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Urban Scrawl
Community blackboards invite interaction
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Before I Die, an interactive public art installation with two locations on opposite sides of the city, invites passersby to pick up a piece of chalk and fill in the blank: Before I die I want to - photo by Image provided

For the most part, people frown upon writing on the walls.

Many, including property owners and police officers, consider any addition to a bland slab of painted brick offensively sloppy, uncomfortably seditious or just downright rude.

But for the next month, there are two walls around town where penning your thoughts is totally cool. Encouraged, even.
“Before I Die,” an interactive public art installation with two locations on opposite sides of the city, invites passersby to pick up a piece of chalk and fill in the blank: “Before I die I want to —” As the walls collect the range of possibilities, the voices of the surrounding neighborhood emerge, reflecting the hopes and dreams of all its contributors.

New Orleans artist Candy Chang first created the project last year on the side of an abandoned house, inspiring a wave of spin–off installations around the country and beyond, from Canada to Portugal to Kazakhstan. For all its simplicity, the project has been an effective tool in creating community, and Chang wrote that “the wall becomes an enlightening way to get to know your neighbors and discover what matters most to the people around you.”

Savannah’s connection to a project of such international prominence speaks to the city’s burgeoning relevance “as a destination and incubator of contemporary culture,” according to See Savannah Art Walls (SeeSAW), who recently championed public art into reality with the approval of Katherine Sandoz’s abstract mural at Habersham and 34th streets.

One of the many expressions of the Savannah Urban Arts Festival (SUAF), the project magnetized SeeSAW artist/activists Matt Hebermehl and James “Dr. Z” Zdaniewski with collaborators Megan Luther and Francis Allen.

Savannah is the first city ever to host two “Before I Die” walls at once, a happy accident that resulted because of the city’s new Site and Monument Commission public art approval process.

The first wall the group applied for was the boarded–up façade at 109 MLK Blvd., what longtimers remember as the former Cafe Metropol. The other faces out of Waters Ave. on the corner of 31st St. at the center of a long–awaited revitalization effort about to fire up in the coming months.

“The MLK spot had been on our radar for a long time, but just in case it didn’t get approved, we added the Waters location,” says Hebermehl.

“Then the dynamics of two locations made just made sense, giving a true cross section of what it means to be in Savannah.”

Jerome Meadows, who directs Indigo Sky Gallery further north on Waters, agrees that two walls represent Savannah better than one.

“It’s a good way to bracket the demographics of our city,” says Meadows. “One is at the heart of the historic district where there are a lot of visitors, the other is in more of a settled community. The subject matter gives more breadth and scope to identify the people who are here.”

The two–pronged project is certainly a perfect fit for SUAF, which states in its mission that it hopes to “help citizens and civic leaders alike realize the concrete bonds between the arts, community revitalization and economic development.”

In addition to SUAF’s stupendous line–up of music, spoken word and other performance–based art, the visual component of “Before I Die” captures that ideal in a quieter, more introspective way.

“This is social activism at its most basic,” muses Allen. “It’s a first person, anonymous expression to yourself and to your community of what you want out of life.”

He adds, “You don’t have to write on the wall to be moved by it.”

The SeeSAW crew will discuss “Before I Die” when they join Sandoz and local hiphop icon KidSyc on the SUAF panel “Changing the Perception of What’s Possible in Savannah” on Monday, April 16.

The walls are open to all through May 7. However, the Savannah “Before I Die” team would like everyone to remember this missive as they scrawl their hopes and dreams:

“Be Profound, Not Profane.”

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