Artist on Tennessee River Journey to Gather Stories

California artist collecting stories of river people


browns lake pano

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, A Secret History of American River People. Santa Cruz artist Wes Modes is currently floating his homemade houseboat on the historic Tennessee River.

For the last few years, Santa Cruz artist Wes Modes set sail on the Upper Mississippi River and floated for months at a time to collect the stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of his shantyboat. This year Modes and his crew (and dog Hazel) launched in Knoxville for a journey through Tennessee, Alabama, Mississippi and Kentucky.

Modes seeks out people who’s stories are not typically part of the historical record. “I try to find our elders who grew up here and remember a different time and a different river. I talk to poor and working folk and people who grew up poor along the Tennessee River. I find the stories of African-American folk and the stories of native people.”

Along with gathering stories of local river people, Modes is exhibiting the project in Knoxville, Chattanooga, Huntsville, Florence, and Paducah. At exhibitions, visitors step onto the recreated shantyboat, pick up the banjo or a book from the library, sit awhile and overhear the stories of shantyboaters, scientists, historians, and locals who live and work on the river.

The project will result in a series of books, short and feature documentaries, and an archive of river stories available to future generations of scholars.

e journey and the project are detailed in the project website at



Wes Modes
(831) 704-6690

For Immediate Release


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