2013-04-05 / People

Project to inspire thought

By Jack Flagler
Staff Writer

Nela Alvarez-Sotomayor Nela Alvarez-Sotomayor High School graduation brings on expansive, complicated and far-reaching questions for outgoing seniors. Some of those questions are exciting: “Where will I go to college?” “What career path do I want to follow?” Some are daunting. “Who do I want to be?” “What do I want to do? “Will my friends and I keep in touch?”

Those hopes, dreams, challenges and aspirations will be on display to the public in South Portland this May, thanks to a project brought to South Portland High School by Spanish and photography teacher Nela Alvarez-Sotomayor.

Alvarez-Sotomayor was searching for community art projects online when she came across the website for Candy Chang’s Civic Center, a creative studio that transforms public spaces in New Orleans into artwork supplied and inspired by the community.

Last year, Chang gave a TED Talk about one of her projects that has been viewed more than 2 million times. TED Talks are brief, six-minute or shorter speeches that range in topics from science to art to education that aim to spread ideas to a global audience. The videos have more than 1 billion combined views through the organization’s website.

In her TED Talk, Chang described how a personal loss and the resulting questions surrounding death inspired her, with help from members of the civic center, to install chalkboards on the side of an abandoned building in New Orleans with the phrase, “Before I die I want to...” written multiple times.

One day after the project went up, Chang said the wall of the abandoned house was full of responses ranging from “Before I die I want to be arrested for piracy” to “Before I die I want to be completely myself.”

The project inspired Alvarez-Sotomayor, who has taught at South Portland High School for 15 years, to bring the same concept to Maine. She hopes the seniors provide a similar range of responses.

“Some of the answers will be thoughtprovoking and others will be lighthearted, and everything is welcome,” Alvarez- Sotomayor said.

The high school seniors watched Chang’s TED Talk on Tuesday, April 2. Throughout next month, all 192 will fill out the “Before I die...” phrases on eight-foot panels in groups of 15. Those panels will be unveiled at the South Portland’s Art District Show opening reception from 6 to 7 p.m. Monday, May 20 at the South Portland Community Center, less than three weeks before graduation.

The first stage of the project is exclusively for South Portland High School seniors, but the public will have a chance to leave their own thoughts in June. The wall of Flatbread Restaurant on Commercial Street in Portland will transform into a chalkboard with the public invited to fill in the “Before I die...” statements starting Friday, June 7.

Alvarez-Sotomayor worked with the Maine Center for Creativity to reach out to Flatbread owner Bobby Morgan to find the right time to unveil the wall, order the materials and set up the event.

“We want to bridge together the two communities, because usually it seems like we’re very separate, South Portland and Portland, even though it’s just a half a mile away,” Alvarez-Sotomayor said.

Alvarez-Sotomayor said she doesn’t quite know how the public’s answers will contrast with the students’, but she expects the students will provide responses more directed to themselves and their own future, while the general public is likely to focus more on their family or loved ones.

“It’s going to be more immediate for the students,” Alvarez-Sotomayor said.

For more information on the “Before I die...” project and other public art projects around Maine, visit the Maine Center for Creativity’s website at www.mainecenterforcreativity.org. To see Chang’s TED Talk that inspired the project, visit www.ted.com/talkscandychang_before_i_die_i_want_to.html.

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