A few years ago, artist Candy Chang lost a good friend. The experience left her thinking a lot about death, what in her life was of value, what she wanted to do while she had time, and with whom she should spend those hours. While she knew she wanted to define these objectives, Chang says that she “struggled to maintain perspective.” She wondered if others felt similarly adrift.
Chang noticed that there was an old, abandoned home in her New Orleans neighborhood, a perfect canvas for expression. She, along with a group of friends, painted one side of the home in chalkboard paint and created a “Before I die ___________________ ” stencil:
Chang had no idea what to expect. But she and her friends attached little baskets of chalk to the sides and stepped away to wait and see:
To Chang’s great delight and surprise, the very next day, ” the wall was bursting with handwritten responses and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, eat a salad with an alien, see my daughter graduate, abandon all insecurities, plant a tree, straddle the International Date Line, be completely myself…”.
The project did what Chang had hoped it would do and more. It made her feel connected. It focused her thoughts and attention. Moreover, she came to know her neighbors in unexpected ways which were sometimes comic, sometimes tragic.
The project soon had many enthusiastic supporters and requests poured in for more of the “Before I Die _______” walls. Chang and her colleagues responded by creating “a toolkit and the project site beforeidie.cc to help people make a wall with their community. You can also download all files for free to remix or create your own stencils.”
To date, one hundred “Before I Die ___________” walls have been created in over ten languages and in thirty countries. The Atlantic calls “Before I Die _____________” “One of the most creative community projects ever.”
Chang, who has given a popular TED Talk on the project, says:
Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life.
Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. The historian Lewis Mumford once wrote that the origins of society were not just for physical survival but for sacred things that offer “a more valuable and meaningful kind of life.” At their greatest, our public spaces can nourish our well-being and help us see that we’re not alone as we try to make sense of our lives. Regularly contemplating death, as Stoics and other philosophers encourage, is a powerful tool to restore perspective and remind us of the things that make our lives meaningful. Each passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, and wonder. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.