was ‘On the Road’, published in 1957.)
Modes began his journey along the Tennessee River in Knoxville where he held his first exhibit. He has also exhibited his work in Huntsville, Alabama, Florence, Alabama, and his final exhibition is in Paducah. Part of the exhibit is Modes’ shantyboat, which has a unique story of its own.
Modes said the shantyboat has a wooden hull that he and friends built with plywood and fiberglass before assembling the shanty atop the hull. While the hull was built with “mostly new materials,” the shanty was entirely built using recycled materials. He said some of the materials he found at ‘his’ dump, “which is kind of delightful,” and the rest he found through Craigslist.
“Everything around the cabin and the decks is recycled material so we would just scrounge the dump and I put ads on Craigslist like, ‘Do you need a barn or a shed taken down?’ Someone called and said they had a 100-yearold chicken coop so we spent like two weekends totally disassembling the chicken coop and there was also like a sheet-metal outhouse nearby and we disassembled that for them as well. So literally all of the outside of the boat is made from like 100-year-old chicken poop.” he said. So he and his shipmates, as well as his dog, Hazel, float down the river in the shantyboat and along the way meet people and collect stories. He said some stories are shared by children while some are shared by adults but all stories are recorded and many are accompanied by photographs. Those stories and artifacts are compiled into a larger archive that as a whole, is the art, as much as the shantyboat that traverses the waterways.
“We talk about ‘cleaning up stuff ’ and I don’t think anybody likes litter or trash but at the same time the people who live in places that are a little downscale are not the people who can live in a place that is beautiful and artsy and a thriving downtown. That means that whenever you create a town as a thriving downtown or like a river corridor that’s now beautiful and has resorts and expensive boats and waterfront housing, who did you displace, where did those people go and what happened to them and what does that mean and who now has access to the river,” he said. “Maybe there were tumbled down structures and maybe people lived pretty poor and maybe the sanitation solution wasn’t brilliant for the river, but when you make it accessible for wealthy people and cleaning it up, you’re not just cleaning up the trash from the side of the road; you’re also cleaning up people from the side of the road by the river. That process of gentrification is one that I’m interested in and it sometimes isn’t very present, especially if some time goes by because the very people you displaced aren’t there to contest the landscape any longer.”
Modes said it’s the stories of those people he documents and shares at exhibits, allowing others to view footage of interviews he’s conducted that will eventually be used to create memoirs, capturing and memorializing the stories and history of people forgotten. But even when he’s exhibiting what he’s already collected, he continues to collect. He conducts interviews and shares his typewriter for those who want to write it themselves, which is helpful because he’s unable to sit and speak with every person who wants to share.
Modes said during his two-week residency with the Paducah Art Alliance, there will be a series of open houses and artist talks, as well as an exhibition of the installation. He will attend the farmer’s market in downtown Paducah this weekend. Aug. 30 at 6 p.m. he’s hosting a gallery talk at the McCracken County Public Library at 555 Washington St. in Paducah; an additional gallery talk is scheduled for Sept. 3 at 3 p.m. at the River Discovery Center at 117 S. Water St. in Paducah.
Modes said for those who want to share photographs and/or stories for the project, he’s received many via email, which is excellent because he wants to collect as many as possible. To contact Modes or learn more about the project visit http://peoplesriverhistory. us.