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“Before I Die” project lands in Durham


Contemporary anxieties have a formidable adversary.
On Wednesday night, the Memorial Union Student Organization (MUSO) presented participatory public artist Candy Chang to the University of New Hampshire (UNH) community.
Chang uses public space, such as abandoned buildings, as canvases of hope. Her global “Before I Die” project allows people to write in responses with chalk on public murals.
Chang spoke about how her own life experience inspired her work.
“As I prepared to graduate from college, I was interested in many things,” she said. “I had the impression that I did not know where I was going, and that I was running out of time.”
Her initial work included urban design, and work with the New York Times. She discovered inspiration in Susan Orlean’s book “The Orchid Thief.”
“There is a real-life character in the story, a gardener by the name of Joseph Paxton,” Chang said. “Paxton was enthralled with the sturdy construction of the giant [Victoria] waterlily leaf. When he had his daughter and other children stand on it and it did not sink, he learned something from the design.”
Paxton incorporated what he learned from the waterlily into the design of the Crystal Palace, a cast-iron and plate-glass structure that housed the Great Exhibition of 1851 in Hyde Park in London.
“This showed me the importance of finding your curiosity and sticking with it” Chang said. “Paxton was a gardener who became an architect; you can make your own disciplines.”
Chang spoke to how the loss of a friend and mentor caused her to experience a period of grief and depression.
“I lost someone I loved very much,” she said. “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, and see the Pacific Ocean.”
Chang noticed at the time that there was an abandoned building in her New Orleans neighborhood that mirrored her depressed mood. She decided to do something about it.
She made a homemade stencil that said, “Before I die I want to _____,” and provided chalk for passersby.
“I had no idea what the level of response would be,” Chang said. “As it turned out, by the next day the building was covered in comments.”
The neighborhood came together, leading one resident to say she felt safer now that there was a community gathering point.
“I found that by servicing others, I ended up servicing myself,” Chang said.
As part of the Before I Die project, 4,000 walls have been created in 71 countries and 35 languages. Each wall is a tribute to living an examined life.
“The responses to the Before I Die projects share common themes, regardless of borders,” Chang said. “These include meaningful work, loving and being loved, travel, the bonds of family and personal wellbeing.”
The second Before I Die wall was set up locally in Portsmouth, New Hampshire.
Chang encouraged opening dialogues about death to alleviate anxiety. She also acknowledged how anxiety is on the rise with millennials and all age groups. UNH Durham offered NURS 535 (02) – Death and Dying this semester. The course encompasses people’s responses to death throughout the lifecycle; theories of death, dying and grieving are discussed. The program facilitated the Before I Die wall now on display on the third-floor entrance to the Memorial Union Building.
UNH students weighed in on Chang’s inspiring presentation.
“A lot of what Candy spoke to, we can all identify with,” said sophomore undeclared student Emma Cail. “She showed how common it is, to hide anxiety and depression.”
What would Cail like to write on the Before I Die wall?
“I want to be part of a documentary that impacts others in a positive and meaningful way,” Cail said.
Olivia Potenziano is a junior English/journalism major.
“This presentation was very relevant and touched on themes from my anthropology class,” Potenziano said. “My entry would be: before I die I want to adopt a child from another country and culture. I would want to have the child benefit from our world here, but also learn about the country and culture that they came from.”
Chang will be following up her visit to Durham by going to New York City for the Monument for the Anxious and Hopeful project. More on her life and projects can be found at

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