Earlier this year during my stay at the Golden Door, I had the pleasure of meeting Candy Chang, a globally renowned artist whose powerful work I could not wait to share in the pages of Divine Living.
Candy’s background is in urban planning and street art, which together led her to creating the kind of social experiments she’s known for today. Her first widely received public project, “Before I Die,” began with a dream to transform an old boarded-up house a few blocks from her New Orleans home. At the time, she was mourning the loss of a loved one and reflecting a lot on life and death. She asked herself, “How can I make this house nicer for my neighbors?” Her intention for the wall, she determined, was to bring the kind of deeper awareness and gratitude that comes with loss into every day life.
With stencils and chalkboard paint, she came up with a simple, striking design that asked everyone who walked by to complete the sentence: “Before I die, I want to _______.” By the end of the first day, the entire wall was overflowing with aspirations and hopes, some funny, some beautiful and some tragic. Suddenly neighbors who rarely had the chance to connect were engaging on a whole new level.
As the buzz about “Before I Die” began to spread, Candy received hundreds of messages from people wanting to recreate the project in their cities. In response she and her colleagues at the New Orleans Civic Center made a kit, allowing the mural to be replicated in over 2000 cities in 70 countries since its 2010 debut. As the project has taken on a life of its own, Candy has followed it up with ever more clever street installations, epic one-of-a-kind murals and exhibits in leading institutions like the Tate Modern in London, the New Museum in New York City and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.
And it’s not just the art world that’s taken an interest—Candy has spoken at TED, the Creativity World Forum and the Global Health Summit as her work offers insights to professionals across government, technology, health and wellness. Her expansive body of work ranges from the utilitarian and investigative—like post-it notes that prompt neighbors to anonymously reveal the truth of local housing costs—to the humorous and poignant—like the street signs posted around Hong Kong designating certain zones “A Good Place to Cry” or “Freak Out.”
Candy was fascinating to get to know at the Golden Door and I’m so excited to share some of what she has to say with you here. Divine Living had the privilege of catching up with the globe-trotting artist while in Philadelphia launching a new interactive mural inspired by the I Ching. Read the interview below for Candy’s insights into mental health, self reflection and the power of emotional connection to transform urban space.
Tell us about going from a background in urban planning, to creating interactive public art. How did one lead to the other?
Before I studied urban planning, I ran a record label with my friends and we made a lot of street art. So when I worked with community groups and started to question the ways we can communicate with our neighbors, these experiments in public space seemed like a natural progression. It reminds me that there’s value in our meandering journeys. Our life experiences can be tapped in unexpected ways when we’re open and receptitve.
Talk to us about the new mural you’re currently creating in Philadelphia. What inspired The Atlas of Tomorrow and how does the piece work?
I’ve been wondering how the tools we use to cultivate our mental health can be embedded into the city fabric for the public good. One tool that has helped me and many others is the I Ching. It’s one of the oldest books in the world and provides a lot of poetic guidance that can be applied to any situation. The Atlas of Tomorrow is inspired by that. It’s a modern version of the I Ching. People are invited to consider a situation in their lives where they’re seeking clarity and then spin a large 6’ diameter wheel to select one of 64 I Ching hexagram symbols. They’ll find the accompanying story on one of 64 plaques along the wall. The stories and artwork evoke a surreal inner world, a kind of “town in your head” full of archetypes that can help us examine our struggles, behaviors, motivations and opportunities for growth. The mural artwork is a surreal collage that is half-toned so it’s made up of thousands of black dots. Every dot was finger-painted by me and the Philadelphia community. The process was a very meditative experience. I hope the project will help destigmatize discussion around mental health and promote emotional wellness as a critical component of thriving communities. The mural is in downtown Philadelphia on South Street at the corner of Juniper Street and will open July 7th.
Why is mental health such an important topic in your art?
I’d argue that all of us have mental health issues. It’s a spectrum. At various times in our lives we experience stress, sorrow, anxiety, or confusion, and they can easily escalate to more intense conflicts like depression and self-destruction if we ignore them. And it’s easy to ignore them. The tools to cultivate our mental health are not as obvious as the tools for physical health. I think cities can better serve the psychological health of citizens and the implications reach far and wide into our our civic life and beyond. Among the many aspects that determine our overall health, emotional wellness is often neglected and taboo to discuss. As neighborhood-level relationships have declined over the last several decades, local infrastructure for the soul is more important than ever. This not only serves fundamental needs of the human spirit, it cultivates trust and understanding, which are so important for communal respect and collaboration.
A lot of your pieces invite people to share personal stories, memories, hopes and aspirations. Over the course of all the work you’ve created, what are the questions and answers that have been the most inspiring and surprising—that have really stuck with you?
Many responses on Before I Die walls have consoled me, like Before I die I want to… abandon all insecurities, slow down for a moment and maybe even stop, overcome depression. Many have touched me like Before I die I want to… bring peace of mind to my mom, see my youngest fly, see where my grandma grew up. When I created the Confessions project in Las Vegas, one of the most common responses was “I’m scared I’ll die alone.” When we feel fear or anxiety or confusion, we often do our best to hide it from others. These projects reveal how quickly people will expose their struggles and vulnerabilities when given the right conditions. There’s great power in knowing you’re not alone. You’re not alone as you’re trying to make sense of your life. You’re not the only one who feels like they’re barely keeping it together.
For more from Candy Chang, visit: Candychang