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In Philadelphia, spin the dial for life guidance

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PHILADELPHIA Candy Chang's public art pieces more than please the eye. They demand dialogue and encourage conversations. Her best-known project, 'Before I die,' was duplicated in 1,000 cities in 70 countries as thousands of people chalked their hopes and dreams on walls and fences.

Her latest work, unveiled in Philadelphia on Thursday, is an interactive mural that invites people to think of their biggest challenges and then use the mural to find guidance to move forward.

The work features a 6-foot dial that visitors are encouraged to twirl while thinking of their challenges. The spinner will stop at a number corresponding with one of the stories on either side of the dial that represent lessons from the I Ching, one of the world's oldest books of wisdom. A guide to the symbols in another part of the mural allows people to then interpret the wheel's message as they desire.

'I'm interested in how public space can provide value to people and help them make sense of the beauty and tragedy of life,' said Chang, who lives in New Orleans. 'Creating emotional spaces where people can be honest and vulnerable can lead to trust and understanding. Making better places can help us become our best selves.'

James Johnson, 43, out on a lunch break, was one of the first to give the wheel a try. He was directed to story #14, 'The Lucky Ones,' which says in part, 'Our greatest fortune is the virtue of our actions and the depth of our relationships.' Johnson said the message did apply to his question, which he didn't disclose.

'This is like fortune cookies or a fortune teller. It's just a good way to get you to think differently,' said Johnson, who said he would recommend friends try the wheel 'not necessarily for the advice. It's just cool.'

Tatiana DiSanti, 24, wanted guidance as she considers buying a house in a neighborhood real estate agents would describe as 'up and coming.' Story #5, 'The Rain,' noted: 'Waiting is necessary for reaching any goal, and it is an art. Be present and face your difficulties without wishful thinking.'

The words gave DiSanti pause: Was that telling her to hold off on her purchase or was it advising her to face her challenges? She decided she'd bring her father, who was coming to visit to discuss the home purchase, to the wheel when he arrived.

'It's a way to find answers to questions all on your own,' she said.

The mural, on busy South Street in downtown Philadelphia, is titled 'The Atlas of Tomorrow: A Device for Philosophical Reflections.' It was completed in conjunction with the Porch Light Program, a partnership between the city's Department of Behavioral Health and Disability Services and the Mural Arts Program. Volunteers joined Chang in finger-painting the black and white piece, making one black dot at a time, about 200,000 total.

'Candy thinks a lot about emotional well-being and public spaces. The connection between those worlds may seem distant, but they're not,' said Jane Golden, executive director of the Mural Arts Program, which has produced more than 3,000 murals on buildings across the city.

Chang's work, Golden said, 'reimagines what a mural can do.'

Chang's own struggles have inspired her work. After a friend's death in 2011, she found herself thinking more about what she wanted to accomplish before her own last breath. 'Before I die' was a result of Chang deciding to pose the question to others, as well.

Her Philadelphia mural was also in part inspired by the death of someone close to her. As she often does, Chang found comfort after the tragedy from the guidance and practical insight offered in the I Ching. She wondered if others were suffering in silence and could use some help.

'I've gone through depression and when everything and everyone around you seems so happy, it makes you feel even more alone. I want to help people see they're not alone and that suffering is a natural part of being a human being,' Chang said. 'Emotional wellness is often neglected and taboo to discuss. I wanted to improve our public health by embedding it in the city fabric.'

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