On a recent morning, Austinite Vicki Faust took a step back from the giant chalkboard wall she erected in her South Austin neighborhood and scanned the hundreds of messages from neighbors, strangers and tourists who had scribbled their secret hopes and dreams for all to see in pink, yellow and blue chalk.
“Before I die I want to be cancer free,” read one message. “Before I die I want to design a building in Austin’s skyline,” another person wrote. “Before I die, I want to eat every burger out there,” someone else declared.
For nearly two years, Faust has read the countless inspiring, silly and thoughtful messages that people have left on the “Before I Die” interactive art project on the exterior wall of her short-term rental property called the Art Barn. The project encourages Elizabeth Street passersby to share their personal aspirations anonymously on a black wall with several stenciled partial sentences that read, “Before I die I want to ____.”
Every week the 25-foot-by-12-foot wall gets covered in colorful chalk-laden messages. When there’s no more room left on the stenciled lines, people fill the edges of the wall and even climb each other’s shoulders to write on the top edges before the messages get washed off to make room for a new set of dreams.
“It’s not like I had a grand vision about it being a successful art installation,” Faust says. “It took on a life of its own.”
As in South Austin, people around the world have been moved by similar “Before I Die” walls. The first one popped up in New Orleans when artist Candy Chang, who recently spoke at the Texas Women’s Conference, created a “Before I Die” wall in an abandoned building in her neighborhood.
After losing someone close to her, Chang began to think about death and the things that were most meaningful to her. She received permission to paint the side of a dilapidated house to launch the community experiment. By the next day, the wall was filled with responses like “straddle the International Date Line,” “see my daughter graduate,” and “abandon all insecurities.”
“‘Before I Die’ offers a gentle first step toward honesty and vulnerability in public, which can lead to trust and understanding,” Chang says. “These are essential elements for a more compassionate society, which can not only help us make better places together but can help us become our best selves.”
Chang shared the initial “Before I Die” messages online, and soon people from across the globe wanted to replicate the project in their own communities. Chang now offers tips and resources on how to make a sanctioned “Before I Die” wall on her website, beforeidie.cc. At least 1,000 walls have sprouted in more than 70 countries and 35 languages. The worldwide walls and messages are now chronicled in Chang’s “Before I Die” book.
In Austin, Faust learned about the popular art project at the same time that she was remodeling an 1800s carriage house off South Congress Avenue.
Since the old construction predated current city building codes and sat closer to the street curb than new houses, Faust had to make several adjustments, including converting the street-facing wall into a solid cement firewall without any windows.
“It was just a big, blank wall, and it looked awful,” says Faust, who is a former owner of the Kimber Modern boutique hotel. She wanted to do something artistic, and the interaction of art and community drew her to the “Before I Die” project.
Since she launched it, she’s enjoyed numerous conversations in her neighborhood about what’s meaningful to people. Although she plans to change the installation in the spring, she says she still wants to bring art and community together. In the meantime, though, she’s seen families jump out of their car to write on the “Before I Die” wall, and heard rumors that tour groups pass through there now.
“I’m impressed by the amount of thought that people put into it and also the kind of ownership that people have taken of the wall,” she says. After heavy rains, someone brought over a plastic bag to protect the chalk from getting soggy.
After the wall fills up with messages, Faust washes it every week. Sometimes people who come to write on the wall offer to wash it for her. “I think it just speaks to everyone wanting to be a part of something bigger,” she says. “They are putting down thoughts that others are reading and there’s a connection. I think people are craving (connection). I think when they want to wash it, they want to participate.”
While the “Before I Die” walls have resonated with people globally, according to the project’s website, there have been more sanctioned “Before I Die” walls in Austin compared to other cities.
“Austin is a really open-minded and creative city,” Chang says. “I’m grateful that residents have embraced it.” As the city goes through growing pains, Faust says, embracing projects like this help the city hold on to its individuality.
“It’s easy to get swept up in the noise of the day,” Chang says. “Contemplating death clarifies life. (‘Before I Die’ walls are) a powerful tool to restore perspective.”
Austin’s first wall went up in 2013 during South by Southwest. The following year, in addition to the Art Barn’s wall, two additional walls were created. In April 2014, The Contemporary Austin’s Teen Council and Young Artists members set up a wall for a day at the SFC Farmers’ Market downtown. Then in May 2014, Austin Community College built their own portable wall, which traveled to different campuses including Rio Grande, Cypress Creek and finally Hays. It made it through a yearlong tour until storms damaged it.
At the Texas Women’s Conference this fall, another one-day wall went up. A smaller version of ACC’s portable wall occasionally pops up at the college’s Highland Campus during events.
The first “Before I Die” wall at ACC went up after a discussion about how to engage students in a collaborative way, says Polly Monear, an ACC senior administrative assistant for the Dean of Arts and Humanities. She suggested creating their own “Before I Die” project after seeing another popular wall in Iowa.
The ACC wall went up during finals week, and many students focused on sharing their immediate goals. “Before I die I want to pass this class” or “transfer to the University of Texas.”
“What surprised us were the really powerful messages that people put up about how they see the world, which were poignant, heartbreaking and sweet,” Monear says. “Before I Die I want to have children,” Monear remembers one of the messages saying. “Before I Die I want to hear a choir sing music that I’ve written.”
But Monear will never forget the message that took her breath away. ACC enrolls many veterans, and one of them shared an experience on the wall: “Before I die I want to forget what it’s like to take another life.”
Every morning, Monear read all the messages as she washed the wall. “It was a beautiful way to start the day, literally with a clean slate.”
Monear says that at a commuter campus, it’s a challenge to create community. The “Before I Die” wall brought students together not because they had to, like in a class, but because they were inspired to share their visions of the future with each other.
“I mean, we’re writing on a chalkboard,” Faust says. “Can we get anymore elementary than that? We’re writing our desires, wishes and dreams on a chalkboard. To me, that’s hopeful.”
IF YOU GO
Find the “Before I Die” wall at 206 E. Elizabeth St. Learn more about the “Before I Die” project on beforeidie.cc.