We are taking a centuries-old journey down the Mississippi River, from just below Lake Itasca in Minnesota to the Gulf of Mexico, in the wake of river travelers from the past—the farmers, the adventurers, the shanty-boat drivers, the river rats, the clam divers, the west-ward settlers, the original inhabitants, the characters of fiction and myth—in a boat that we will build. We believe that to truly understand the narrative of a river and how it is connected to the communities along its banks you must travel it.
Building the boat creates a narrative in and of itself, and also allows for deeper, more specific engagement with river communities.
The boat will act as a storytelling tool as well as a story-gathering tool when people experience it, walk through it, and see it pass by on the river.
In total, we will spend two months on the water, moving south, altering the boat according to what we experience and see along the way. The boat will transform into multifaceted, multimedia portrait of the river that draws together diverse communities of interest.
We are working with The Solon Center for Research and Publishing, an independent press that will publish an art book of the expedition in 2017. In addition, we are partnering with the National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium in Dubuque, Iowa. We will dock on their campus as a floating exhibit during the trip, and give public lectures about the project. This exhibition will be coordinated with the Dubuque Museum of Art’s “River Sojourn” exhibition and the citywide “Art on the River” walk. The voyage will end in late September with an exhibition and musical event at Treo, a New Orleans gallery and performance venue.
THE BOAT AND STORIES WE WILL BE GATHERING
At launch, the boat will be plain and unadorned. As it travels downriver, we will respond to the history of the river, the places where we portage, and the data we gather, adding and changing pieces of the boat, creating detailing, gathering artifacts (including clay from certain areas of the river banks for making pottery, and shells from along the shores), sewing flags, painting and carving into the wood, so that by the time the boat rolls into New Orleans, it will be transformed into a multi-media sculpture/portrait/narrative of the river.
The basic form of the boat will combine the designs of the river raft and shanty boat—well-loved historic watercraft of the Mississippi—and the showboat, the premiere form of entertainment along the river in the 1800s. We will build it at the Apprenticeshop in Rockland, Maine this spring. After construction is completed in late July, it will be transported to Minnesota for an early August start date.
As part of this, we will capture 3D scans of sections of the bottom of the river. The peaks and valleys of river sediment changes constantly, so the images will represent unique aquatic geographies. The boat’s over-sized, arched windows will be made of frosted plexiglass, allowing them to double as rear projection screens upon which to stream some of the footage of the river bottom, bringing it to the surface, drawing audiences to the river, and creating a glowing beacon when docked at night.
Along with creating an image of the physical river, we will make stops along the way to interview, photograph, and film those connected to the clamming industry, including many who have had direct contact with the bottom of the river, and a few who still dive in the murky depths with little more equipment than an air hose to the surface.
We are paying particular attention to the river mussel and the shellfish industries along the way, as they are indicative of economically and environmentally shifting river communities. At various points in history, the shells of river mussels have been crushed and used as a binder in pottery; ground into seeds and used to grow pearls in Japanese oysters; and punched with circular dyes to make fashionable pearl buttons. Historical events, including the twentieth century invention of cheap plastic buttons, in combination with environmental threats to the health of the river, have left the shores of the Mississippi with vacant button factories, discarded clamshells, and decimated shellfish populations.
The focus on the river bed and shellfish industries is just a jumping off point; they are key to the river’s narrative, but hopefully we’ll come across things we didn’t expect, and people will bring their stories to us.
A LITTLE ABOUT US
Emily Cornell du Houx currently teaches at the Rhode Island School for Design (RISD) in the Furniture Design, Jewelry + Metalsmithing, and Textiles departments. She received her MFA from RISD in Sculpture and her BA from Amherst College in English. She is an ACP Grant recipient and was recently nominated for Boston St. Boltoph’s Award and a Pushcart Prize. She has illustrated over fifteen books and exhibited her artwork in many venues, including Rooster Gallery in New York. Her studio practice incorporates many mediums, from photography to writing, but it all focuses on the shifting landscape and our place in it. She has worked as an editor and co-director at the nonprofit publisher Polar Bear & Company for over ten years. She is an avid swimmer and boater and grew up on a river, where she developed a deep personal understanding of the ways that communities are shaped by bodies of water.
Morgan Rogers is a communications specialist and journalist with a passion for storytelling, environmental policy, and program development. For the past five years she has helped many organizations tell their story and get communities involved with their mission. It was during her time working at the National Caucus of Environmental Legislators that Morgan became interested in the Mississippi River, its history and its culture, as she worked on water pollution legislation with local elected officials along the river. Morgan has traveled extensively across Europe, the Middle East, and South America, researching and writing about the intersection of art, activism, and community.
BUDGET & GOALS
Help us reach our initial goal of $7,000 and we will have the resources to build the boat, get sonar and projection equipment, and cover travel costs for a 2 month journey down the Mississippi River.
Help us reach our stretch goal of $15,000 and we will have the resources to take this multimedia sculpture on the road to venues on the East and West coasts.
Risks and challenges
Building a boat can have delays and unexpected costs, but both artists are experienced in boat building and are working with The Apprenticeshop, the oldest traditional boat building school in the country, to make sure the boat is finished on schedule and within the budget.
There are challenges to taking a trip down the Mississippi River. We have allotted extra time to the trip schedule in case we face delays. Also, we have extensively consulted with folks who have made this trip before and have planned accordingly with detailed maps, supplies and supply points, and points of contact along the river.