Thirty-two years ago, Paula Lawrence helped make a quilt panel — then one of the 12,000-plus panels of the AIDS Memorial Quilt displayed in Washington, D.C. — in honor of her younger brother Steven, who died of AIDS in 1988 at the age of 27.
“I’ll always remember when they first showed it in Washington on the Mall,” said Lawrence, who grew up in Hyde Park with Steven. “It was so quiet — people walked around and looked at it.”
More than three decades later, the Memorial Quilt weighs 54 tons and includes nearly 50,000 panels; sections of it are displayed around the country every year on the first day of December, which is World AIDS Day.
That’s also when the local nonprofit arts organization SPOKE (formerly Medicine Wheel Productions) begins observing Days Without Art, an annual lineup of cultural events between World AIDS Day and National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day on Feb. 7.
This year marks the 30th incarnation of SPOKE’s Days Without Art, but it’s also a time unlike any other. A new quilt, part of the installation “Touched,” recognizes the compounded losses of the past two years, as well as the forces that buoyed people through it.
“Here we are, in the midst, really, of multiple pandemics — of racism, inequity, addiction, gun violence, COVID, still HIV and AIDS,” said Michael Dowling, SPOKE’s artistic director. “How are we touched by this as people? What do we do with this?”
Lawrence contributed a 16-inch-by-16-inch square to the new quilt, which has more than 650 fabric samplers, said Dowling. While the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt primarily features the names of people who died of AIDS, the messages adorning the new quilt are broader: One patch features the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline, with a heart underneath saying “It’s okay to ask for help.” Others are abstract drawings, like a mixed-media design of a sunflower.
Both quilts, Dowling said, stitch together the stories of lives lost and honor the love that endures.
“We look too often at the numbers instead of the people,” said Dowling. “Those individuals stories are so powerful. That was somebody’s son, somebody’s mother, somebody’s sister, somebody’s grandparent. These are people who had meaning in other people’s lives.”
Every year, SPOKE stages a central artistic exhibition on Dec. 1 to honor those lost to AIDS. One year, participants lugged thousands of gallons of water in buckets from the Fort Point Channel to the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. SPOKE began soliciting patches for the quilt last year, but then COVID-19 forced the organization to host its event online. SPOKE began collecting more samplers late this summer, with a group of interns, staff, and volunteers sewing them together.
The new quilt, hanging as a canopy from the rafters of the Cyclorama, was displayed next to panels from the original AIDS Memorial Quilt on Wednesday. The quilts were the backdrop to a 24-hour vigil; beginning at midnight, there were hourly artistic offerings by different acts, including KAIROS Dance Theater. The quilt was on display only on Dec. 1, Dowling said, with the possibility of it being shown again on Feb. 7. SPOKE is still accepting sampler submissions to grow the quilt further.
Dowling sees several parallels between the early public response to HIV and the coronavirus. “It was like déjà vu when COVID really started to take hold,” he said. “It felt like, it’s happening again. People are dying from this thing that nobody understands.”
For some visitors to the exhibition, the two quilts brought decades-old grief into sharp focus. Brad Gregory, who worked at the Hospice at Mission Hill during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, sat down next to a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt that was made for his friend Peter Maroon, who died in 1991.
“If I’m going to talk about resurrected memories, it’s of anger,” Gregory said, pointing to the high death tolls of both health crises. “We know more than that. We know how to avoid that. And, as with AIDS epidemic, we had these fools leading our country, then and now — the last four years, at any rate.”
Other participants, like Luanne Witkowski, Paula Lawrence’s partner, spoke of the differences between the pain caused by AIDS and COVID-19. “We’ve been through this before — but no, we haven’t,” she said.
In the late ’80s and early ‘90s, Witkowski said, she and others would see loved ones infected with HIV “in the hospitals and take care of them at home, and be with them when others wouldn’t be.” Losses during the COVID-19 pandemic, by comparison, were “swift and detached,” she said, because “everybody had to quarantine, and people were getting sick and going to the hospital and you never see them again.”
Despite those differences, Witkowski said she believes that a quilt is still a meaningful way to heal, offering a way to unite during times of division and resist the “finger pointing and the blaming” she said has been a marker of both health crises. Witkowski’s sampler is made of surgical masks and other items packaged inside bubble wrap, meant to symbolize how we both avoid and seek physical contact.
This new quilt, Witkowski said, offers a chance for people “to take a breath and see the others who are taking that breath as well,” she said. “And find some comfort in that and find some hope in the fact that we can still come together, even in really deep grief.”
Surrounding the new quilt are 36 pedestals; visitors are invited to place items that remind them of their lost loved ones inside wooden boxes. Photographs, bracelets, and dried flowers from previous years still rest inside.
“It’s important not just to remember how people died, but how they lived,” said Wendy Ellertson, whose brother died of AIDS in 1990. She helped sew the new quilt together.
“Touched” honors the dead, Dowling said, but it also can comfort the living, giving people the chance to bear witness to others’ stories and share their own.
“We still need to see ourselves in relationship to others. And when we separate from others, something is lost,” he said. “The outpouring of how many people participated shows the hunger for that connection.”
Dana Gerber can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org