P O W E L L, W y o. - Lander artist Juan Laden has been photographing roadside memorials for almost a decade. An exhibit of the images he's found on American and Mexican highways and byways goes on display Tuesday, March 4, in SinClair Gallery at Northwest College. Titled "Passing Memories, Descansos," it opens at 7:30 p.m. with an artist's reception.
"I have been shooting these roadside memorials from Mexico to Minnesota and all the way to the West Coast," Laden said. He continually finds himself riveted by the paradox he sees memorialized in these creations that are viewed at highway speeds.
"One of the greatest freedoms that we have in this industrial world and especially here in the United States is the ability to take off in our car or truck and drive wherever we want whenever we want," Laden says. "There are costs though. One that we are just now beginning to feel globally is the impact on the environment. Another is the personal cost when we wreck, sometimes paying the ultimate cost in death. The freedom and exhilaration of sailing along at a mile a minute or faster can suddenly come to a screeching halt. Shattered dreams and metal parts spell the end of life and movement. It is this experience that is marked on the roadsides with personal memorials."
Laden said he chose the word "Descansos" for the title because of the legacy of these roadside memorials in Latin countries. "Descansos is Spanish for rest or, resting place," he said. "It is thought that originally in Mexico these were places where the pall bearers rested from the church to the cemetery. Later they became markers of the places where people died on the roadways.
"Over the years, the tradition of embellishing the marker to reflect the person it remembers moved slowly up from Mexico through the Southwest and to the rest of the country. Now it is not uncommon to see elaborate memorials all across America."
With this progression came greater awareness and resulting legislation. "Lately the bureaucrats have started to meddle in this creative and cathartic practice and more regulations have come into existence," he said. "The separation of church and state is another issue that has surfaced in states where the government itself puts up crosses as memorials."
Laden said he has been moved by the motivation of those who "have created these places that speak to all of us on some level. I keep coming back to the contrast between the wonderful freedom of travel and the sudden, chaotic and often lonely reality of death on the roadside. I want to honor those that have died and still keep in mind that, death is for the living. We can learn from all of those who have passed this way, just by seeing those little white crosses. It is something as simple as remembering to put on the seat belt, or as deep as going beyond our fears to tell someone we are sorry or that we love them."
Laden said when he stops to photograph a memorial, he tries to listen to the story that is sometimes literally written on the object. "I have also talked to people in the nearby towns, and once I had a sheriff stop, a bit suspiciously, and then tell me the story of a wife who died after the couple came around a corner and hit some horses."
The stories he's heard tell of sadness that is heartbreaking and overwhelming. Other times he hears of "heroism and fine lives lived." He's photographed memorials over the years "as they change and are maintained and some that slowly melt back into the earth."
According to Laden, families in Wyoming must now petition the state to get a sign installed to commemorate their loved one. "It is a sign made to not symbolize any given religion," Laden said, "and in my estimation one that is graphically confusing. It is installed for a limited time and is not supposed to be embellished."
According to the Wyoming Department of Transportation (WyDOT), the broken heart and dove in flight design on the memorial signs symbolize the heartbreak of losing a family member and hope for peace and healing. The design is a combination of concepts submitted by Chelsea Moore of Casper and Katherine Townsend of Newcastle, the winners of a design search open to elementary school students throughout Wyoming.
Laden said he has yet to photograph one of these new signs, though someday they will also be included in his collection. Soon, his photos of existing memorials may be all that remain. When the WyDOT developed the roadside memorial regulations in 2003, the existing memorials were scheduled to be left for five years. That time has now lapsed.
"It will be interesting to see how these conflicts play out in the coming decades as I continue this project," Laden said. "In the meantime, I will continue photographing the creative and reverent places that keep our memories of the past and the present living. This is an art of life and death, freedom and loss. I hope these images give people a moment of reflection and a sense of beauty where it may not seem apparent."
"Passing Memories, Descansos" will hang in SinClair Gallery through Friday, March 28. Located in the Orendorff Building at Northwest College, the gallery is open from 8 a.m.-9 p.m. weekdays. Admission is free.