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Candy Chang Visits Drexel

October 27, 2014

Before I Die wall

What do you want to do before you die?

It’s a question worth asking yourself, and maybe even worth writing down the answer and sharing it with others. And now you can, with the new public art installation and “Before I Die” wall recently put up by Candy Chang, an artist, designer and urban planner who will deliver the fifth lecture in the College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Lecture Series in the spring.

On Oct. 23, Chang built one of her famous “Before I Die” installations surrounding the construction site of the former University City High School at 38th and Powelton streets, which Drexel purchased last spring. Less than 24 hours after she installed chalkboard walls with the phrases "Before I die" and "I want to ______," people have written their own personal inspirations in colorful chalk on all 168 lines. The answers deal with common themes ranging from love and well being, like "Maintain a healthy soul like I maintain a healthy body" and "Find love," to travel and professional goals, like "Visit the Amazon" and "Win a Pulitzer." 

"The wall is really for everyone here. It's an open platform for people to share. This area has experienced a lot of loss over the years. I welcome everyone to write down their hopes for their community and for their lives,” she said. "This is a place for people to be honest.”

Philly now has one of over 500 "Before I Die" walls that have been installed in over 30 languages in over 70 countries. Chang created the first wall in New Orleans in 2011, after someone very close to her passed away. After spending a lot of time reflecting on life and death, and the people we meet or may never know along the way, she created the first installation on an abandoned property.

What started as a neighborhood community project grew into a national, and then international, shared experience. Since then, she has been named a recipient of the TED Senior Fellowship and published a book, also titled "Before I Die," filled with memories and stories from walls around the world, among other accolades and awards. 

"I never expected it to go beyond my neighborhood. I thought it wouldn't last a day, and I've just been blown away seeing how far the project has grown," she said.  

According to Chang, many of the "Before I Die" sites are installed by the community, who can access the stencils and other resources online.  

"I haven't done one of these in a while. A big part of the project is that anyone can make a wall or write on a wall. You don't need me!" she said.  

She does turn to the walls to inspire and ground her, just like thousands of others have done over the years. 

"It's very easy to forget what's important in our lives. The walls help me when I lose perspective. I've gone through grief and depression and despair, and seeing other people’s responses on the wall reminds me that I'm not alone," Chang said.   

Chang has always been interested in the ways that public spaces can become more nourishing to communities and mental health. She will expand on the power of public spaces in her 2015 CoAS Distinguished Lecturer speech, which will take place on April 30. She will also discuss creative ways to approach life and work, and what she's learned from the pressures of being a student (a topic she knows well: she received a BFA in Graphic Design and a BS in Architecture from the University of Michigan and a master’s in Urban Planning from Columbia University).

That won’t be the last time Philly sees Chang, however. This summer, she'll begin a partnership with Mural Arts' "Porch Light Initiative,” which uses public art to improve mental well being.

Previously, a "Before I Die" sprang up on Broad Street between Spruce and Pine streets two years ago, but has since been taken down. Just a few blocks away from the Powelton Village "Before I Die" wall exists another West Philadelphia connection with Chang. In 2012, several abandoned buildings on Lancaster Avenue were covered in "I Wish This Was" stickers filled out by people who wrote down ways they wanted the space to benefit the community. The stickers, of course, were originally designed by Chang.  

Though she constructed and painted the “Before I Die” wall near Drexel and supplied the chalk, Chang has no control over how long the wall will be up, or if it will still be there when she returns to Drexel in April.