Jodi Newcomer, Whatcom Hospice program manager, has dreamt of creating a “Before I Die” project for years. And thanks to a recent string of serendipitous events, along with the help of co-worker Amie Carr, Whatcom Hospice volunteer coordinator, Newcomer has been able to make her dream a reality.
The seed that was planted at a conference in Chelan, Washington five years ago, with place cards asking attendees to fill in their bucket list items, has now blossomed into an interactive art mural in downtown Bellingham.
The “Before I Die” wall is on the corner of West Holly and Bay streets in downtown Bellingham. It’s a black wall covered with the repeated message “Before I die, I want to_______” in many languages, with the goal of prompting people to ask themselves what matters most and see themselves reflected in others. Above the wall is a colorful mural depicting elements of the Coast Salish territory and the connections between those who live there.
Whatcom Hospice is part of PeaceHealth St. Joseph’s, but Newcomer and Carr worked independently from the administration for this project.
“It's not designed as an advertisement for us,” Newcomer said. “But we certainly want to be associated with it, because it's really cool.”
This lack of branding is also at the request of the global project’s creator, Candy Chang.
As stated on the official “Before I Die” website, part of Chang’s goal for the project is to discover “new ways we might find emotional communion with one another, to remember that we are all walking wounded and that our shared struggles and desires far outweigh our differences.”
This theme of community and inclusivity was intentionally implemented in the mural’s planning process as well as the finished product. Mike Hammes of RAM Construction is the new owner of the building where the mural was painted. Carr’s connection with Hammes, who is a member of the Downtown Bellingham Partnership, created the perfect opportunity for the new interactive art piece in central downtown.
The Partnership put out a call for artists with the goal of having the accompanying artwork reflect the same sense of diversity and connectivity as the “Before I Die” wall. Hammes and the Partnership chose Bobbie Torres and Ivan Colin for the job.
I'm just really excited to see more artists finding their way into the streets of Bellingham,” said Gretchen Leggitt, a Washington-based artist specializing in large-scale murals. “I want to really advocate for more people, more creatives who are interested in painting murals to step out of their comfort zone, and apply for some of these jobs.”
Carr said that PeaceHealth helped them make the mural as inclusive as possible. Newcomer and Carr utilized the group that does language translations at Peacehealth to find out what languages are the most common in Whatcom County. They then pulled the top 14 languages and translated “Before I die, I want to” into those languages.
A braille feature will also be added to the wall.
“We wanted to make sure that everybody got a chance to have that be a conversation starter,” Carr said.
It is unclear whether this mural will be permanent, or a rotating art wall.
“We're just so excited to have the first go at it, and we're hoping it'll be up for a while,” Carr said. The mural is currently fenced off while the final renovations are completed.
Once accessible to the public, chalk baskets will be placed on the wall and replenished as needed. A protective anti-graffiti coating over the mural will “hopefully prevent people from adding things that aren't associated with the project,” Carr said.
“When you give someone a tool to write on a wall, I think we're going to see some beautiful opportunities for people to share. But I also don't want to see that abused,” Leggitt said. “But any means of engaging the public on a pedestrian level and inciting them to find spontaneous joy or spontaneous creativity is a huge bonus for any installation.”
Even as a work in progress, the wall is making an impact. Ella Hall, an employee at Backcountry Essentials on West Holly Street, sees the mural every day.
“[The mural] is what I look at on my lunch break. It makes you think,” Hall said. “Before I die, I want to bike across Iceland; that’s definitely on the bucket list.”
This impact is a reflection of Newcomer’s devotion to the project.
“It really is just a labor of love for us,” said Newcomer. “Our culture doesn't do a great job of talking about death and dying. Thinking about mortality can sound really dark. And yet we sort of do it with our [hospice] patients and families every day.”
Zoe Wiley (she/her)
(firstname.lastname@example.org) is a news reporter for The Front and a combined environmental studies and journalism major at WWU. Her reporting interests include local business news, social issues, the environment and the arts. She enjoys illustration arts, photography, hiking and running.