A rustic recreated 1940s shantyboat, a daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories are all part of a multi-year art and history project being undertaken by artist Wes Modes of Santa Cruz, CA and entitled “A Secret History of American River People.” Modes set sail last summer on the Mississippi River to collect the stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of his homemade houseboat (seen in the photo accompanying this article). This year, he and his crew (and dog) have started near La Crosse, WI, where he left off last September and are slowly making their way downriver.
The artist is looking for residents who recall the history of river communities to tell their stories in interviews for the project. Also, residents are invited to come see the shantyboat. He plans to be in the Lansing area this Sunday, July 12 through the following Wednesday, depending upon weather and river conditions.
Last summer, Modes set out on a journey in his homemade shantyboat on the Upper Mississippi River to gather the lost narratives of people who live and work on the river. Inspired by historical accounts of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, he floated Huck Finn-style for a summer, listening to and recording the stories of those he met.
The project hopes to encourage an awareness of the issues facing current river communities, the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river, and an understanding of river ecology. The project is also an effort to connect individuals and communities that live along the river with those far from it.
At recent exhibitions in the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the project featured a touring participatory installation, an interactive web documentary, and a research archive. Visitors step onto the recreated shantyboat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and overhear the hidden stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river. The web documentary allows visitors to experience the journey and get to know its subjects from afar. The research archive makes available these stories to future generations of scholars.
The journey and the project are detailed in the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us/. Modes’ progress can also be followed through a blog and other social media venues at that same website address.