A quilt is often shorthand for old-fashioned values: a cozy home, generational connections, handmade love. That’s why, in 1985, gay rights activist Cleve Jones saw it as the perfect vehicle for remembering those who had died of AIDS. When the disease appeared in the United States, it was considered mysterious and shameful, an untreatable illness thought to be passed only between gay men. The toll AIDS took on the gay community was swift and mighty, and as Jones saw friends and neighbors die, he worried that shame would keep them from being openly remembered. At a rally honoring slain San Francisco supervisor Harvey Milk, cardboard placards posted on a a wall with the names of those lost to AIDS reminded Jones of a quilt. In 1986, he made the first panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to honor his friend, Marvin Feldman, and encouraged others to do the same, subverting the time-honored form into visual evidence that individuals who led “nontraditional” lives were well-loved by their friends, family, and community. The project grew, and in 1987, the NAMES Project Foundation was formed to support the growing quilt, increase awareness of AIDS and HIV, and raise funds for community-based AIDS service organizations. In 1987, the AIDS Memorial Quilt’s 1,920 panels went on display on Washington’s National Mall.
This week, from July 21 to 25, the quilt is again appearing on the National Mall. In 1987, the quilt covered a football field-sized piece of land; today, if laid out in its entirety, the quilt’s 48,000 panels would blanket 29 acres. 4,800 panels will be on display at more than 50 locations throughout the DC area, and volunteers will rotate 35,200 panels — 8,800 different panels each day — on the Mall during the five-day span.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt weighs 54 tons and is the largest collaborative art project in the world, as well as the largest living memorial. It’s been declared a national treasure, was nominated in 1989 for a Nobel Peace Prize, and has been seen by more than 18,000,000 people in displays throughout the world. While these statistics reflect the enormity and reach of the project, the quilt also serves to put individual names to the numbers. More than 100,000 family members and friends have added the name of a loved one to the quilt by making a panel, and panels continue to arrive daily at the foundation’s Atlanta office. They incorporate traditional quilting materials, but also spray paint, Barbie dolls, a Sony Walkman, and bubble wrap; their 3′ by 6′ size represents the dimensions of a human grave. Eight panels are sewn together to form a 12′ by 12′ square or “block” — there are 8,000 of these. They are numbered, photographed, and information about them is entered into a database. (You can download an app to view panels and search the quilt here.) Creating them provides a means for those left behind to both mourn and celebrate their loved ones. The quilt represents more than 94,000 individuals — men, women, and children — who have died of AIDS. Walking among the panels one begins to grasp the reach of the disease and the depth of loss and longing it creates.
This post reminds me it’s time to take on a long-neglected task. On an afternoon in 1985, my telephone rang. It was the brother of my dear friend Brucie, the friend who had introduced me to my husband. Brucie’s brother Dan told us that Brucie was on life support. It was incomprehensible — we’d barely heard of AIDS and Brucie was one of the most vital individuals we knew. He died a day or two later and within a couple of years Dan was dead, as well. I think of Brucie and Dan often — two whip-smart, funny, politically savvy, gorgeous men who loved to travel and dance. I can still hear Brucie’s wicked laugh. A few months after his death, a mutual friend suggested collaborating on a panel in his honor, but I worried about his family’s disapproval — at that point they hadn’t acknowledged that AIDS was the cause of Brucie’s death. Now I think the time has come — 27 years later — to acknowledge my loss and make a panel of my own.
A lifelong sewer/knitter and former weaver/spinner, Linzee Kull McCray, a.k.a. lkmccray, is a writer and editor living in Iowa. She feels fortunate to meet and write about people, from scientists to stitchers, who are passionate about their work. Her freelance writing appears in Quilts and More, Stitch, UPPERCASE, American Patchwork and Quilting and more. For more textile musings, visit her blog.