‘Before I Die’ global arts project inspires Mississippians to turn their hopes and dreams into words

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Sherry Lucas

Alisha Newell makes a video of the goal she just shared on the “Before I Die …” wall at the Arts Center of Mississippi.

Open a restaurant. Become a published author. Let go of my anxieties. Help my community overcome emotional trauma. LIVE.

Those are a few first hopes shared on the recently installed “Before I Die ….” wall at the Arts Center of Mississippi, christening Jackson’s own piece of a global art project that invites people to reflect on mortality and share what matters most.

“The ‘Before I Die’ project is really about emotional communion,” says New Orleans-based urban designer/artist and project founder Candy Chang, on hand for the unveiling last month.

She even jogged in a happy circle once the green cover came down and the black wall beckoned.

Sherry Lucas

Former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr. is the first to sign the “Before I Die …” wall at the Arts Center of Mississippi.

Along with Jackson Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba and former Jackson Mayor Harvey Johnson Jr., more than 30 student ambassadors from Obama Magnet School and more than a dozen Tougaloo College students were among the first to share, in colored chalk, goals and hopes for the future.

Within a half-hour, all the “Before I die I want to …” blanks were filled, and words trailed into other spaces, addressing community ills, individual ambitions, anxieties and visions.

About 8 feet high and 24 feet across, the installation covers most of the back wall behind the grand staircase in the building’s lower atrium. A joint venture of the Greater Jackson Arts Council’s creative empowerment and public art programs, sponsored by Visit Jackson, it dovetails with the council’s focus on art as a way to heal social injustice and address community needs.

“I want art to be a necessity, not a nicety, so that it’s something people really want to get involved in,” says Janet Scott, Greater Jackson Arts Council executive director. “It can cross barriers, it can cross races, it can cross religions.

“People can talk about subjects that are taboo, through art, and it’s more comfortable. People may not want to sit around and talk about what I want to do before I die, but they’ll write it on this wall.” The wall will remain an active chalkboard, catching the thoughts of passersby, until it’s completely filled, then sealed.

“Before I Die …” walls now number more than 5,000, in 75-plus countries and more than 35 languages. They change over time as they’re filled up, erased, then written on again. Jackson’s wall, which will stand as a permanent public art installation once it’s sealed, is a first for the global art project — “a really interesting experiment,” Chang says. “I wish I could have captured so many of these moments on other walls.

“It will be a portrait … of this community, at this moment in time, preserved for years to come. I think that’s a really lovely idea,” Chang says, predicting that its writings, vulnerable and honest, will become more fascinating and valuable over time.

Sherry Lucas

Scott Crawford and Candy Chang discuss writings on the wall.

Johnson, the first African American mayor of Jackson for whom the lower atrium will be named in coming renovations, was first to fill in a blank, sharing his desire to become a published author.

“It does get you thinking about priorities and your mortality, and what is it that you’re going to do? What legacy are you going to leave?” says Johnson, who hopes to share insights from his experiences as an educator and public servant, in book form. “As Chang indicated, it brings people together, because now all of us are thinking on the same plane. We want to try to make some contribution, do something with our lives before we leave here.”

When Alisha Newell, a recent Jackson State University graduate, considered her contribution that morning, “It dawned on me that I really needed to help my community, as in African Americans,” she says. “I really want us to overcome emotional trauma, because we do have a lot that’s set in our community, and it never gets talked about. Maybe that’s my purpose in life.”

Sherry Lucas

Latrice Johnson adds her ambition to the “Before I Die …” wall at the Arts Center of Mississippi.

For Tougaloo College junior Latrice Johnson, “Before I die, I want to fulfill my purpose and/or be the first African American woman to do something,” she writes. That “something” remains to be decided, she says, “But I still want to be that first.”

For Scott Crawford, a tireless advocate for accessibility, this public space offered a chance to share a personal wish from deep inside — to go sailing alone. That, he says, would make all his community efforts worth it.

Chang’s public phenomenon had a very personal origin. She was mourning the loss of a loved one — Joan, who was like a mother to her, and whose sudden death sent her into a long period of grief and depression. “There were still so many things she wanted to do,” Chang told listeners at the TECH Jackson conference and festival in mid-April. She found clarity in life by thinking about death, and wanted to know what was important to others.

With a homemade stencil and the help of friends, she turned the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans — “Collecting dust and graffiti for years, it looked even sadder than me” — into a chalkboard for passersby to stop, reflect and share thoughts. “People’s responses made me laugh and cry and they consoled me during some of my toughest times.

“I saw so clearly that I’m not alone as I’m trying to make sense of my life,” she says. This “little experiment … little what-if” caught on, spurring her passion about the relationship between public spaces and emotional health. Each wall is unique, and a tribute to living an examined life.

With so many barriers to opening up to others, it’s easy to forget the humanity of those around us and feel isolated, alienated and alone in personal struggles, she says.

“Seeing some private corner of your psyche, reflected in someone else’s handwriting in public, can be incredibly reassuring, on an individual level. And, it’s a step toward seeing ourselves in each other.”