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.
She helped to launch Neighborland, a piece of civic-minded software meant to aid city agencies, universities, foundations, and local non-profits in engaging with their respective communities, but art is her passion and it’s where she’s seen the most change happen.
“When you look at the news, it’s easy to get antagonistic and forget that we have much more in common than not,” Chang explains. Her art installations offer a vehicle for understanding, one that allows people to be vulnerable and share their beliefs, their joys, and their struggles. This opportunity to be raw is what Chang believes ultimately creates a more compassionate society.
She’s built more projects following the success of Before I Die. Her Confessions installation, inspired by Japanese Shinto shrine prayer walls, invited people to share their deepest secrets anonymously, by writing them on a wooden plaque in the privacy of confession booths in The Cosmopolitan’s P3 Studio gallery in Las Vegas. Over 1,500 plaques were arranged on the gallery walls by the time Chang was done and the project found new life in places like London, Athens, and Belarus.
Recently, Chang created a project called The Atlas Of Tomorrow which borrows from an ancient Chinese divination text and invites people to consider a situation in their lives where they seek clarity and spin a six-foot dial to select one of the sixty-four fables along a wall in Philadelphia for poetic guidance.
The genesis for each art project comes from Chang’s own struggles with mental health and emotional well-being, something she tries to make less taboo with the installations she designs.
“I’ve learned that your personal struggles can be turned into your greatest service to others,” Chang explains. “My experiences with loss, depression, and existential confusion have become the fuel for a lot my experiments. So be sensitive to your struggles. There’s a good chance you’re not alone, that others feel it too, and what you might consider your weaknesses can become your strengths.”
Chang thinks that there is a need for things that unify us right now. Things that remind us of our commonalities and that allow us to see people not as “other” but as human; flawed yet full of promise. In the future, she hopes her public art projects can become mental health tools that can be embedded in the fabric of cities all over the world for the public good.
“I think many of our conflicts working with one another come from our psychological immaturity,” Chang says. “We’re not taught how to deal with the complexity of our emotions. Instead, we often repress them or project our fears, resentments, or insecurities onto others. By reflecting, we might gain new perspective on the role we play in our relationships with others [and] our relationship with ourselves.”
In doing so, she’s helping progress the universe’s gradual arc toward collective acceptance. Because we all experience emotions like fear, anger, regret, sorrow, and joy; and because we all, at some point, have a brush with issues like anxiety, addiction, depression, and self-destruction. And when we do, we all deserve compassion.