Somewhere in Montana along U.S. Route 191, near Yellowstone National Park, a small white cross marks the site of a deadly car accident. This cross and others like it have haunted Columbus physician and artist Robert Falcone for nearly two decades, raising questions about the fragility of life and the possibility of an afterlife. Now, Falcone, Columbus composer Richard Smoot and the Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus wrestle with these questions together in an installation of original art and music currently on display at the Columbus College of Art and Design's Beeler Gallery.
The installation, entitled Crossing, is Falcone’s final thesis project in the Master of Fine Arts degree program at CCAD. The project’s origins stem from many years ago, when tragedy struck Falcone’s family.
“I lost my wife in a motor vehicle collision in 1998 and became obsessed with these roadside crosses and spent the next ten years photographing them all over the country,” said Falcone, a trauma surgeon, clinical professor of surgery at the Ohio State University and CEO of the Columbus Medical Association and Affiliates, in a recent phone interview.
Falcone’s efforts to make sense of his loss resulted in hundreds of photographs, many of which he compiled in 2009 into a book entitled Near-Death Experiences.
And although Falcone says that, as a trauma surgeon, he has been surrounded by death his entire life, he also says he still does not understand it. He says his scientific training, in particular, caused him to question many of the beliefs that came out of his Catholic upbringing – beliefs that also offered him no certain way to make sense of his wife’s tragic death.
“As I went farther and farther down the path of science, I began to really question many of my beliefs,” Falcone said. “And quite frankly, I’m not sure what I believe anymore, and I suspect I’m not the only one.”
In creating Crossing, Falcone says he aimed to give others a space in which to ask the same questions.
“What I wanted to do was create an environment where someone might come in, spend a few minutes, and ask themselves what, in fact, do they believe,” Falcone said.
Among the hundreds of roadside crosses Falcone photographed after his wife’s death, he found those in Montana especially moving and made an image of one of them a key component of Crossing.
In Montana, roadside crosses are a visible sign of the state's American Legion program, begun in 1953, to mark the sites of fatal traffic accidents on Montana highways. The crosses are intended to serve as warnings to other drivers about hazardous roads and dangerous driving.
“I really felt that these very simple, unadorned white crosses set against the Montana landscape were a very poignant departure for what I was trying to do with my piece,” Falcone said.
In the exhibit space for Crossings, a much-enlarged print of Falcone’s photograph of a Montana roadside crosses is affixed to a white wall in a modest-sized room with high ceilings. The tiny white cross appears in the lower right corner of the photograph before a backdrop of rolling Montana hills and “big sky” beyond.
“The cross is not very big … but the landscape is this huge vista,” Falcone said. “The idea being – world and other world. I’m not sure what that other world is.”
Falcone commissioned Columbus composer Richard Smoot to write music to accompany the photograph. Relying on techniques found often in early music, Smoot created a choral work sung not to words, but instead to a neutral “ah” sound.
Smoot says he aimed for his music to open doors for contemplation, and to create, in his words, “kind of a meditative or sacred space.”
Columbus Gay Men’s Chorus Artistic Director Tim Sarsany led chorus members in recording Smoot’s music on a loop that plays non-stop in the installation space. Sarsany says the music’s timeless quality and neutral text put no limits on the experiences people can have in the installation space.
“It’s very haunting,” Sarsany said. “(Falcone) wanted to be sure … that there was no text. Because if there’s text in the piece, then the audience, their mind will automatically go somewhere and think about the text. So we just did it on the neutral syllable “ah,” and just treated it like Gregorian chant.”
On the far end of the installation space two white steps run from wall to wall. On the steps’ white paint are dark shoe scuff marks and two pages of sheet music – remnants from when the chorus stood on the steps and sang the world premiere of Smoot’s music for the formal public unveiling of Crossing on April 8.
“The only thing that was left was the memory of the performance in the minds of the people that were there, the recording which was activated once they left, and the marks on the risers left behind by the shoes of the choir that was singing on them. The idea being one of one minute you’re here, and the next minute you’re gone. And the question, of course, is Gone where?”
“Time to Move On”
Nearly 20 years after his wife’s tragic death, after countless miles logged on cross-country roadside cross pilgrimages, after hundreds of road cross photographs, and now even after an MFA thesis installation on the same theme, Falcone says most of the questions that haunted him at the beginning of this journey still do.
“I think I’m over the cross,” Falcone said. “I think I’m over this image, and I’m over this particular manifestation of the question, but I’m nowhere near over the question. And so I will continue to ask questions of existence and non-existence in a variety of different ways, but specifically to the roadside cross, I’m done with that image. I’ve given it a big chunk of my life, and it’s time to move on.”
- Memorial Markers: For 50 Years, White Crosses Have Marked Fatal Accidents on Montana Highways (Billings Gazette)
- Highway Markers Have Marked Montana Roads for Decades (Fallon County Times)
Crossing is on display in the Beeler Gallery of the Columbus College of Art and Design in “Curious to See,” CCAD’s 2016 MFA thesis exhibition, through April 28.