The NAMES Project: The AIDS Memorial Quilt is one of the rare pieces of needle/art that has 1) changed my understanding of the makers' life experience and 2) moved me to tears.
I saw it, unfolded in its entirety, on the Mall in Washington, DC in 1992. I was 21, and the AIDS crisis was something I saw not just in my ballet classes but in my very conservative workplace. I remember sitting next to my colleague at a party just trying to think of something to say that might convey heartfelt compassion as he faced the unknown in what would be the last days of his life. Alone.
That feeling - the presence of this great, big, sad thing - is what the NAMES Project has been able to translate into art. Each panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt is handmade by a loved one. They measure about six foot by three foot - almost like a bed, or even a coffin - and to really see them, you must stand inside the piece, knowing that the posture of needlework is that of a prayer.
Viewers walk along canvas strips laid down to protect the panels and it is absolutely a walking meditation, with a chant being read naming the victims one-by-one.
And it went on forever. How wise to make the number take physical form. Today, the number of panels included in the quilt total 44,000. When I saw it, eighteen years ago, that number was closer to 5,000.
But it wasn't just that the NAMES project was big. Each quilt panel is unique. I saw amazing needlework that day, and I saw honest, devoted attempts to create something to memorialize a loved one with anything but a needle. These were often the most touching.
You can view the NAMES Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt online. The website also provides information about how you can sew and submit a panel for a loved one.