On the side of an abandoned building in New Orleans, there was once a giant chalkboard. It was stenciled with a simple fill-in-the-blank sentence that’s been completed hundreds if not thousands of times. In a way, it was a memorial, created by artist Candy Chang to honor a friend she lost years ago, suddenly and unexpectedly. The loss caused the New Orleans native to start thinking about life and what she wanted to accomplish.
“I couldn’t move on and life felt absurd,” Chang says of how she struggled with her friend’s death. She wanted a way to remind herself of the borrowed time we’re all living on. “It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. I wanted a daily reminder and I wanted to know what was important to the people around me.”
Chang decided to take a neglected space in her neighborhood and turn it into a constructive platform for people to share unfulfilled goals and yet-to-be-realized dreams. She did it by writing a simple sentence: “Before I die I want to …” and leaving some chalk behind. The next day, the wall was full.
“Before I die I want to … be tried for piracy.”
“Before I die I want to … write a book.”
“Before I die I want to … be an international dancing sensation.”
“Before I die I want to … live.”
The ways people answered surprised Chang. Some responses were silly, others poignant, some simple to achieve, others nearly impossible. What really shocked Chang was how quickly her experimental art installation became a global mission. Over 2,000 walls have now been created in over 70 countries and in 25 languages. Chang simply shares her stencil with communities that wish to erect their own wall and lets the public do the rest. Most of the walls disappear after a few months, like Chang’s original did in New Orleans once the building was bought and renovated, but the impact remains.
Austria, Azerbaijan, Israel, Kenya, Serbia, Taiwan — the list of places Chang’s creation has popped up grows daily.
“Each wall is a big honest mess of the longing, pain, joy, insecurity, gratitude, fear, and wonder you find in every community,” Chang says. “We’re all going through challenges in our lives and there’s great comfort in knowing you’re not alone, but it’s easy to forget this because there are a lot of barriers to opening up. And while the barriers remain, it’s easy to forget the humanity in the people around us and become impersonal and even adversarial.”
Chang has always believed in the power public art has to create safe spaces that foster dialogue and understanding. With a background in urban planning, the artist has worked with communities across the world — New York, Nairobi, Helsinki, Johannesburg — to create public experiments meant to fuel discourse and bring people together.