I came to this project through another life.
In 1991, when I was working as an emergency medicine physician, I observed the construction of a memorial at the intersection of East Washington Avenue and 4th Street in Madison where two young Madison East High School students died after being struck by a car while crossing the street. I knew about the accident because I had cared for one of the girls.
Over the next several months, I witnessed the evolution of the memorial as I drove by. While I was struck by the beauty of it, what truly resonated with me was the memorial’s organic, personal nature: a free-flowing, improvisational community art piece paying tribute to the lives of these two young women. There were no preconceived designs, no architects. Colored plastic flowers, stuffed animals, handwritten messages, balloons, and bits of personal memorabilia woven into the fence gently swayed as cars sped by.
Then, one day, it was gone.
Since then, I have photographed and documented roadside memorial sites throughout Wisconsin, often talking with the friends and families of the deceased who make them. Memorial makers say that these earthly spots where someone took his or her last breath hold tremendous meaning, and they provide places for grief that is often confined to a funeral home or cemetery. To many, these are sacred sites.
Roadside memorials are most often built without permission, yet there is an unspoken acceptance of their presence—and occasional visitors—by private landowners, businesses, and local governments. During my twenty years as an artist and photographer, I have seen hundreds of these sites in Central and South America as well as in the southwest United States. But roadside memorials seem to be relatively new to Wisconsin. Or perhaps I just wasn’t seeing them. I do now.
This photo essay, a website documenting over 120 of these sites, and all my endeavors surrounding this project are intended as another means of remembering these people and honoring their lives.