The Quilt Scout
by Mary Fons
The AIDS Quilt: One Quilter’s Education, Part I
About a year ago, I had the opportunity to pitch some lecture ideas for QuiltCon 2018. I wasted no time formulating pitches; lecturing on quilt history and culture is one of my favorite things to do. Partially because I am an attention-starved middle child, but mostly because every time I create a new lecture, I get a crash course in my topic.
One of the pitches the show organizers accepted was for a lecture called “The Modern Quilt: Roots + Frontiers” — but that’s another column for another day. The other pitch they accepted was one titled, “The AIDS Quilt: Comfort, Compassion, and Change.”
The Quilt on display on the National Mall in 1988. Photo: Wikipedia.
Why the AIDS Quilt? There was no significant anniversary coming up for the AIDS Memorial Quilt. The NAMES Project, the foundation that supports and manages the largest quilt in the world, hadn’t reached out to me. No, my desire to learn and lecture on the AIDS Quilt was out of pure curiosity. After all, I had a lot of questions. Here were a few of them:
After I got the green light, I immediately began my research. I had no idea what I was about to learn, or how the answers to my questions would be fascinating, complicated, and, just as I suspected, largely unasked or investigated. But they don’t call me the Quilt Scout for nothing, so I dove into what would become some of the most depressing, scary, and inspiring quilt research of my life thus far.
May I share with you what I learned? I think you’ll see what I mean. I’ve decided to split
this column into two parts so that it’s not too overwhelming; as you’re about to see, I learned a lot.
The AIDS Crisis
To understand how the AIDS Quilt came to be what it is, and to understand the “how” of it all, we have to first understand the “why.” I’m not qualified to give you a deep, complete history of HIV/AIDS in America (this column wouldn’t be the place to do it, anyway), but I will do my best to paint a brief picture of the environment/era that led to the Quilt.
San Francisco in the 1970s was the place to be if you were a gay man looking to live your best life. You could love who you wanted, you could wear what you wanted; simply put, you were free to be yourself. A lot of the people who moved to the area feared for their lives back home, so San Francisco was a utopia. But all of that was about to change.
The AIDS Quilt often tours the world; here, panels are
part of a pride parade in Taiwan. Photo: Wikipedia.In 1981, the New York Times reported from the CDC that 41 people in San Francisco had died of a deadly “gay cancer.” On the street, people called it a “weird pneumonia.” Whatever it was called, it was bad. People were getting really sick and dying within a year. The disease laid waste to vibrant, healthy young men.
The fear surrounding this unknown, aggressive virus was like an infection, too. The stigma of having the disease was terrible. In some hospitals, bodies of people who died of AIDS-related symptoms were taken out in garbage bags. Hemophiliacs who contracted the virus through blood transfusions found their homes burned to the ground. Religious groups said that homosexuals were getting what they deserved. Quarantines were suggested; according to an NBC polling report, some Americans said they thought HIV-positive people should be given tattoos. American culture, by and large, did not like AIDS or people who had AIDS.
Every year, it got worse. This incurable, aggressive, sexually-transmitted virus ran wild through the gay communities in San Francisco, Houston, New York City, and other major cities and towns. IV-drug users and minorities were afflicted, too, often in even greater numbers, though their stories were often under-represented in the press. By 1987, there were 50,378 cases of AIDS reported to date and 40,849 deaths, but the worst year of the AIDS crisis in America came an astonishing 14 years after the first cases were reported. In 1995, AIDS had claimed 319,849 American lives before antiretroviral drugs became available (though only to some), leading the death counts to finally begin to decreasing.
The Quilt (and Quilting)
Okay, so back in 1977, Harvey Milk had been elected Supervisor of San Francisco. Milk was the first openly gay elected official in California — and though many celebrated, many were furious. In 1978, Milk was assassinated.
Cleve Jones, a young man who had worked with Milk, helped organize an annual
memorial march for the city’s fallen hero. You can imagine that by 1985, the memorial march was carrying more meaning than ever: People walked with candles for Milk but
many also carried placards with the names (or numbers) of friends and lovers who had
died of this disease.
When people began to post the name placards on the memorial at the end of the march, Jones thought the name placards looked like a quilt, and there the idea for the AIDS Quilt was born.
There are nearly 50,000 panels (about 6,000 blocks,
8 panels per block) for individuals who died HIV/AIDS-
related deaths. All panels are searchable on the
NAMES Project’s online database.
Image: Wikipedia.Now, what people don’t often say in articles about this moment or about Jones’ flash of brilliance, is that he grew up with quilts in the home. In The Last One, one of the many documentaries about the Quilt, Jones shows a quilt he has, made by his grandmother. This was one of many times I found a connection I was looking for between “us quilters” and the AIDS Quilt: Cleve Jones wasn’t a quilter, but he grew up with quilts. The idea to make a memorial quilt for his loved ones wasn’t from nowhere, and I admit to having an “Ah-HA!” moment when I saw that part of the film.
The other thing to note is that while Jones’ initial idea came in 1985, the AIDS Quilt didn’t get going for another two years. By that time, quilting in America was officially going bananas. Consider that in 1986, Moneca Calvert took the first-place prize — and $20,000 — in the Great American Quilt Contest, a highly publicized nationwide competition sponsored by the Scotchguard corporation.
Quilt Market was in its eighth year in 1987, and business was booming for the quilt industry. I know, because my mother kept leaving to go on business trips! I’m not trying to give Jones less credit for his brilliant idea; I’m just trying to connect the dots, and trying to put the biggest quilt the world has ever known into the larger landscape of quilting in America. Nothing is created in a vacuum, after all.
The last thing to say before I end the first half of this column is that the AIDS Quilt has another very specific and important quilt-quilt connection: It’s a mourning quilt and mourning quilts have been around a long, long time. I’d never thought about this until I did.
People have long made quilts for loved ones who have died. Some are made by one person, but many have been collaborations. Making a grief quilt, or a memorial quilt, is a paradox: Sewing one together allows you to hold on and let go at the same time. From Elizabeth Roseberry Mitchell’s famous 19th-century Graveyard Quilt to Chawne Kimber’s 2015 quilt, The One for Eric, quilters have long used their form to honor those who have gone before them. The AIDS Quilt is the largest grief quilt in history, so far. But it wasn’t the first.
Come back next time when Mary discusses the backlash to the Quilt, muses more on the quilt/Quilt connection, and gives you a few current statistics on the project and HIV/AIDS today.