Interactive art exhibit “Before I Die” inspires students

by Emily Honeycutt – Staff Writer – [email protected]

Photo by Ricky Emmons – Photography Editor

What do you want to do before you die? UNC Asheville seniors Kimber Lawson and Katy Petrisin are causing the Asheville community to consider that question. Lawson and Petrisin created a participatory art exhibit, on display in the Highsmith Union Gallery through Feb. 4.
“We were interested in the idea of having a participation-based project because it hadn’t been done in the HSU Gallery before, and Asheville seems like an ideal audience for that kind of work,” said Lawson, an art and religious studies student.
Three different interactive components make up the gallery in Highsmith. Visitors can participate in the memory jar project by utilizing different crafts to create a memory they wish to bottle up and keep.
The memory jar project is based on a TED Talk by Nina Simon, director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History.
“I loved the level of engagement (the memory jar project) promoted,” Lawson said. “I think our goal with this show has been to have people critically consider how we create both memory and aspirations for the future and how those two actions relate.”
The biggest part of the display in the gallery is the wall covered in chalkboard paint with “Before I die…” written on the top with spaces for visitors to write parts of their bucket lists.
“My favorite piece is the Before I Die wall,” said Petrisin, an international studies student. “It was what I brought to the table when I signed on to the project. I love seeing the variety of responses and how one person could have a different answer each day.”
Declarations on the wall include sentiments like, “Before I die I want to beat cancer,” and “Before I die I want to tell her.”
“It’s interesting to read the things people will write when they can be anonymous,” Lawson said. “The contributions range from deeply personal confessions to goofy declarations, and surprisingly, it all works together. Before I die I want to climb a redwood and sleep in its canopy. Lofty, I know, but I think it would just be magical.”
Petrisin said she wanted the wall to make people think.
“My goal was to create a space where people could realize, through reflection, the power that the future holds, and that they can guide it through their intentions and awareness.”
Lawson said she and Petrisin put a significant amount of time and energy in this project.
“Between choosing craft objects, finding comfy furniture to promote community and contemplation and gallery repairs, preparation for the show took about a month,” Lawson said. “Fortunately, it only took about three days to install everything the week before classes began, and with three people the work load was totally manageable. Since the space is constantly being utilized and changed, it has required pretty constant upkeep since opening on the first day of classes.”
Tracie Pouliot, program coordinator for the Cultural Events & Special Academic Programs, said she has never seen an exhibit affect this many students.
“The space feels truly alive,” Pouliot said. “The gallery supports all sorts of exhibits over the course of a year, including seniors graduating in the art department, annual campus group shows, as well as invited artists. All of these are important to different segments of our community in different ways, but this participatory exhibit has the power to touch everyone.”
Petrisin said she wants to see the Before I Die wall somewhere off campus.
“My idea was initially to have the Before I Die wall downtown, and I would love to see that become a reality.”
Lawson also said she wants to take the project farther than the gallery in Highsmith.
“I’ve always been personally interested in public arts projects and what they reflect about how people interact with culture, so after hearing the enthusiasm of students who have either participated in or visited the show, I’ve decided to pursue organizing a student group that will install public art both on campus and around Asheville,” Lawson said. “I feel like there is a serious disconnect between the art communities of Asheville and UNC Asheville, and this would be an excellent way to bridge that gap.”