Before I Die…, the Ultimate To-Do List

By Patty Wetli | Thursday, May 3, 2012

Before I Die public art installation at Lillstreet Art Center. Credit: Patty Wetli

Weigh less. Run 4 Congress. Make a difference. Visit each continent. Ride an ostrich.

“Before I Die…,” an outdoor public art project that’s popped up across the city, including last week at Lillstreet Art Center, 4401 N. Ravenswood Ave., has provoked responses both profound and playful, offering a window into Chicagoans’ secret wishes and wildest dreams.

Originally conceived by artist Candy Chang, who turned the side of an abandoned house in New Orleans into a giant chalkboard, Before I Die, which encourages people to share their private aspirations in a public space, struck a chord with local gallery owner Elizabeth Shank.

“The question is so in-your-face,” says Shank, who opened Good News Only, 5604 N. Ridge Ave., six months ago. “I loved how bold it was and also the fact that it’s interactive.”

She contacted Chang, who coincidentally had just created a Before I Die toolkit after receiving an avalanche of requests to duplicate the project in cities around the world. Obtaining chalk, chalk holders and stencils from Chang, Shank then convinced Rust-Oleum to donate chalkboard paint and recruited Lauren Pacheco of the Chicago Urban Art Society to partner on installations. The pair started in Edgewater, Shank’s home turf, and expanded to Pilsen, Little Village and now Lillstreet. With enough paint left for two more chalkboards, Pacheco has her eye on additional sites in Wicker Park and Chinatown.

“Literally we were peeling the stencils off the Edgewater site [1101 W. Granville St.],” Shank recalls, “and immediately people were grabbing chalk.”

Though some of the writings have been silly (is ostrich riding even a thing?), “I’d say 99 percent are serious,” she says. Many of the responses are related to travel – seeing and doing. “I think it’s motivating,” says Shank, “to put something out there.”

Within days, the boards are typically filled with scrawlings, people cramming their thoughts into any available space. How, then, to keep the project viable through the summer? What’s the moral implication of erasing one person’s life’s ambition to make room for another’s?

In New Orleans, Chang relied on rain to wipe the slate clean, but the weather hasn’t cooperated for Shank and Pacheco. “Lauren and I have gone by [Edgewater and Pilsen] once and rinsed them down,” she says. The two are also refilling chalk as needed, though Shank has been cheered to see neighbors taking on the responsibility of restocking supplies.

Despite the ephemeral nature of the project – it’s intended to be temporary, lasting just through spring and summer – Shank and Pacheco are archiving photos of the chalkboards online and typing out what people are writing to preserve the musings for posterity; Chang is working on a book that will incorporate comments from the numerous global installations.

For Shank, one of the most memorable thoughts was among the first she witnessed being written on the Edgewater wall. “There was this one women, she wrote, ‘to forgive and be forgiven.’ Then she stood back and stared at it for a few minutes. It seemed to be very cathartic for her. That was a special moment.”

It’s that kind of response that makes the project worthwhile for Shank, who’s co-managing Before I Die on top of running Good News Only. The non-profit gallery mounts exhibits with a twist: The works are all produced by professional artists, but the shows are curated by high school students participating in Shank’s after-school program.

“It’s just about being organized,” Shank says of wearing multiple hats. “It’s all part of the mission of the gallery,” to promote public art and unite communities. “To see the mission happening, I just feel very lucky.”

Which begs the question, what’s left on Shank’s bucket list? She’s actually written on the Edgewater board twice, pre- and post-rinsing. The first was “meet my neighbors,” which she’s accomplished through the project.  The second: “have no regrets.”

The wall at Lillstreet:

Owly Images

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