As she comes home to Cebu after 13 years of living in the United States to take care of her ailing mother, my former teacher Ploi Pagdalian dreads the fact that she has very little time left to be with her mom who is now over 80 years old. She thus uses the few remaining days of her vacation to make up for her long absence.
This difficult situation forces her to think hard about mortality and the dreadful thought that we may just pass away without really making sense of our short stay in this world.
“I realized that it’s not just about my mom,” Ploi said. “It’s about me too. I felt that I needed to know what I am supposed to do while I’m still alive.”
This led Ploi, who now heads a non-profit group that organizes and sponsors art events in Indiana, to the Before I Die public art project. Founded by the US-based artist Candy Chang, it consists of an interactive black wall stenciled with the words “Before I die, I want to__________________.”
People are then invited to fill in the blanks by writing their own reflections using big colored chalk provided in a box or container attached to the wall. They may also draw on every space available until the wall becomes a riot of colorful texts and drawings. When it gets too full, the chalk markings are then erased to give room for other people to do the same.
This whole process of making the mural and the people interacting on it is documented through photography and uploaded to the official Before I Die website (www.beforeidie.cc) where you would see the project being conducted in different countries around the world.
Shortly before she came here, Ploi wrote me about her intention to install a Before I Die wall in Cebu. Since I have been inviting her to visit us in the University of San Carlos Department of Fine Arts, where she used to study and teach, I proposed that the mural be painted on a wall somewhere in the College of Architecture and Fine Arts building. It could then be a homecoming project for her and a reunion work for both of us (She was also my boss in Badlis, the graphic design studio she once owned).
With the help of student volunteers, we turned the white wall in the student lounge into a Before I Die mural. The place, the kind that blends outdoor and indoor spaces, is located near the concourse where there’s a regular traffic of students and guests attending events in the adjacent theater.
This was the week before Valentine’s Day and students asked why we painted the wall black and what we planned to do with it. Taking advantage of this strong curiosity building up fast, we told them that we’re preparing a wall to serve as background for the V-Day firing squad, where all singles would line up to be shot.
It took us two days to finish the mural, with the meticulous gridding and cutting of stencils taking most of the time. We also added the Cebuano translation of the Before I Die text into “Sa di pa ko mamatay gusto ko_______________”, thus providing an option for locals to write their thoughts in their own language.
During the launching of the wall, I brought my art history class down to the venue to hear Ploi gave a brief talk about the project’s history and her own story of how she got interested in doing it here in Cebu. After the talk, she invited students to freely write on the wall or even draw on it. In just a few minutes, the wall was filled with words, doodles, and drawings in all colors.
At present, we have been posting the photos on Facebook and sending them to the official Before I Die website for posting as well. They also asked us to send photos to be included in the soon-to-be published coffee table book featuring the project being done in different cities around the world.
The Philippines will be represented in this international public art project by our wall in the University of San Carlos, thanks to our administrators in the College of Architecture and Fine Arts for allowing the students to spray paint, write, and draw on walls like graffiti artists.
Of course, thanks to Ploi for the privilege of hosting this project and for showing the inconvenient truth that time is running out for all of us and so we have to live every moment of it.