In D.C., private ‘bucket list’ dreams become public art

Before they die, the citizens of Washington, D.C., would like to achieve things both monumental and minuscule. They want to eat delicious food, travel the globe and — naturally — effect political change. They want to see the Earth from the Moon. They want to meet God.

They may have carried these aspirations in their hearts and heads their whole lives, but until a chalkboard sprang up at 14th and Q streets NW, they may have never verbalized them. On the construction barrier enveloping a crumbling old laundromat in the midst of its transformation into an upscale French bistro, the billboard-size chalkboard offers baskets of chalk and a prompt: “Before I die . . .

The project was conceived by artist Candy Chang, a 2011 TED fellow who created the first “Before I Die” public art installation last February in a city that has contemplated its own mortality: New Orleans. On the side of an abandoned building, Chang erected the chalkboard to help residents “remember what is important to them,” she wrote on her Web site. She let the responses — funny, poignant, morbid — roll in. “Before I Die” migrated to other cities, and with the help of other artists who borrowed her template, it has recorded the bucket-list dreams of people in more than 30 locations. The District’s arrived in Logan Circle early Sunday morning.

Chang analyzes the responses on each wall; most involve travel, she says. But in a well-traveled city like Washington, many of the hopes on the board here address politics and power. Before they die, Washingtonians would like to “Liberate Palestine,” “Be a general (Hooah!),” “Be chief of staff,” “See a transgender president,” “[Have] access to reproductive health care without stigma.” Chang also notes that the D.C. wall is more international than others she’s seen, with responses in at least seven languages.

The first two have nothing to do with politics, though. They were the same words, written at the same time, by two people who had risen at 5 a.m. on Sunday to bring chalk and contemplation to 14th and Q. Those words were “To fall in love.”

Leave your own “Before I die ...” response in the comments

Looking forward, and back

When Travis Moore’s grandmother died in September 2010, he struggled to find a proper tribute. After reading a New York Times article about “giving circles,” Moore, 32, decided to create his own. He selected a small group of friends and gave each of them $100 to make the world a little brighter any way they could think of.

One of them was resident Sophie Miller, 28, of Columbia Heights. She is not an artist, and she had little involvement in public art, but as she was walking around her neighborhood one morning, something caught her eye.

It was a flier — the kind with little strips to tear off, where information about babysitting or lawn care would typically be. But this one said, “Take what you need.” The tear-off strips were labeled “love” and “luck.”

“I thought, that’s what D.C. needs — more art for the sake of art that makes you stop and think and doesn’t have anything to do with politics,” Miller said. She learned about Chang online and decided to bring the “Before I Die” wall to the District adding her own money to Moore’s grant to buy the $140 bilingual tool kit.

On Sunday morning, she and her boyfriend, Dan Meredith, a 30-year-old journalist, painted and stenciled six 8-by-4 plywood boards with chalkboard paint and installed them at the construction site without permission. Before they left, they decided to write something at the same time — it was a happy coincidence that they both wrote “fall in love.” They spent the rest of the day with friends at the Pearl Dive Oyster Palace across the street, watching people record their hopes and dreams.

“We assumed it was going to be slow because it was in D.C.,” said Meredith. “By noon, we were parked outside of the oyster bar, and it was already full. . . . It was mesmerizing to see people actively engaging in it, pulling people in. One guy . . . stood there an hour, calling every friend, telling them to come. Everything else he had to do didn’t matter.”

When Moore came to see the wall — created in his grandmother’s memory, filled to overflowing with the aspirations of strangers — he was awe-struck. “I was inspired by how selfless and how generous all the things people were writing about were,” Moore said. He wrote a few things on the wall in her honor: “Inspire people.” “Say thank you every day.” “Remember my grandmother and her ideals.”

Overflowing sentiment

“There’s one thing that no one’s saying,” Laconte Saunders, 58, said as he walked by the wall on his way to the Central Union Mission, just up the street from the project. “Accept Jesus Christ as their savior — that’s the most important thing.” He stopped and picked up a piece of orange chalk, writing on the wall next to the board; its empty spaces were filled days ago, the writing overflowing onto the sidewalk.

Saunders’s sentiment stands in stark contrast to that of Kelly Quinn, 21, who wrote “Make Millions” in big letters. “I recently read this book called ‘The Secret,’ about how when you decide what you want, that’s how you make it happen,” the fitness instructor said. “This wall put it all out there.”

Soraya Fata, 34, stopped to rewrite “Travel to 100 countries,” her original post having faded slightly since the last time she was there. “I’ve been to 40 — no, 41. I forgot Aruba,” she said. Crystal Hamling, 27, paused to take some photos of the wall on her cellphone before writing, “Make people feel loved” in pink chalk. “It’s what’s important to me, in the big picture,” she said.

The ‘buttermilk’ man

There are also a collection of oddball responses. “Be a French goat herder,” “See this building become a laundry again” and, from Yao Odamtten, a 35-year-old Shaw resident originally from Ghana, “Swim in buttermilk.”

“When I think of buttermilk, I think of this creamy, pouring, smooth — it's just luxurious to the body, you know? And I'm like, oh my God, I would love to swim in an ocean of buttermilk. I should amend that: an ocean of buttermilk.” He took a piece of yellow chalk and added, “an ocean of buttermilk!”

Chinatown resident James Riley, 45, paused to scrawl “Help people realize the consequences of their actions” near the top of the board. “You have a lot of different views on this wall, directed towards people themselves. . . . There’s some serious, heavy stories here,” he said. Riley paused and looked at all the responses.

Before I die, I want to sing a diva duet with Bjork.

Before I die, I want to make a perfect cheesecake.

Before I die, I want to marry Valerie Washington.

Before I die, I want to write one perfect song.

“I think it would be kind of cool if everybody could get their wish,” he said.

What would you write on the “Before I Die” wall? Tell us in the comments.

Update: Read about how the couple installed the wall on the Style Blog.

Maura Judkis covers culture, food, and the arts for the Weekend section and Going Out Guide.
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