Adjacent to two senior care facilities, a strip of mostly empty storefronts, a park frequently populated by bottle-passing vagrants, and the vacant lot where the beloved Porky’s Drive-In once stood, the corner of University Avenue and Lynnhurst in Saint Paul proves a uniquely appropriate place to contemplate one’s mortality. As much as any intersection in the city, this one encapsulates the fragility of existence and the forward trudge of time. Needless to say, it’s not a corner where I usually dawdle when strolling around Midway.
That makes it the perfect place for an installation of Candy Chang’s “Before I Die” project. Launched in New Orleans in 2011, Chang’s interactive piece consists of a large chalkboard slate affixed to a wall and emblazoned with some simple instructions: complete the sentence “Before I die I want to_________” and keep it “tasteful and positive.” It’s a concept that has clicked with communities around the world, with installations cropping up from New York to Japan to South Africa.
The answers given in Saint Paul cover a wide range, with the ephemeral nature of chalk art keeping them in constant rotation. I’ve seen many of the responses you’d expect: Before I die I want to “… make 2 million dollars,” “… make world peace.” I’ve seen some that are touchingly basic: “… have dinner w/ family,” “… be out of debt.” Some are surprisingly deep: “… become self-realized,” “… kill my ego,” while others are less so: “… smoke my body weight in weed.” By and large, the answers are honest, earnest, and revealing in a way that feels somehow even more candid than most of what’s found in the tell-all world of social media.
When Chang spoke to the Walker this past April, she said, “These projects just reveal what’s already there – people full of hopes, fears and stories that can help improve our communities and our personal well-being.” The big black chalkboard at Lynnhurst and University is a welcome and poignant reminder that those traits are as prevalent in Saint Paul as they are in Johannesburg, Kazakhstan or anywhere else on the globe.