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COMMUNITY FABRIC: AIDS Memorial Quilt exhibit lands in ILM

Jeff Mills works on a section of the AIDS Memorial Quilt he sewed to honor his partner, Walt. More than 30 panels are on display at seven locations across Wilmington, and numerous events are slated to honor lives lost, and to educate and inform on larger community needs, including health care and public transportation. Courtesy photo


The largest piece of folk art in the world, which weighs 54 tons and is over 50 miles long end to end, is rarely displayed in its entirety now. Rather, the AIDS Memorial Quilt travels to exhibitions around the country in 12-foot-by-12-foot panels; however, its impact is not lessened. The Frank Harr Foundation has brought 30 panels to 10 local venues on display through December 15.   

“12-foot-by-12-foot blocks are pretty large,”  says Shelly O’Rourke, outreach director for the Frank Harr Foundation. “You need some space. It was daunting just to find locations the blocks would fit in.”

The process of securing venues, security, insurance and docents took some time, but the foundation was approved for the display over the summer. As O’Rourke points out, The NAMES Project Foundation—the organization that cares for the quilt—didn’t ask for anything unreasonable, just what was necessary to protect the art and make the experience meaningful for the community.   

“We started with seven locations and it just kept getting bigger as people heard about it,” O’Rourke tells. “We started with bringing 20 blocks and ended up with 31.”   

As a visual symbol, the quilt is at once a memorial, a tool for education, activism and community building, and as Jeff Mills notes, a celebration of life.

“There’s an exuberance and beauty around it,” he says. “You can’t help but perceive it when you’re in front of the AIDS quilt panels and it’s very joyful as well as being a remembrance.”

Chairman of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to Wilmington Committee, Mills pauses over the enormity of emotion evoked from every panel. Each panel is composed of 3-foot-by-6-foot memorials. The size was originally chosen because it is the average size of a human grave. The panels are handmade by a person who wants to honor a loved one who lost his or her life to AIDS.

“So many people—the wonderful things about their life come across in the fabric,” Mills details. “You’ll see for yourself when you see some of them.”

The quilt began in San Francisco in 1987, as a result of the Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome Virus (AIDS) pandemic sweeping the nation and the globe in the ‘80s. AIDS is transmitted through exchange of bodily fluids: unprotected sex, sharing needles during intravenous drug use, and from mother to child during pregnancy. For those of us who lived through the ‘80s and into the ‘90s, it was like the sword of Damocles hanging above everyone’s head. It was a silent adversary that could and did appear where one least expected. Mills was living in the Bay Area at the time.

“I was fortunate to know some of the organizers and curators of the quilt,” he recalls.  “In those days, [it] was being housed in a huge store front on Market Street, right near Castro Street—the center of the gay community. You could walk by the huge glass windows any day and see dozens of quilt panels either being displayed, or worked on, or people bringing them to be incorporated into larger panels.”





As the AIDS crisis was accelerating, the store front was a very busy place, according to Mills. Six years ago he and his partner of 28 years moved to Wilmington.

“After we moved, we had contacts with people still today who had moved to Atlanta because the quilt, in its entirety, was relocated to Atlanta—partly because it was easier to afford a huge space necessary [to house it].”

O’Rourke explains how panels are submitted individually before being sewn into a 12-foot-by-12-foot block: “Those are all photographed and stored and cataloged. When we made our request for our blocks, we reached out to the community as much as we could. I think the majority of the blocks here have some significance to people in southeastern North Carolina.”

O’Rourke spent a lot of time using the search tool on The NAMES Project Foundation website to look up specific people and their associated block numbers.

Last week, the panels arrived in Wilmington. Mills was at the Cameron Art Museum to unfold one of the blocks that Frank Harr Foundation had specifically requested.

“It was pretty difficult,” he says. “I obviously was preparing months for this; fortunately, I had our friends there to help me unfold it.”

A panel of the quilt. Courtesy photo


In 1992, when the quilt was displayed on The National Mall in Washington D.C., Mills brought in two panels for the larger quilt. One was for his dear friend, Scott, a potter from Seattle whose sister made a panel in his honor. Mills delivered it, along with one he made for his partner of 11 years, Walter James Campbell, who lost his own battle with AIDS two years earlier. Twenty-seven years later, Mills prepared Walt’s panel for display.

“I even found the jewel I had sewn into his panel was still there,” Mills says. “I was thrilled to find that.”    

It is a field of dark green with black felt letters: Walter James Campbell. In addition to his birth and death dates, Mills included the title of Diana Ross’ “Love Is The Boss”—a favorite song of the couple. In the center of the panel is a piece of Campbell’s own work: “a needlepoint predominately in rainbow colors that Walt had been working on for years, very slowly; it was going to be a pillow cover. He left his needle [in it] that he had been using to do the needlepoint with some of the yarn he had been using.”

It is a perfect testimony to a life interrupted.

The first opportunity to see Walt’s panel was at the kickoff party on November 30 at Cameron Art Museum. The next two weeks are packed full of events and activities to make the most of the lessons the quilt offers.

“The point is [for the quilt] to be used as a tool for education, as well as remembrance,” O’Rourke says. “So it is an intersection of public art and public health. You can have this big beautiful thing that memorializes people, and also opens up the conversation for health care and what we need to do to hopefully stem or eventually eradicate HIV.”

To that goal, one of the events includes screening the film, “The Last One.”  The title takes its name from a panel that was delivered anonymously to The NAMES Project in 1987 with no note or instructions. It said simply: “The Last One.” Since then, the organizers of NAMES have held onto the panel, awaiting the day they can sew it into the quilt. The docent training for the 123 volunteers included the history of the quilt and how to talk about the current AIDS epidemic in southeastern United States.

“We have 51% of new cases of HIV for the nation in the southeast,” O’Rourke details. “The lack of access to health care has caused folks to not only continue to transmit the disease, but people aren’t being treated because of [lack of health care] access.”

Though many folks (myself included) thought the epidemic has gotten better, since AIDS is treatable, it’s a misconceived notion, really. While a lot has changed since 1985, so much more has to be done.

“It’s a vicious cycle: the perception that AIDS is not a problem,” Mills explains. “So if you don’t think it is a problem, you don’t take preventative measures, you don’t get tested, you don’t know you have it, you spread it unwittingly, and you don’t seek the treatment you need.”

According to O’Rourke, many young people remain unaware of the dangers of unprotected sex.

“A lot of the times people just don’t know,” she tells, shaking her head. “Many UNCW students that Jeff did training with had no idea that the quilt even existed, and they didn’t know about the disease.”   

O’Rourke says AIDS is spreading fastest in southeast rural communities among people of color. “If they’re tested and treated, and have access to testing and access to treatment—which of course is very expensive and requires transportation—then it’s not going to spread.”

She opens her hands.

“We need to talk about it—talk about HIV, talk about health care and access to health care, and make sure everyone has it. We need to work on transportation issues and economic issues that cause people to die.”

In other words, the citizen activism piece is the takeaway from the quilt’s exhibit and events happening around it. It includes lobbying the NC General Assembly for Medicaid expansion and passing a budget that includes expanded health care for rural communities, plus ensuring public transportation is continuously funded. O’Rourke and Mills agree it’s a massive piece of the puzzle.

To put it clearly, in Wilmington and surrounding areas, a functional bus service is part of the larger public-health discussion. With New Hanover County Commissioners discontinuing funds to WAVE, that means bus routes outside city limits are in danger of ceasing. The quilt manages to honor and highlight needs of communities at large in more ways than one. It’s time to pay attention.

AIDS Memorial Quilt

Public tours: December 5, 7, 8: Cameron Art Museum, New Hanover Regional Medical Center, UNCW ‘s Cultural Art Center, UNCW’s Randall Library, Hannah Block Community Arts Center, Thalian Hall, Temple of Israel, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, St. Stephen A.M.E. Church, Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Wilmington, St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church

December 11, 7 p.m.: Perry Smith and Michael Hanson drum circle and reading of more than 200 names of people represented in the quilt panels at St. Stephen A.M.E. Church.

December 13, 7 p.m.: Mouths of Babes Theater Company’s new work-in-progress, “A Remarkable Fraternity: A Play About the HIV/AIDS Crisis Past and Present,” St. Jude’s Metropolitan Community Church

Through January 18: The Frank Harr Foundation panel-making workshops to create a panel honoring a loved one who has succumbed to AIDS. Hannah Block Community Arts Center

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