Artist traverses upper Mississippi in shantyboat interviewing river people

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Artist and University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student Wes Modes stopped in the area late last week, gathering stories from local river people for his multi-year art and history project, “A Secret History of American River People.” For the last two summers, Modes and occasional first mates, as well as dog Hazel, have traveled the upper Mississippi on a homemade shantyboat. (Photo by Audrey Posten)

By Audrey Posten, North Iowa Times Editor

Artist and University of California, Santa Cruz graduate student Wes Modes stopped in the area late last week, gathering stories from local river people for his multi-year art and history project, “A Secret History of American River People.”

At the start of last summer, Modes set out on the upper Mississippi River, at Minneapolis, on a homemade shantyboat, hoping to collect the lost narratives of people who live and work on the river. Tales of shantyboaters on the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers were a major inspiration behind the project, Modes said. While he could have chosen other rivers or areas throughout the country to spotlight, he felt the Mississippi was the best place to start.

“It has so much resonance throughout history,” he explained.

Last year’s journey ended in September, at La Crosse, but Modes said he wanted to spend more time on the river, and picked up the journey there this summer. His trip won’t travel farther south than St. Louis, where he said the Mississippi “turns into a different river,” both in size and the types of communities that dot its banks.

“I really like the small towns [on the upper Mississippi],” Modes said. “I like how frequently they’re spaced, their character and nature. People are really willing to talk.”

Modes said he rafted down the Missouri River several years back and found the towns had “turned their backs on the river.” It wasn’t as integral a part of their lives as it once was, he noted. The upper Mississippi is different.

“Here, there’s a marina in every town. People love the river,” he said, mentioning that residents care about threats to the Mississippi and their ways of life. “They’re aware of erosion and siltification, invasive species and water cleanliness.”

One of the goals of Modes’ project is to raise awareness of the issues facing current river communities. It also hopes to tell the long history of people who have lived on and adjacent to the river and create an understanding of river ecology.

In order to gain these perspectives, Modes and occasional first mates, along with Modes’ dog Hazel, stop in communities along the river. He films people from those communities, with the raw interviews going into an online research archive that can be accessed by libraries, scholars and other individuals for primary source references. Pieces from the interviews will also be part of a documentary, which will explore certain topics in-depth.

“Invasive fish might be in one mini-documentary, or historic commerce, water quality or women on the river,” Modes explained. “They’re like marbles in a big bucket, where each is interesting and unique. The bucket is huge and you can keep adding stories. They’re small stories, but they tell an important part of the whole story.”

Modes said he stays in communities for varying amounts of time. He was in Lansing for over two days and Harpers Ferry only a few hours. He planned to stay in Prairie du Chien for several days over the weekend.

Interview subjects are sometimes acquaintances of people he’s met on the journey down the river, Modes said.

“Some people have a sense for the project and say, ‘Talk to this person in Prairie du Chien or this old lady in Lansing,’” he said.

Sometimes, he’ll just be exploring a community when he’s tipped off to an interesting person. Modes said his first mate was in Driftless Edibles, in Prairie du Chien, on Friday, when he was instructed to contact Patrick Igou, who lives in his own river shantyboat.

While in the area, Modes also met up with and interviewed Tim Mason, who presented Modes with a certificate of induction into the Shanty Boat Association of America.

Modes said the Mississippi adventure on the shantyboat is an interesting and important aspect of the project. However, people’s experiences mean more.

It’s about listening to what people have to say,” he said.

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