Researching river history California artist travels Mississippi in shantyboat

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By Molly Moser

A rustic recreated 1940s shantyboat, a daring river voyage, and a meticulous archive of river stories: All are part of a multi-year art and history project, A Secret History of American River People, that brought Santa Cruz artist Wes Modes to Guttenberg in late July. Modes set sail on the Mississippi River to collect the stories of people who live and work on the river from the deck of his homemade houseboat. 

Modes recently completed MFA studies in digital and new media from the University of California, Santa Cruz. He became fascinated with shantyboat culture while reading Harlan Hubbard’s Shantyboat: A River Way of Life. Hubbard, an artist, lived with his wife Anna, a musician, on their shantyboat for over five years in the 1940s, tending their floating beehives and entertaining themselves with music in the evenings. 

“I was so inspired by the descriptions of shantyboats lining the edges of towns,” said Modes, who admits he’s fascinated by those who lived outside the pages of history books. “There are historical accounts of people moving to the water, especially during hard times, but there’s little documentation.”

He began building his own shantyboat in 2012, using a simple plan, a chicken coop, and a small barge. A bike strapped to the roof of the boat gives Modes an option for land travel, and the inside of the shantyboat feels like a cozy cabin, complete with couch, dining table, coffeepot, and cookstove. An array of lanterns allow for nighttime reading of the many books strapped to the shantyboat’s shelves.

The unusual vessel was docked in Guttenberg overnight on July 21 - 22. Modes, his friendly dog Hazel, and a fresh pair of shipmates greeted visitors with open arms. Visitors were invited to step onto the 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.

Monica Haller and Sebastian Muellauer traveled from the Twin Cities to join Modes on his shantyboat from Guttenberg to Dubuque, a journey that took about four days as Modes stopped to interview riverside residents along the way. 

Meanwhile, Haller and Muellauer were conducting their own river research. The pair spent their journey listening to underwater sounds with a floating drone. Muellauer built the bouy from a large inner tube whose center he made water tight to hold the multitude of blinking electronic devices that record and transmit sounds, and allow him to control the direction of the drone from a distance.

Modes plans to float downriver Huck-Finn style all summer, collecting the stories of people who remember the history of the river. His project will eventually chronicle multiple American rivers. He envisions A Secret History of American River People culminating in a multi-layered exhibition including photographic portraits and video biographies of the many people he interviews, the shantyboat itself, an interactive web documentary, and a research archive to pass the collected stories on to future generations. The journey and the project are detailed in the project website at http://peoplesriverhistory.us.

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