Henry Dutchin’s shantyboat, shot by Rogers Clark Ballard Thruston in 1922 | Courtesy of the Filson Historical Society

Louisvillians got abrupt reminders of the Ohio River’s presence and power in recent days, with a barge banging into Waterfront Park and some coal barges sinking after breaking loose in a crash at the Clark Memorial Bridge.

These high-water incidents didn’t directly affect many people, even in a city that owes its existence to the great river. Organizers of a monthslong series of art, history and environmental events say they hope to inspire appreciation for the river’s dominant place in the city’s culture, economy and history — and remind people of their forebears’ grit and ingenuity.

“Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life” is an effort from a loose group of artists, galleries, historians and environmentalists. It was assembled by Peter Morrin, who ran the Speed Art Museum for more than two decades; and John Begley, the former head of Louisville Visual Art. The celebration of river heritage unofficially kicks off Friday, Jan. 4 with the opening at the Filson Historical Society of “Shantyboat Life on the Ohio.” The exhibit surveys river life from pioneer days, to the culture of shantyboat denizens, to lifesaving, to riparian industry and entertainment.

“What we’re really able to draw out here is life on the river, with a focus on shantyboats, but also contextualizing them with the people who are working there, or having fun on the river, or patrolling the river,” said Jennie Cole, the Filson’s manager of collections access.

Cole and the Filson’s curator of collections, Jim Holmberg, are putting together the show with former Filson Director Mark Wetherington, who has delved deep into the city’s vanished shantyboat culture.

“I look at it as a lost neighborhood,” Wetherington said.

Angie Reed Garner’s “Shantyboat #7,” featuring an invasive Asian carp, will be shown at the Garner Narrative gallery. | Image courtesy of Angie Reed Garner

Shantyboats were a hybrid of mini-barges and shotgun houses that settled along and on the Ohio’s banks from the mid-19th century till the 1940s. Images of them drift through many of the Afloat shows, including a Jan. 16-March 29 show at the Garner Narrative gallery on Market Street, and later events at the Portland Museum and other locations.

“The Point,” a neighborhood opposite Towhead Island, hosted a community of semi-permanent and itinerant shantyboaters. At the river-residents’ peak around 1900, about half the population was adult men who fished, gathered mussels to sell to button makers or worked in sawmills, boatyards and other riverside industries, Cole and Holmberg said.

“You’re really looking at a lot of families living together on shantyboats,” Cole said.

A series of floods, the rise of railroads, the decline in mussels and other river life, and the creep of urban rules and regulations all conspired to end shantyboat life in the mid-20th century.

“Throughout the 20s, 30s, 40s … you’re starting to see complaints: ‘Hey, we can’t have these random people living on the river. They need to be paying a fee,’ ” Cole said. She added that after a big flood in 1945, the city condemned The Point, leaving it to scrapyards and other industrial activity. The construction of apartment buildings, a soccer-stadium complex and a botanical garden are transforming the area anew, bringing another round of displacement.

Morrin said the core inspiration for the broader project was the life and works of Harlan Hubbard and his wife, Anna, who voyaged by shantyboat in the 1940s down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers, wrangling a self-sufficient life and making art, and becoming patron saints of the modern off-grid movement.

“I always thought Harlan Hubbard deserved more recognition,” said the Garner Narrative director and artist Angie Reed Garner, who uses shantyboat images and themes in her paintings.

The idea for Afloat started to jell, Morrin said, when he was asked to write about Hubbard’s watercolors, in which he documented his travels and work.

“As we got to looking at the watercolors we realized there needed to be a show of them,” Morrin said. “They’re kind of a visual diary: They’re extraordinary. They’re immediate. They’re impetuous. They’re spontaneous.”

The Frazier History Museum on Main Street will show a large selection of Hubbard watercolors from Feb. 20 through May 5. And from Jan. 9 through May 11 the University of Louisville’s Kain Gallery will show Hubbard’s notebooks, manuscripts, drawings and watercolors.

The steamboat Eugene Dana Smith, by Harlan Hubbard in the 1930s | Image courtesy of the Frazier History Museum

Not all the events focus on the past. Current disciples of Hubbard, along with other river-influenced artists, will show videos, sound works, installations and paintings at the Swanson Contemporary.

“To me, having a contemporary artists’ take on the whole subject is important, not just a historical perspective,” said gallery owner Chuck Swanson, adding a lot of artists he’s worked with over the years were influenced by the river.

Organizers and river-focused groups say they hope the events raise awareness of the watershed’s ecological problems — and delights.

“What I want is for people to see it as a resource, and not just a dirty sewer,” said Ward Wilson, executive director of the Kentucky Waterways Alliance, an environmental group. “I always look for ways to reach people that are different from facts and figures. With art, you can really reach people.”

Mark R. Long
Louisville native Mark Long is glad to be home after 18+ years away in New York and London. He’s putting his writing and editing experience at The Wall Street Journal to work as a freelancer, digging into stories on infrastructure, transportation, urban design and ecology.