Memorials along a roadside aren’t always adorned with fresh-cut flowers or Mylar balloons that instantaneously catch the eye. Sometimes they are simply a petite wooden cross or a weathered stone tucked away in the grass.
Regardless of their appearances, however, these spots are sacred to those who tend or create them.
“It’s surprising how pedestrian a memorial looks when you first come up to it,” Madison-based artist Thomas Ferrella said. “But, if you sit and look you’ll realize how incredibly rich they are.”
Ferrella, who has been photographing Wisconsin roadside memorials for more than 20 years, works to retain the memory of the memorials.
The fascination started with a memorial that cropped up in Ferrella’s own neighborhood on the corner of Fourth Street and East Washington Avenue — it was in honor of two East High School girls who were killed while crossing the street.
At the time, Ferrella was working as an emergency room doctor at Meriter Hospital and he treated one of the girls.
The project’s website states that Ferrella regrets not photographing that initial memorial which he watched grow over several months.
He said he felt that he had a personal connection to the memorial because he treated one of the victims. He also felt that photographing the memorial sites could be an altruistic endeavor since he would be providing further longevity by photographing the beloved places.
“It’s sacred for them,” he said. “They’re telling you it’s sacred for them — and maybe for you too — by building this memorial. It’s a personal way to express grief and feel like they’re attached to the person at that site because that site gives them a sense of place.
“The cemetery is where the body is, but this is where he or she actually took their last breath. There is a deep connection for people at these spots. I love the idea that they have the capacity to do this and declare this piece of land as sacred.”
Now, after more than two decades of compiling images, Ferrella is doing his first gallery showcase of the work titled “Not Forgotten: Wisconsin Roadside Memorials.”
The photographs will be at the Arts and Literature Laboratory through May 27.
Ferrella said he’s fortunate that a gallery like ALL exists in the Madison area because he isn’t sure other organizations would take on his work.
But Jolynne Roorda, president and visual and performing arts director for ALL, said his work fits right into their mission.
“One of the priorities for our exhibition series is to support emerging local artists like Dr. Ferrella,” she said in an email. “This is the first time he has exhibited this work beyond its website, so our space is providing the first opportunity for him to realize his vision for a project that has been in the works for more than 20 years.”
She added that an important aspect of ALL’s mission is to “encourage and develop collaborations among artists and writers.”
That aspect of “Not Forgotten” will come to fruition on May 25 when the Lake Effects Poets arrive with their poems on the subjects of loss and remembrance.
Similar work, this time focused on deaths in Chicago, done by Ferrella was on display at the Gage Gallery at Roosevelt University last fall sharing the “Not Forgotten” title. He was asked to collaborate with Roosevelt University journalism professor and former “The Progressive” editor Anne-Marie Cusac.
The majority of the work dealt with murders, Ferrella said.
It was in the two and a half years he spent photographing scenes in Chicago that he felt the most push back.
“A couple of moments were pretty intense,” he said. “I grew up in Detroit. I’m fairly well aware of the urban setting and I’ve spent years and years and years taking care of all kinds of people ... except this was completely different. I was on their territory and in their neighborhoods, in their homes and on their streets.”
After explaining his cause, however, most individuals usually came around to what he was trying to do, he added.
Having spent so much of his time on the project, particularly after retiring from his work in the ER in 2013, Ferrella has his theories about why the memorials have popped up more throughout the years.
He doesn’t recall seeing any memorials in the Midwest during his childhood, but saw plenty in his travels. Memorials have adorned areas Ferrella has visited in Colombia, Mexico, Portugal and all over the American Southwest.
Perhaps the increase in roadside memorial popularity follows the 1997 death of Princess Diana of Wales in which large public memorials were erected or perhaps the rise correlates with the Northern migration of Hispanic populations, Ferrella mused.
Though he isn’t entirely sure about what is causing the rising number of memorials in recent years, he has his theories on a larger, more philosophical, level.
“Grief used to be more personal,” he said. “The person passed at home, the body was shown at home, the family cleaned the body, dressed the body, showed the body and eventually had a church service or buried the body at the local cemetery — which was probably down the street. That’s all changed. Somehow, probably in the last 100 years or so, (death) has become a big box sort of thing.”
Ferrella sees the act of creating a roadside memorial not only as a means to honor a loved one who died in that location but also as a way to make grieving a personal act again.
There’s that need for grief to be personal, and these memorials are the perfect way to do that, he said.
He often gets text messages or phone calls informing him of an undocumented spot and when he receives enough tips for a given area, or he happens to be passing through anyway, he stops and documents the places.
This is an unending project, but it’s still exciting, Ferrella said.
“The project is not in any way meant to be all inclusive — that’s sort of an impossible feat,” he added.
Although it may not be possible to document all of the roadside memorials scattered across the state, Ferrella hopes to branch out into regions that are less documented than his home area of Dane County.
The project also appears to be a cathartic one for Ferrella who spent part of his career working as a doctor dealing with tragedy.
But, like in all things, there is a balance.
“The good part of the balance for me is that these sites are so beautiful and I can contribute to the memorialization process,” he said. “For me, it’s about continuing the memorialization process and trying to make it as beautiful as possible and reflecting the beauty of the sites through the photography.”