'Before I Die...' art project asks people to reflect on life's goals

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What will you do before you die?

Visitors to Katz Plaza in the Cultural District have answered that question this week as part of an interactive project, “Before I Die,” at the Three Rivers Arts Festival, which ends today. A three-sided chalkboard wall has offered passers-by the chance to complete the sentence “Before I die, I want to …”

Responses have ranged from the silly to the serious, with answers like “marry Jennifer Aniston” next to “see gun control in this country.” Last Tuesday afternoon, Mike Pelino completed the sentence with the phrase “take a picture in all 50 states.”

“I think this is really cool,” said Mr. Pelino, 22, of Irwin. “It’s kind of anonymous. It’s not like anyone can know that that’s my [response]. It’s just a way for me to write it down, because I don’t have a bucket list, personally.”

The “Before I Die” initiative is a global project that Taiwanese-American artist Candy Chang, a Pittsburgh native, created in 2011 after someone close to her died. The enterprise has spread to more than 60 countries, including some currently facing significant conflict, such as Kazakhstan, Iraq and South Africa.

Ms. Chang said the project is “about making space for reflection and contemplation” in a talk she gave in September 2012.

“Death is something that we’re often discouraged to talk about or even think about,” she said. “But I've realized that preparing for death is one of the most empowering things you can do.

“Thinking about death clarifies your life.”

Festival director Veronica Corpuz said she brought the “Before I Die” board to the Three Rivers Arts Festival because it meshed well with other crowdsourced projects such as Edith Abeyta’s “o:ne:ka” and Susan Campbell’s “Portraits of Air.”

But her decision to bring the chalk wall to the festival also had a personal component.

“I have lost somebody very close to me, and so it was a way to kind of take that grief and transform it into something that was artful, inspirational and hopeful,” she said.

Each time the chalkboard fills with responses, festival staff members photograph it to document the replies. They then wipe the wall clean so that people can continue to participate throughout the festival.

Kim Bingham, 27, noticed the chalkboard as she walked through the plaza Tuesday. She paused to inscribe the words “be famous.”

“At school, I wasn’t popular,” said Ms. Bingham of Butler. “I wanted to be noticed for who I am. I’m writing a graphic novel that is soon to be published, and that’s why I want to be famous before I die.”

Bellevue resident Mark Murphy, 39, wrote “give my family a life.” He’s hoping for a stroke of luck that will enable him to better provide for his loved ones.

“Right now, I’m out of work,” he said. “I’d like to get a good job and be able to give my family the life that I want to give them.”

Children also participated in the project. On one of his first days of summer vacation, Davonta Bivins, 12, stopped at the wall with his family and wrote “be a professional barber” in purple chalk. He wants to follow in his dad’s footsteps.

“He cuts hair, and I look up to him,” said the Brighton Heights boy. “He’s a model to me.”

When Pittsburgh residents etch their dreams and aspirations on the wall, Ms. Corpuz hopes they will feel that they benefited from participating in a communal conversation.

“The impetus to express and to participate and to contribute to public dialogue is much more open and accessible now with technology,” she said. “To have kind of an analogous experience like that in the art world, and especially in an outdoor setting like a festival, facilitates an experience in a very direct way that hopefully kind of disrupts one’s habitual pattern.”

The “Before I Die” wall is open until 9 p.m. today.

Marisa Iati; miati@post-gazette.com, (412) 263-1891 or on Twitter @marisa_iati.

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