Wes Modes, left, and S.L. Benz, right, prepare for their next adventure

FELTON, Calif. – Wes Modes has turned his passion for floating down the river into art.

Modes, 50, is an artist and university lecturer. He has spent the last three summers traversing the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers in a hand-built, 1940s-era shantyboat as part of “A Secret History of American River People,” a participatory art project that documents the untold stories of the people who live and work along the river. 

“It started on a bit of a lark,” Modes said. “I had a lot of what I used to call punk rafting river experience, where I would build these rafts out of trash essentially – old truck inner tubes and cast-off construction plywood. I did that for four or five years, and I really enjoyed the process, and I really enjoyed the rivers, and I really enjoyed the people that I met, but I wanted something a little more permanent.”

Modes started building the shantyboat in 2012 and launched his first expedition in 2014. He came up with the idea for the project while he was applying for grants the year before he began an MFA program in Digital Arts and New Media at the University of California Santa Cruz.

“I thought, what I really want to do is float down the river in my boat that’ll soon be completed, but I didn’t really have a plan,” Modes said. “I wanted to not just float down the river, but to give something back to the communities I was moving through.”

Modes thought about the homogenization of the river communities he had encountered in his early punk rafting expeditions. He said he was surprised to discover that these communities had already lost so much of what made them unique.

“I was expecting to meet people on porches, you know, playing banjo and stuff, and there was no one,” he said. “We’d stop to get supplies in some town and it might be a few mile walk just to the nearest thing. That kept repeating over and over again. These communities were dying along the river.”

So Modes set out to record the “secret histories” of these communities – the untold stories that might otherwise be lost or forgotten.

“Increasingly, I’m more committed not just to telling the stories of these river communities but the stories of people in these endangered river communities of people who are even more endangered: people of color, women who might have participated in really unusual occupations, native people who have been endangered on this continent for five hundred years,” he said.

Modes said he is drawn to these stories because they are the stories of people who are often left out of the dominant historical narrative.

“I seek those people out,” he said. “And those people become part of the archive and hopefully will contribute something toward a better understanding of how river communities are struggling.”

Modes said his interest in untold stories and underrepresented communities stems from his political beliefs. He is a self-described anarchist who said he opposes domination in any form.

“It’s part of a desire to see a world in which people treat each other as equals and treat each other fairly and make their own choices and decisions in their lives without coercion,” he said.

Modes said he thinks economic coercion plays a significant role in people’s lives. He wants to hear from people who are on the receiving end of conflicting social and economic forces.

“Native people or people of color are going to have stories that I’m interested in hearing, because those aren’t the stories that make the dominant narrative, the dominant historical narrative,” Modes said.

He said living on the river helps him connect with the people he meets. When they see what Modes is doing, they know he is interested in what they have to say.

“People who I’m interviewing tell me, ‘You’re the real deal. You’re going down the river in this boat that you built, much like my dad built a boat or built our houseboat or whatever, and you’re here listening to our stories, and that really makes a huge difference to us,’” Modes said.

Perhaps because of that, he said he very rarely encounters anyone who is hostile to him.

“I’ve maybe met one or two genuine assholes in my entire travels,” Modes said. “I think people are more generous, in general, than our normal way of encountering them.”

Hazel, the shantyboat’s official ship’s hound

He said he thinks the shantyboat disarms people and makes it hard for them to perceive him as a threat.

“It’s a very face-to-face thing,” Modes said. “I’m coming into communities and I’m saying, ‘Hey, I’m here to listen to your stories.’”

S.L. Benz, 35, is Modes’ partner and a fellow artist. She joined Modes on his 2016 expedition along the Tennessee River and said the experience made her more trusting.

“A lot of it is trusting Wes as a captain and knowing that he knows how to navigate,” she said. “But it’s also that we’re on this creation that is constantly attracting people and attracting strangers…and yet nothing bad ever happened.”

She said Modes is a good communicator, which helped mitigate the concerns she had about spending several weeks on a houseboat with him early in their relationship.

“He knows this magic method,” Benz said. “You say, ‘Here’s what I’m worried about, but here’s what I hope for.’ You get a vulnerability for each other and then also your hopes or what you intend to happen when you get there.”

She said that though she didn’t become invested in “A Secret History of American River People” right away, she now considers herself part of it.

“It took me a while to step into that, but I feel much more invested now, having experienced it all,” Benz said. “It’s not hard to just be in an interview with somebody he’s talking to. It’s not hard to become totally immersed and excited by their story.”

Everyone who comes aboard the shantyboat ends up a part of the project, including a journalist who spent several days with Modes and Benz on the Tennessee River.

“He expected to be a shadow and watch,” Modes said. Instead, Modes said he put him to work as a ship’s mate, teaching him how to tie knots and what to do in an emergency.

“Usually, I’ll just be really, really clear about my expectations,” Modes said. “This is a collaborative process, but in an emergency it’s important that – it doesn’t have to be me that’s in charge, but that we have clear communication.”

“There’s no room for stowaways on that boat,” Benz said. 

“No, there’s absolutely no room,” Modes said.

There is room for boredom, though. In fact, Modes said, boredom is kind of the point.

“Originally we set out on the punk raft journeys as an experiment in boredom,” Modes said. “An effort to do something where we had no choice but to listen to birds and look at the sky.”

He said it was an exercise in patience.

“With the punk raft journeys, those were unpowered except by hand,” Modes said. “You float. If you want to go faster, you can’t. So you can’t get impatient.”

Modes said the slow pace of river life changes your perspective. There is less to do, fewer ways to occupy the vast expanse of time before you. People who live along the river refer to it as “river time.”

“Everyone I’ve talked to, everyone who’s a river rat, they knew, they would talk about river time,” he said. “You don’t have whatever your normal things are that occupy your busy brain. You just have the boat floating in the water and the sunshine coming down.”

Modes said some of his favorite memories from the river are of ordinary tasks slowed down to a snail’s pace.

“Some of the best moments from last summer were like Benzy cutting my hair on the deck of the boat,” he said. “We were just anchored on some random island, and we went and buried the poop bucket, we went swimming. It was like a day that lasted about a week.”

For Modes, that change of pace is what life on the river is all about.

“You have this immense expanse of time ahead of you, and it’s like that. It’s like being a kid again,” he said.

Modes said he plans to return to the river on his shantyboat as long as he can.

“I don’t see any reason not to keep doing these trips,” he said. “They’re self-sustaining, they really sustain me emotionally, they give me a lot, and as an artist, I’ve managed to transform my career into making this part of my practice, which is kind of kooky. It feels like, oh, I have a hobby, but I’ve turned it into a viable career. It just seems so unlikely.”