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Looking for stories from the big river
Artist on a journey
boat cometh

Four-foot waves rocked the boat, lightning flashed over the water, and a biblical plague of fish flies welcomed Wes Modes and Jeremiah Daniels to Lansing, Iowa on Sunday night, July 12. The pair spent the night anchored on the Mississippi River in a shanty boat during a wicked storm that actually blew in about 3 a.m. Monday morning.

This was just one of the stories that California artist Wes Modes had to tell us on Monday after the boat was securely tied to the public dock below Shep’s Restaurant in Lansing. A graduate student at the University of California-Santa Cruz, Wes is on a unique mission to discover the mystery of the American River People—those folks who live and work on the river.

This epic journey of artistic discovery is based on a shanty boat constructed from fiberglass over plywood with a living area perched atop that’s made from salvaged material. The shanty includes lots of wood recovered from a very old chicken coop.

There’s also a journal titled ‘Floaty People,’ two friends-having the time of their lives, and the ships hand, Hazel, a small dog, with a fine set of sea legs who seems to fit perfectly with the two men in the tight quarters of the shanty boat.

As my friend Charley Preusser and I approached Lansing, I received a phone call from Wes saying they were coming in to dock the boat. Charley and I raced to find the dock and to our surprise and amusement, we saw the shanty boat chugging along slowly in the river’s main channel with a Jon boat being dragged along behind. A man was waving at us from the small deck at the front. We met the boat at the dock, and I watched as a man with glasses and shiny, black hair hopped off the boat with a rope in his hand. As the two men hurriedly tied up the boat, I worked to pull the Jon boat out of the way. Once the boat was tied in place and the only movement that remained was coming from the waves gently rocking the boat back and forth, Charley and I made our way aboard.

I immediately introduced myself to the two men. Wes stood a few inches taller than me and had brown curly hair with a brown bowler sitting on top of his head. I noticed a mustache and beard lined his face, as he introduced himself. We stepped into the shanty living quarters. There was a faint smell of gasoline from the tank at the rear, near the motor. Jeremiah, a New Hampshire native and best friend of Wes, introduced himself. He had dark hair and some facial hair to match Wes. Both men had a certain touch of elfishness about them.

We caught up with Jeremiah on his last day working with Wes on this voyage. Jeremiah acts as the ships mate. Among other things, the ships mate is responsible for supplies and that begins with drinking water and includes what will be cooked each day.

Jeremiah told us he is just one of the ships mates that will be making this journey with Wes. There will be five or six ships mates before the odyssey ends in September. At one point, the ships mate will be a mother with her two children, aged seven and nine. It will be a tight fit on the little craft, but you sense it will be a happy place for all involved.

I glanced around at the small interior. It was a tiny space, and a wonder that the two men could live in it comfortably for an extended period of time. The pride of the shanty appeared to be a well-worn leather love seat that looked like it was made to sit exactly where it was placed in the magical arrangement of shelves, table and chairs in the small area of the shanty.

I made myself comfortable and sat down at the table, pulling out my pen and notebook. Jeremiah offered to make us some coffee, as I began my interview on one of the most interesting projects I have encountered in my short career.

The boat continued to gently rock back and forth, as the waves lapped against the dock. You could hear the traffic crossing back and forth to Iowa from Wisconsin on the steel bridge high above us.

Wes took his time explaining how he and Jeremiah came to be on the Mississippi River this fine morning in July. It turns out, Wes has been working on this art history project for a couple years as part of his thesis for his Masters Degree in Fine Arts. Having already begun work on his shanty boat and having an interest in taking a trip down the river, Wes wanted to gather the  stories that people tell about the river. That experience will be the basis of the thesis.

“I came up with this project so I could go down the river and spend a summer adventuring, but at the same time give something back by listening to the stories of people who lived and worked on the river,” Wes explained.

The project began to take shape last year, when Wes spent a month in the shanty boat on the Mississippi River. Last summer, Wes started in Minneapolis and made to Brownsville.

The voyage that Wes is on now, began about where he stopped last summer. Actually, he began the journey in Winona earlier this summer with Jeremiah. There was brief pause when he traveled to St. Paul to exhibit some of the already completed work from the project.

Wes feels that he will make it to St. Louis on the tiny boat by September. However, the trip is not about distance or speed. It moves entirely to a different rhythm, tied to the river and the people who populate it. That’s really the main goal of the boat’s journey. At each stop, Wes spends two or three days interviewing people—either people tied directly to the river or people who can give him connections to the river people.

When asked about favorite interviews, he recalled a recent encounter that he had in LaCrosse with man living on a houseboat because it was all he could afford.

The market for houseboats is rather high and when the man was asked if he was selling it, he told the buyer no. The buyer asked for a price and the man said half a million dollars, because to him, that houseboat was his home and it was priceless.

That’s just one example of the many stories, Wes has heard and recorded. While he is very interested in hearing what the people tell him about their lives and the river, he also listens to the river and its creatures directly, like the storm and fish flies that he encountered the night before we met him.

“That’s the thing I like about him,” Charley said later. “Most people go down a trail and expect to find the end of the trail, but that’s not how he sees it.”

As Charley and I took our leave of the shanty boat, Wes reiterated his goal.

“We’re not here for the adventure and we’re not here to show people something with our boat, we’re here to listen—to listen to the stories of the people and to listen to the river itself.”