Skip to main content
Part of complete coverage on

Before I die, I want to ...

By Candy Chang, Special to CNN
updated 2:52 PM EST, Sun December 23, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Candy Chang is an artist focused on how we use public spaces
  • She created a "Before I die, I want to ... " project on New Orleans building
  • Chang: People responded with a wide array of thoughts
  • Similar projects started in 25 nations, she says

Editor's note: Candy Chang, a TED Fellow, is an artist, designer, and urban planner who explores making cities more comfortable and contemplative places. See more at candychang.com TED is a nonprofit organization dedicated to "Ideas worth spreading," which it makes available through talks posted on its website.

(CNN) -- On a quiet August day I lost someone I loved very much. Her name was Joan and she was a mother to me for 15 years. Her death was sudden and unexpected, and there were still so many things she wanted to do: Learn to play the piano, live in Paris, see the Pacific Ocean.

I spent a long time full of grief, and then I felt gratitude for the time we had together. I thought about death a lot, which brought clarity to my life, the people I want to be with, and the things I want to do. But I struggled to maintain this perspective. It's easy to get caught up in the day-to-day and forget what really matters to you.

Candy Chang
Candy Chang

I wondered if other people felt the same way. Over the past few years I've tried ways to share more with my neighbors in public space, using simple tools like stickers, stencils, and chalk. This time I wanted to know what was important to the people around me and I wanted a daily reminder to restore perspective.

So with help from old and new friends, I transformed the side of an abandoned house in my neighborhood in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard and stenciled it with a grid of the fill-in-the-blank 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.

Become a fan of CNNOpinion
Stay up to date on the latest opinion, analysis and conversations through social media. Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion and follow us @CNNOpinion on Twitter. We welcome your ideas and comments.



It was all an experiment and I didn't know what to expect. By the next day the wall was entirely filled out and it kept growing: Before I die I want to ... sing for millions, see my daughter graduate, eat all the candy and sushi in the world, straddle the International Date Line, be someone's cavalry, live off the grid, build a school, hold her one more time, abandon all insecurities, be completely myself ...

TED.com: Artfully visualizing our humanity

People's responses made me laugh out loud, tear up, and they consoled me during my own tough times. This neglected space became a constructive one where we understood our neighbors in new and enlightening ways. It also showed us we are not alone in our hopes, fears and struggles as we try to lead fulfilling lives.

Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.  Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.
Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.Chang invited public to fill in the blanks.

After receiving requests from passionate people around the world, my Civic Center colleagues and I created a toolkit and project site to help people make a wall with their community. You can also download all files for free to remix or create your own stencils.

Now over 75 Before I Die walls have been created in over 10 languages and in over 25 countries, including Kazakhstan, Argentina, China, Denmark, and South Africa. Each wall is unique and reflects the people of that community, and each wall is a tribute to living an examined life. And by using a few simple tools like chalkboard paint and chalk, this project shows you don't need a big budget to make a big impact.

TED.com: Architecture that senses and responds

Death is something we're often discouraged to talk about or even think about: Don't go there. It's too sad. You don't need to think about it until you're older. However, regularly contemplating death—as Stoicism and other philosophies encourage—is a powerful and healthy tool to put daily stresses in their place, re-appreciate the present, and remember what matters most to you.

Thinking about death clarifies your life. In our age of increasing distractions, it's important to find ways to step back, pause, and reflect on our experiences so we make the most of our brief and tender lives. It's not our experiences that define us but what we make of our experiences that defines us as we grow and change.

TED.com: Three warp-speed architecture tales

Our public spaces are as profound as we allow them to be. Our streets, parks, plazas, and subways are for everyone, yet take a quick look at the messages on display and it seems like we only care about sexy beers and fruity shampoos. How can our public spaces nourish our well-being and better reflect what matters to us as a community and as individuals?

Every passerby is another person full of longing, anxiety, fear, wonder, and wisdom, and there is great power in knowing you are not alone. With more ways to share in public space, the people around us can not only help us make better places, they can help us become our best selves.

Follow @CNNOpinion on Twitter

Join us at Facebook/CNNOpinion

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Candy Chang.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 6:10 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
If Obama thinks pushing out Hagel will be seen as the housecleaning many have eyed for his national security process, he'll be disappointed, says David Rothkopf.
updated 8:11 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
The decision by the St. Louis County prosecuting attorney to announce the Ferguson grand jury decision at night was dangerous, says Jeff Toobin.
updated 3:57 AM EST, Tue November 25, 2014
China's influence in Latin America is nothing new. Beijing has a voracious appetite for natural resources and deep pockets, says Frida Ghitis.
updated 4:51 PM EST, Mon November 24, 2014
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani speaks during a press conference in the capital Tehran on June 14, 2014.
The decision to extend the deadline for talks over Iran's nuclear program doesn't change Tehran's dubious history on the issue, writes Michael Rubin.
updated 2:25 PM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Maria Cardona says Republicans should appreciate President Obama's executive action on immigration.
updated 7:44 AM EST, Fri November 21, 2014
Van Jones says the Hunger Games is a more sweeping critique of wealth inequality than Elizabeth Warren's speech.
updated 6:29 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
obama immigration
David Gergen: It's deeply troubling to grant legal safe haven to unauthorized immigrants by executive order.
updated 8:34 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Charles Kaiser recalls a four-hour lunch that offered insight into the famed director's genius.
updated 3:12 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
The plan by President Obama to provide legal status to millions of undocumented adults living in the U.S. leaves Republicans in a political quandary.
updated 10:13 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
Despite criticism from those on the right, Obama's expected immigration plans won't make much difference to deportation numbers, says Ruben Navarette.
updated 8:21 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
As new information and accusers against Bill Cosby are brought to light, we are reminded of an unshakable feature of American life: rape culture.
updated 5:56 PM EST, Thu November 20, 2014
When black people protest against police violence in Ferguson, Missouri, they're thought of as a "mob."
updated 3:11 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Lost in much of the coverage of ISIS brutality is how successful the group has been at attracting other groups, says Peter Bergen.
updated 8:45 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Do recent developments mean that full legalization of pot is inevitable? Not necessarily, but one would hope so, says Jeffrey Miron.
updated 8:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
We don't know what Bill Cosby did or did not do, but these allegations should not be easily dismissed, says Leslie Morgan Steiner.
updated 10:19 AM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Does Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas have the influence to bring stability to Jerusalem?
updated 12:59 PM EST, Wed November 19, 2014
Even though there are far fewer people being stopped, does continued use of "broken windows" strategy mean minorities are still the target of undue police enforcement?
updated 9:58 PM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
The truth is, we ran away from the best progressive persuasion voice in our times because the ghost of our country's original sin still haunts us, writes Cornell Belcher.
updated 4:41 PM EST, Tue November 18, 2014
Children living in the Syrian city of Aleppo watch the sky. Not for signs of winter's approach, although the cold winds are already blowing, but for barrel bombs.
updated 8:21 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
We're stuck in a kind of Middle East Bermuda Triangle where messy outcomes are more likely than neat solutions, says Aaron David Miller.
updated 7:16 AM EST, Mon November 17, 2014
In the midst of the fight against Islamist rebels seeking to turn the clock back, a Kurdish region in Syria has approved a law ordering equality for women. Take that, ISIS!
updated 11:07 PM EST, Sun November 16, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says President Obama would be justified in acting on his own to limit deportations
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT