At the corner of 18th and Carpenter, in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood, stands a public art piece, “Before I die.” Simply a large rectangle of chalkboard paint and stenciled half-sentences, the art magnetically pulls in the curious. Read the secret wishes of the anonymous writers now gone, our only clues to their identities their dreams and their penmanship. It can be a little voyeuristic, but I think what this art piece reveals is our common humanity.
I was struck by how many people expressed a desire to travel. Some wrote specific places they’d like to go, some were places I’d already traveled to. I hoped those authors will someday see and breathe in these locales. But more interesting to me were the inner journeys most people wished to undertake: to begin families of their own, to reconnect with their loved ones. Still more want to change the world and change themselves.
The observer-cum-artist in me can’t help but grab a piece of chalk and add my own bucket list wish to the wall. I felt like a kid again with the chunk of purple chalk in my right hand. The art invites you to play, supplying the artifacts of youth on a random street corner smack in the middle of normalcy. It asks you to interrupt your routine to engage in school-age dreaming, something not many of us do on a daily basis anymore. The art itself is also temporary, ephemeral, like the dreams themselves. Dreams can change, evolve, or even die, if we allow or want them to. The art is subject to the weather. One good spring rain and the art can begin anew. It is what we define it.
If no one wrote their thoughts or their deepest feelings, traced their hands, then would it be art? What kind of statement would that make? I doubt that the wall post-rain shower would be blank for very long. Five days later, I walked by, and the wall was mostly blank. I’d been inside during the brief shower, so I didn’t realize it had rained. I immediately felt something strange overcome me. I had to write something. That feeling might have been the writer in me, or the latent street artist, but there’s no way I could walk by that big, blank chalkboard with the giant candy-colored pieces of chalk without contributing. I challenge you to walk by 18th and Carpenter. Try to walk by and not add something. It’s irresistible art.
Post script: I’ve also learned there’s another “Before I die…” wall on Granville near Winthrop in Edgewater.
- Artist Candy Chang, who began this public art project in New Orleans.
- Official website for the Before I Die project, which includes a directory of walls around the world and instructions on how to start a wall in your community.
- Tumblr for the Chicago Before I Die installations from the folks at Good News Only gallery and Chicago Urban Art Society.
Click on the thumbnails below to enjoy a full-page view.