After Candy lost someone she loved, she went through a long period of grief and depression. With time she felt gratitude for the time they had together and eventually she found clarity in her life by contemplating death so much. But she struggled to maintain this perspective. It’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you. She wanted a daily reminder and she wanted to know what was important to the people around her. So she painted the side of an abandoned house in her neighborhood in New Orleans with chalkboard paint and stenciled it with a grid of the sentence “Before I die I want to _______.” Anyone walking by could pick up a piece of chalk, reflect on their lives, and share their personal aspirations in public space.
It was all an experiment and she didn’t know what to expect. By the next day, the wall was completely filled out and it kept growing: Before I die I want to… sing for millions, hold her one more time, straddle the International Date Line, see my daughter graduate, eat more everything, abandon all insecurities, plant a tree, follow my childhood dream, be completely myself… People’s responses made her laugh out loud and tear up. They consoled her during hard times. She understood her neighbors in new and enlightening ways, and the wall reminded her that she’s not alone as she tries to make sense of her life.
After receiving many requests, she created 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 create your own stencils. Thanks to passionate people around the world, over 400 Before I Die walls have now been created in over 25 languages and over 60 countries, including Kazakhstan, Portugal, Japan, Denmark, Iraq, Argentina, and South Africa. They have been a constant source of inspiration and therapy for Candy. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life. The Before I Die book was just published to celebrate these walls and the stories behind them.
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. Our public spaces are our shared spaces and at their greatest, they can help us make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life with the people around us.
Follow our collective journey on Facebook, Twitter, and our monthly digest. Visit beforeidie.cc for more walls, tools, and resources. Here’s Candy’s TED talk about the project. Email the team if you have any questions.
“One of the most creative community projects ever.” - The Atlantic
Update Sept 22, 2011: After seven months, the first wall comes to a happy end: the house will be turned into a home again thanks to new owners. We painted over the wall and stenciled one last thing – something Wendell Pierce said a few months ago that has stayed with Candy since: “Our thoughts are to the individual as our art is to the community.” It was ready to go but from the ashes come more.
Update Sept 22, 2011: After receiving many requests, we created a Before I Die toolkit to help people make a wall with their community! It includes a one-column stencil made of thick mylar so it’s easy to hang rigid against a wall. It also includes a title stencil, a guide, metal chalk holders, gloves, and chalk. All files are also available for free download if you’d like to create your own stencils.
Developed with support from the Black Rock Arts Foundation. February 2011 and beyond. 41′ x 8′, Chalkboard paint, stencils, spray paint, chalk. New Orleans, LA. With permission and support from the property owner, residents of the block, the neighborhood association’s blight committee, the Historic District Landmarks Commission, the Arts Council, and the City Planning Commission. Installation assistance: Kristina Kassem, Alan Williams, Cory Klemmer, Anamaria Vizcaino, James Reeves, Alex Vialou, Earl Carlson, and Gary Hustwit. You have permission to use photos above for publicity of the project.