Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt Then & Now

July 20, 2012

“We cannot live only for ourselves. A thousand fibers connect us with our fellow men; and among those fibers, as sympathetic threads, our actions run as causes, and they come back to us as effects.”  ~Herman Melville

A project with a very special place in my heart marks its 25th anniversary this year: The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.  I was introduced to The Quilt while in college at Bowling Green State University and soon became a volunteer for the project when sections of The Quilt would be shown on campus.

Words cannot describe the amount of honor and emotion I felt to be part of this experience and how humbling it was to be surrounded by such love, sadness, loss, humor, life, grief, and celebration stitched, painted, glued, ironed on, and uniquely created on each of the 3 x 6 foot panels in memory of a loved one’s life who had died of AIDS.  It was overwhelming.

My senior year at BGSU I dedicated to volunteering and interning at a community AIDS service organization in Toledo, Ohio called David’s House Compassion that provided a continuum of services for individuals living with HIV and AIDS, including residential housing, case management, respite, home visitation, and more.  I have many special memories of spending time at David’s House (making and eating Saturday night candle light dinners), making home visits to drop off food, providing respite to family members at the hospital to stay the night with their loved one, or helping out and making some art in a support group with children whose parent had died from AIDS.  I learned so much from everyone I met at David’s House about life, death, compassion, gratitude, and respect.

There were also sad and difficult moments. Several of the women and men that I visited or spent time with throughout my work at David’s House died before I finished my internship. This experience of multiple loss was important for me to process through journaling, supervision, as well as spending one night on the floor of my small dorm room working on a fabric panel for the AIDS Memorial Quilt in memory of these seven individuals: Arnetta, Bob, Frank, Jack, John, Nancy, and Neshelle.  I then mailed my panel to the NAMES Project in the Spring of 1995 to honor, celebrate, and recognize their lives and the significant impact they each left on my life.

In the Fall of 1996, my brother and I decided to travel to Washington DC to view The Quilt displayed in its entirety at the National Mall over three days.  To my surprise on the train ride from Cleveland, the stop in Toledo (to pick up my brother) also included picking up some of the staff I knew from David’s House, as well as surviving family members who were also in route to see the display and had panels attached to the same block my panel was sewn into. There were so many people who attended this display, which stretched from one end of the Mall to the other with a sea of fabric.  Again, the visual surroundings, emotions, and sensory experience was overwhelming. It is a moment I will always remember.

In Memory of Arnetta, Bob, Frank, Jack, John, Nancy, & Neshelle

In June 2012, The Quilt was shown throughout the DC area to mark the 25th Anniversary in various institutions, centers, and organizations serving as hosts.  The Quilt has become so large, several locations were needed to accommodate the space needed to show it.  The panel I created was on display as part of Smithsonian Folklife Festival in late June.

Click on this image to view a short video introducing this event:

Creativity & Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt [VIDEO]

Beginning July 21 through July 25, The Quilt will be on display again in its entirety through rotated stages on the National Mall in Washington DC , as well as throughout 50+ venues around the DC Metro area.  For those who cannot attend this special event, this year’s anniversary also launched the application and site AIDS Quilt Touch, which allows locating panels online through keyword search of an individual’s name and will track panels as they travel to other venues for future displays.

AIDS Quilt Touch | Block #4083

I was able to search for and locate (on the first try!) the block that my panel is a part of through the AIDS Quilt Touch website, as well as discover its recent showing at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. What a helpful resource through the use of technology to connect this community together, as well as create a virtual, worldwide environment for memorializing and still much needed awareness through the power, stories, and history of The Quilt.

You can read more information about the 2012 AIDS Memorial Quilt Display and 25th Anniversary here:

Learn how to host a display of The Quilt in your community herecheck out upcoming displays for viewing, or how to contribute a panel.


8 Responses to “Creativity and Crisis: Unfolding the AIDS Memorial Quilt Then & Now”

  1. Gretchen,
    This is a wonderful and beautiful post. I also interned at David’s House when I was at BGSU (the year after you I believe) and was forever changed as well. Thank you for sharing your story and info on these important projects/ resources! Liz Mearkle-Cumming

  2. David’s House was such a special, wonderful, important, and life affirming place…. so glad to hear that you also were also touched by the work and lives that the organization was so committed to through your internship (too)…we should connect more on our experiences!

  3. Scott Says:

    I still have vibrant memories of the trip. The whole experience on The Mall was such a wonderful way for people to come together regarding HIV/AIDS. Though much has changed over the years in regards to education and treatment, those who were stigmatized with the disease early on still impact who I am today. I am glad I got to share that weekend with my sister, and learned so much.

  4. So grateful we took this trip together! Wish we could be there again this week-end….

  5. Beautiful and thought provoking post Gretchen, thanks.
    Big love
    AJ 🙂

  6. laurel larson Says:

    hey gretchen! I don’t know how i never knew this about you…did you know that this is what i wrote my thesis on? i did a project at an HIV/AIDS clinic in NYC to create a mini quilt for people living, coping and surviving with the virus.
    How cool that you are a part of history. Lets get coffee soon!

  7. Thanks so much AJ! Wow Laurel, I didn’t know that your thesis work was focused on the AIDS Memorial Quilt– I would LOVE to learn more or read it! I almost did my grad thesis on the topic as well– my original pre-thesis proposal explored this, but then I went the direction of focusing on the Day of the Dead and how art created for this impacts coping and community, cultural attitudes related to death & dying, grief, loss….

    ….the power of art!!!

  8. Judy Weiser Says:

    Some history that might be of interest on this topic:

    I was the Western Canada Director for the Canadian AIDS Memorial Quilt.

    I helped bring the first showing of the U.S. AIDS Quilt to Vancouver in 1989. After that the Canadian Quilt separated off from the U.S. one but I still stayed involved with the U.S. Organizers.

    But when the Quilt was heading to D.C. the first time, for the big *International* Display, I was asked to write the “Training Manual for Emotional Support Workers at Quilt Displays” (not sure, but I think it’s still used).

    I have two publications (that you can download for free, from my website) — about some of the connections re: emotional healing, art therapy, etc. — including one in the AATA Journal:

    1) Weiser, J. (1990) A quilt to comfort the terrors of the dark: The NAMES Project Quilt. Gallerie: Women Artists, 9, 16-18.

    2) Weiser, J. (1989). Stitched to the beat of a heart, to comfort the terrors of the dark. Journal of the American Art Therapy Association (Viewpoints Section), 6:3, 113-114.

    I also have several publications about therapy with people with HIV/AIDS, especially those from marginalized populations — people are free to contact me for more about this work: Judy Weiser,

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