What is afloat?

Inspired by the life, art, writing and environmentalism of Harlan Hubbard (1900-1988), several museums, galleries and academic institutions have coordinated in focusing in the year 2019 on the Ohio River.  The shared purpose of this mutually supportive group is to call attention to the River, its beauty, needs, and unmet potential.  

AFLOAT: AN OHIO RIVER WAY OF LIFE encompasses a number of themes that will be highlighted in the various exhibitions, programs and venues that are joining together in this collaborative cultural effort.  Some of these themes include the Ohio River, its history, inspiration of contemporary artists and ecological importance; Shanty Boats and their impact on area social and cultural. life; the iconic Kentucky artist, Harlan Hubbard and his continuing impact on the art of our region; and the general historical, ecological and environmental significance of the River and its ways of life.


Spanning over 980 miles, the Ohio River as a subject is a valuable platform for the exploration of the social, political and ecological history of the Ohio Valley region and the United States.  Since the 18th Century, the Ohio River has been a marker of both division and unity, a dividing line first for the French and British during the Seven Years’ War, then a partition line between slavery and freedom for the Underground Railroad.  It has unified cities and with the building of locks and dams, allowed steamboats to move freely and help spark rapid American industrialization. It has connected the early Eastern and Western United States and served as the catalyst for the creation of some of the most important cities in the country.  Louisville would not exist were it not for the Falls of the Ohio, historically the only natural obstacle to navigation between Pittsburgh and New Orleans.

''House Boat on Ohio River,” by Cleveland, Ohio, painter/ceramicist Lawrence Blazey (1902-1999). Exhibited in 1933 at the  15th Annual May Show , Cleveland Museum of Art. Collection of Warren and Julie Payne.

''House Boat on Ohio River,” by Cleveland, Ohio, painter/ceramicist Lawrence Blazey (1902-1999). Exhibited in 1933 at the 15th Annual May Show, Cleveland Museum of Art. Collection of Warren and Julie Payne.


A dividing line between life on the fringe and life in polite society arose in the advent of shanty boat communities during the 19th and 20th Centuries. Shanty boat life exemplified the rebellious American spirit of self-determination. At the height of the Great Depression, there were over 50,000 people who called Ohio River shanty boats their home. The lives of the people who lived on these boats were as diverse as the river basin itself.  There were some who lived a bohemian lifestyle and rejected a conventional lifestyle, as well as fishermen, who lived and worked on the Ohio. There were also those who worked in industry, in the arts, as servants, stone masons and basket makers and some who gathered mussel shells for button making. Some built shanty boats out of necessity as cities like Louisville were dealing with limited low-income housing and a simultaneous population boom, while others lived on the river by choice. Life on the Ohio in shanty boat clusters evolved into complex social and economic environments in which residents would barter goods to create self-sufficient communities.

Even during their heyday, there was a significant amount of prejudice and misunderstanding about shantyboat communities, stereotyped as rough areas full of alcoholic outcasts from society.  However, there were single men and women, as well as families who called the river their home. Shantyboats ranged from one-room hovels to larger, three-bedroom boats allowing for large families to live comfortably. There were immigrants and American-born, white and black.  There were major shantyboat communities throughout Kentucky and Indiana. From the 1850s to the 1950s Louisville was home to one of the largest, located by Beargrass Creek along River Road near Butchertown, at an area called “The Point.” By the late 1930s and 40s, major floods and pollution caused life on the river to become more difficult.  By the 50’s and 60’s, shantyboat communities, which had been an important part of American life for over a century, had completely disappeared.


Harlan Hubbard, Courier-Journal Magazine cover, Jan.19 1964 photo by John Begley

Harlan Hubbard, Courier-Journal Magazine cover, Jan.19 1964 photo by John Begley

Harlan Hubbard was born on January 4th, 1900 in Bellevue, Kentucky and died on January 16th, 1988.  He was trained as an artist in New York at the National Academy of Design and in Cincinnati at the Cincinnati Art Academy.  He excelled as a landscape artist, and worked in woodcut prints, watercolors and oils.

He was also a prolific author, writing about his life aboard his shantyboat and subsequent life in Payne Hollow, Kentucky.  In 1944 Harlan and his wife Anna built a shantyboat in Brent, Kentucky and subsequently travelled down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers until 1951.  From 1952 until their deaths, they lived in a house they built far away from automobile access along the banks of the Ohio River at Payne Hollow. Anna and Harlan Hubbard lived as simple a life as possible, in close harmony with nature and without the conveniences of indoor plumbing or electricity in their Payne Hollow dwelling. Most of their food was either scavenged, raised, caught or bartered.  It was a frugal but elegant existence. Together they kept house, gardened, read aloud, made music, cut firewood, made the furnishings and cabinetry they needed, fished, cooked, kept a herd of goats, wrote and painted. Hubbard painted the Ohio River and its shores with an untrammeled zeal to record its shores, its vessels, and its landmarks.


Harlan Hubbard, The Steamboat Indiana acrylic, date unknown, photo by John Begley

Harlan Hubbard, The Steamboat Indiana acrylic, date unknown, photo by John Begley

The first steamboat to travel the western waters of the United States was the New Orleans, which departed from Pittsburgh on October  20th, 1811, reached Louisville on October 28th, and finally landed in New Orleans on January 10th, 1812.  The Portland Canal allowed steamboats to safely bypass the Falls of the Ohio: the first passage through the canal came in 1830.  Despite the advent of the railroad, steamboat use increased throughout most of the 19th Century, primarily for bulk goods such as coal, salt and iron.   A regular packet boat served passengers between Cincinnati and Louisville.  At the height of the steamboat era,

Louisville had as many as 2400 arrivals and departures of packet boats annually, not counting the ferries that shuttled back and forth between Kentucky and Indiana.

Boatyards were a thriving business in Kentucky, beginning with the construction of keelboats and flatboats.  The most prominent builder of steamboats was the Howard Shipyard and Dock Company, which had yards in Shippingport, on the Point, and in Jeffersonville, Indiana.  Its successor firm, Jeffboat, closed permanently in 2017. New Albany, Indiana was a major site for steamboat construction between 1818 and the 1880s and during this period it was the core industry for this growing river town.

Steamboats were an important symbol for Harlan Hubbard of a simpler existence unaffected by the more pernicious effects of industrialization, since as he noted, mules began to disappear from Kentucky and Indiana hillsides, to be replaced by mechanized tractors, at around the same time as diesel engines replaced steam powered vessels on the river.


Artist: Lynn Dunbar “Horseshoe Bend, Leavenworth”

Artist: Lynn Dunbar “Horseshoe Bend, Leavenworth”

The Ohio River is the most prominent geographical feature for many people in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, and Illinois. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Cincinnati was the foremost art center along its banks, and boosted of the Cincinnati Art Academy as the leading art school in the Ohio Valley.  More recently, the art world has become more disbursed and there is no longer a regional art powerhouse in the Ohio River Valley. But the Ohio River continues to inspire landscape painters, installation artists, printmakers, sculptors and video artists. For some river imagery is a call to action in combating factors leading to pollution, or opposing social injustice.  For others, the history of the river as a dividing line between slavery and freedom provides the impetus for artistic expression. The size and grandeur of the river is a focus for many artists.


Donations to Afloat: An Ohio River Way of Life may be made through the Louisville Community Foundation.

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Thank you for joining us

Peter Morrin and John Begley


Banner image: Hubbard House, Payne Hollow, 2019, JP Begley