Posted on Tue, Aug. 19, 2008
Exhibit celebrates roadside memorials
An art professor brings attention to roadside memorials with a haunting exhibit.
By Lini S. Kadaba
Inquirer Staff Writer
Catrina and Jeff Conrad looked at the four mixed-media works that showed glimpses of a large white cross draped in a green banner with the word Danny.
“It’s been six years,” said Catrina Conrad, 29, of Tinton Falls in Monmouth County, N.J. “Sometimes I forget and think he’s just on a vacation.”
The Conrads’ friend Daniel Breen was killed when a drunk driver collided head on with the car he was driving on Route 18 in Tinton Falls. He was 34.
On Friday, the Conrads took in “Road Shrines – A Peripheral Blur,” a haunting exhibit several years in the making by Holy Family University art professor Pamela Flynn that celebrates the memorial to Breen and others found on roadways. It runs through Sept. 10 at Brookdale Community College in Lincroft, N.J.
In 2001 Flynn, 59, who lives in Lake Como, N.J., was driving to the Shore when, out of the corner of her eye, she spotted the memorial to Breen. She doubled back to get a better look and snap a picture with the digital camera she always carries with her.
“It was phenomenal,” said Flynn, who was especially taken with the elaborate nature of the structure.
Besides the cross, it included a cutout of a football emblazoned with “JETS” (Breen was a passionate fan) and a short, hand-crafted stone wall – an attempt to preserve the tribute.
As she surveyed what Breen’s friends had left behind, and thought about other roadside shrines, Flynn was struck by the deep need for so many to create a strong visual reminder, however fleeting, at the place where a loved one had died.
So began a study of six roadside tributes, all spotted at unexpected moments in her travels through Monmouth County or on the way to work in Northeast Philadelphia.
Some are complex structures, such as the carved wooden cross to a state trooper. Others are profoundly simple: just a single grave decoration that reads “MOM.”
Through sets of four works that incorporate drawings and other elements with the digital images she took, Flynn shows the powerful impact that visual memorials can have, both for the bereaved as well as for strangers passing by.
“They’re leaving something very personal in a public place,” she said. The spontaneous “art” is “a continuation of that person” and helps to build community during a time of loss.
Her project, funded through a small Puffin Foundation grant, strives “to celebrate the object that is itself a celebration,” Flynn wrote in an artist’s statement. “The art cannot be – and is not – a celebration of the person killed, since other than what the shrine provides, I have no insight into that person or the accident.”
Since she completed the pieces, which include folk art touches such as stitching and beadwork, she has hired a researcher to track down family members so she can give them the pieces and connect her art to the community.
“It’s really nice,” Nicole Boudon, 23, of Freehold, said of the artwork. She is the sister of Robert Boudon, who died at 17 in a motorcycle accident in 2005. “Hopefully, he’s looking down, and he’s honored.”
At the actual memorial, a handsome, dark-haired young man smiles from the front of a black “R.I.P. Bobby Boudon” T-shirt that’s draped on a white cross. The site is maintained by his mother, Lori, 47.
“I still go to the site,” said Lori Boudon, her eyes filling with tears. “His spirit is still alive and very much with us.”
She was moved by a drawing of an hourglass that lay on top of the memorial photo by Flynn. “He ran out of time,” she said.
Many of the pieces incorporate stones, bits of dried flowers, or in one case, a row of corn kernels. This last echoes the memorial’s setting in a field next to a stand selling “sweet corn.”
In one poignant piece, Flynn uses a close-up photo of a guardrail, where family have left notes of affection to the victim.
“It doesn’t tell you everything,” said Marie Maber, the gallery’s director. “It leaves you with questions.”
At Friday’s opening, the mood seemed at times more wake than art reception.
“It’s odd in a way,” Catrina Conrad said as she looked over “The Web of Life,” which depicts a digital image of the Breen shrine trapped behind black thread.
Her husband said he wasn’t sure his friend would have appreciated the modern art. “I don’t get it,” he said, imitating his friend.
“Let’s go to Friday’s,” Catrina Conrad chimed in with a laugh.
“He was always happy,” she added as the friends told more Breen stories.
In the end, perhaps it didn’t matter whether the art made sense to them. It had spurred the friends to reminisce – and pay tribute again – to a good buddy.
Contact staff writer Lini S. Kadaba at 215-854-5606 or Lkadaba@phillynews.com.