Music Article 11 What makes the AIDS Names Quilt especially powerful as a “performance” of mourning? How do particular aesthetic, social, or emotional elem

Music Article 11 What makes the AIDS Names Quilt especially powerful as a “performance” of
mourning? How do particular aesthetic, social, or emotional elements of the
AIDS Names Quilt resurface in the AIDS Quilt Songbook? E
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he NAMES Project AIDS Me1no’Hal Quilt has been ana-
lyzed as art, theater, politics, spirituality and even (in a
panel at the 1993 Modern Lan~ua~e Association con-
vention) as “rhetoric.” It has appeared on a daytime
television soap opera and has inspired a musical equiv-

alent, a video, a book, and countless articles in both the popular
press and academic journals. But, curiously enou~h, it is seldom
described as bein~ what it most basically is: a communal folk craft
known as quiltin~.

A quilt, or “comforter,” as it is called in some rural communities,
is a warm double-layered blanket, usually with stuffin~ inside (to
make it even warmer) and decorated in some sort of pattern with
small ~eometric shapes of colored cloth “pieced” in various elaborate
desi~ns onto one or both surfaces.

As a child ~rowin~ up in a small town in southern Indiana, I have
many memories of quilts and quiltin~. The quilt on my bed was pur-
ple, blue, and white, with the pieces of cloth stitched into a kind of
repeatin~ octa~onal desi~n that I used to contemplate in the moon-
li~ht while tryin~ to fall asleep or observe in the early mornin~ sun-
li~ht on awakenin~. The quilt itself wasn’t very thick or heavy, but it
provided a perfect cover under which to snu~~le on winter ni~hts in
the cold attic room of our farmhouse.

My ~randmother, who raised me, did not quilt, but her sister
(whom I called Aunt Addie) did. I remember how the quilts-in-
pro~ress would be on frames in her livin~ room when we would visit
and I would stuff myself with her homemade rolls (my ~randmother
made terrific cornbread, but she could never match her sister’s
rolls). Aunt Addie held periodic quiltin~ bees with other farm
women from the nei~hborhood. I was never invited, but I enjoyed
ima~inin~ what that communal craft must have been like, pep-


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pered as I’m sure it was with lau~hter, ~ossip, and easy country-
lady -like camaraderie.

My ~randmother’s best friend Carrie had a step-dau~hter named
Ella who was lar~e and plain and used to cut and sort pieces of cloth
for quiltin~ on Carrie’s front porch. I used to ~o over and help her
after school, and we each took a childlike pride in our cuttin~ and
sortin~ of these buildin~ blocks.

After Ella went away (to “a home,” my ~randmother told me, for
the “simple-minded”), I moved on to visits with Aunt Lola Barfus,
who lived on the town square and who quilted with pieces of material
like those that Ella and I used to sort. Aunt Lola (we pronounced it
“Lo-lee” and she wasn’t really anybody’s aunt, as far as I can recall,
but the whole town called her that) loved quiltin~, requirin~ only the
assistance of a ~ood listener. As she quilted, Aunt Lola also con-
structed stories, drawin~ from her own personal history and that of
the town. I sat spellbound, and stories now seem inseparable from
the desi~ns for the quilts she was piecin~.

After I went away to colle~e and Aunt Lola died, I didn’t think too
much about quilts for a number of years, dependin~ on what my
~randmother would call “store-bou~ht” blankets instead.

Then on the Sunday of Thanks~ivin~ weekend in 1987, I made a
quick trip down to Washin~ton, D.C. to see the Geor~ia O’Keeffe and
Lucian Freud exhibits, after ten non-stop months of caretakin~
Peter throu~h five bouts of PCP. “Get away for a few days,” his doctor
had ur~ed. “You need some rest.” I be~rud~in~ly allowed myself one
afternoon. After first walkin~ numbly throu~h Freud’s harrowin~
neorealistic portraits in the Hirschheim Gallery, then dreamily sur-
veyin~ O’Keeffe’s pink clouds and flowers and seashells at the
National Gallery, I had some extra time and took in the Shaker
quilts at the same location. In a flash, my memories of quilts came
back to me, ~ently comfortin~ the stress and fear I’d been livin~
with, day in day out, for the past ten months. Leavin~ the quilt
exhibit, I called home. Peter was worse. I took a cab to the airport
and arrived at our apartment just three hours before he died, at
home, the way he wanted it.

The followin~ May, I saw a portion of the NAMES project quilt for
the first time, at a book convention in Anaheim, California. The
power of the statements-so simple, so eloquent, so individual, yet so
powerful-overwhelmed me. The followin~ month, the whole quilt
was on display in New York. I be~an to reco~nize the scope and size of
the whole, the way feelin~s and memories were bein~ stitched




together out of an endless array of materials, like those Ella and I
had sorted through on Carrie’s porch. Some of the pieces were simi-
lar, almost matched, having been cut perhaps from the same cloth,
but each was startlingly unique. And what a patchwork they made,
stretched out together on the ground.

It took almost a year for Peter’s twin sister Patti and I to begin
working on our own quilt panel for Peter. We included one of his
favorite shirts (bright yellow, with little green stripes), a green
Tibetan prayer flag that our friend Kate had brought back from
Ladakh, some felt flowers and a felt panda, his name (in a bold pur-
ple that almost matched the triangles from the quilt on my bed back
in Indiana), and a little pouch thal’ h!Cluded a poem (from me), a
dollar (from Patti), a St. Jude medal, and a few other memories.

We didn’t “quilt” our panel with the proper stitching and backing
and formally arranged pieces of cloth. If I’d ever learned how, from
watching Aunt Lola Barfus, I’d forgotten. Our collaboration was
more free-form, personal. But it was a quilt nonetheless. A com-
forter. It still is, each time I see it as a part of the whole.


lA I


…. ‘




The :fi0’/M£S Project e//IVS Memorial %ilt

They brought me some of his clothes. The hospital gown,
those too-tight dungarees, his blue choir robe
with the gold sash. How that boy could sing!
His favorite color in a necktie. A Sunday shirt.
What I’m gonna do with all this stuff?
I can remember Junie without this business.
My niece Francine say they quilting all over the country.
So many good boys like her boy, gone.

-Melvin Dixon, “Aunt Ida Pieces a Quilt” 1

o response to AIDS has touched so many people in quite
the same way as the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial
Quilt. It’s hard to analyze something so personal, so
heartfelt as the Quilt, but the responses have raised ques-

– tions central to any discussion of the art of AIDS, so this
chapter finds itself, not coincidentally, near the center of this book.

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt is a traveling exhibition
of memorial panels, each 3 feet by 6 feet (the size of a cemetery plot)
honoring the memory of a person who has died of AIDS. Most are made
by friends, lovers, and families of the person who has died; some are
made by total strangers. There are no rules, no requirements other than
the dimensions. Those making the panels can use any material they
choose, and they can decorate their panels as simply or as elaborately as
they wish.

The panels are sent to a regional office, where they are stitched



together to form 12-foot-by-12-foot blocks of 8 panels each. A number of
permutations exist for combining the 8 panels in the block, and those
who assemble them vary the combinations, so that the effect is that of a
large crazy quilt, not uniform in either color or design.

When the Quilt is displayed, usually in some large outdoor space
(such as the Ellipse next to the Washington Monument in the nation’s
capital), the 12 x 12s are combined further into groups of four, with
white walkways in between them. An even larger grid, of square blocks
24 feet by 24 feet, now containing 32 panels each, is achieved.

Viewed from a slight distance, the Quilt presents a true patchwork of
lives remembered: wild colors an~ S(ift pastels, somber blacks and
browns, rainbows and clouds, and most of all names: formal names,
familiar names, nicknames and drag names, first names only and “anony-
mous,” for those afraid or unable to speak out, for whatever reason. One
panel has a large hole where a family ripped out a man’s last name that
his lover had sewn on: the first name remains, proud and defiant, beside
the gaping hole.

There are sometimes groupings of panels in the 12 x 12s: Lovers or
brothers, remembered with matching panels; similarly constructed panels
celebrating a whole group of friends or co-workers, like that remember-
ing a group from San Francisco’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co.

Walking closer, viewers can see how individual the panels are: what
fabrics are used (everything from silk to gunny sack, from chintz to
leather), what accessories (ribbons, buttons, flags, college pennants, nap-
kins, jewelry, even a 4-H blue ribbon), what representations of persons
remembered (photos, drawings, cut-outs, empty garments), what words
(not only names and dates, but poems, phrases, favorite quotes, some-
times whole volumes on a single panel). The words and memories are
sewn, glued, magic-markered or even penciled to the panels: some sturdi-
ly, intent on weathering the passage of time, some so fragilely that
they’re already beginning to fade and fall off.

The panels celebrate occupations, identities, relationships: the departed
as brother, son, lover, father, mother, daughter, sister, teacher, poet,
actor, singer, dancer, bird-watcher, opera lover, disco bunny, drag queen,
leatherman. Charles Ludlam as Camille. Roy Cohn: “Bully. Coward.
Victim.” An Edward Gorey cartoon. A staff of music containing no
notes, only a single rest. A name over 12 candles (12 friends), 9 of which
are extinguished.

As the viewers walk down the white paths between the grouped pan-

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ART 1 3 1

els, names are read aloud over a sound system, minute after minute, hour
after hour. All these names, as if the list will never end.

Cleve Jones says he got the idea for the Quilt during a memorial parade
in November 1985, honoring the late Harvey Milk, the San Francisco
supervisor assassinated in 1978. As part of the march, those in the parade
had been asked to bring cardboard placards with the names of people
who had died of AIDS and place them on the wall of the old Federal
Building. In The Quilt: Stories from the NAMES Project, Cindy Ruskin quotes
Jones as recalling: “It was such a startling image. The wind and the rain
tore some of the cardboard names loose, but people stood there for hours
reading names. I knew then that we needed a monument, a memorial.”2

It took Jones over a year to formulate and organize his project, work-
ing initially with a friend, Mike Smith. By the annual San Francisco
Lesbian and Gay Freedom Day Parade, June 28, 1987, there were 40 pan-
els, including the first, made by Jones for Marvin Feldman, a close friend
who had died the previous October. The panels were hung from the
mayor’s balcony at City Hall.

Word spread quickly about the project. The NAMES Project opened
an office on Castro Street, starting with seven volunteers, and quickly
grew into an operation with ten sewing machines and scores of helpers.
Pushing for a display in Washington in October, where there was to be a
National March for Lesbian and Gay Rights, the Project had 400 panels
by August. As Ruskin reports, “Ultimately, 1,920 quilt panels made it to
the Capitol Mall in Washington, where they covered the size of two
football fields. But nearly 3,000 panels had reached the San Francisco
workshop by the time of the March and they haven’t stopped coming.”3

The Quilt had grown to such proportions by October 1992 that orga-
nizers of the project predicted that this showing would be the last time
that all the panels could be shown together (there are many regional
showings around the country, where panels specific to that geographic
location are featured). At that time, according to one report,4 the Quilt
consisted of 22,000 panels, weighed 26 tons, filled 48 tractor trailers and,
when unfolded, covered an area that was the equivalent of 12 football
fields. (As of April 1, 1994, the NAMES Project reports it now has 26,
613 panels)

Like any phenomenon that has received so much attention, the Quilt has
drawn its share of critical (and often contradictory) responses: that it is


too personal (or too impersonal), that it is too political (or not political
enough), that it favors elegy or emotionalism over action and resistance,
that it is aesthetically flawed, that its real attention is on those who
mourn or grieve (those who make the panels and come to see them)
rather than on those persons with AIDS being remembered, that it is a
work by the living presuming to speak for the dead.

Peter S. Hawkins, a professor of religion and literature at Yale
Divinity School, has noted the basic human impulse for naming that the
Quilt satisfies: “Human beings are alone in imagining their own deaths;
they are also unique in their need to remember the dead and to keep on
imagining them. Central to this aCt of memory is the name of the
deceased, that familiar formula of identity by which a person seems to
live on after life is over. To forget a name is in effect to allow death to
have the last word.” 5

Hawkins compares the Quilt to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial,
which unlike the towering edifices surrounding it in Washington, is
instead “a minimalist sculpture, an earthwork in which the spectator
moves down rather than up, to view names engraved not in the capital’s
customary white stone but in highly polished black granite.”6 As he con-
tinues to describe the Vietnam memorial, conceived by architectural stu-
dent Maya Lin, the parallels with the Quilt experience are startling:

In effect, the walls of the memorial were turned into mirrors in
which the living would see themselves superimposed upon the names
of the dead. Lin also decided against arranging the soldiers alpha-
betically, choosing instead to place them in the order of the day they
died. The wall, she said, would read like a Greek epic. To locate
specific names, with the aid of a directory, would be like entering a
tour of duty, like finding bodies on a battlefield.?

There are distinct differences, of course: The Quilt has no permanent
installation but travels around the country; it is made of cloth, not stone;
its list of names continues to grow, while the Vietnam list is complete.
But “the Quilt in any of its forms is most profoundly about the naming
of names: the sight of them on the myriad panels, the sound of them read
aloud. As with the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, the names themselves
are the memorial. In both cases they are the destination of pilgrimage,
the occasion for candlelight vigils and song.”8

Hawkins goes on to relate the Quilt to the history of quilting, which
he points out was traditionally a way that women memorialized their





ART 133

dead, in a softer, more intuitive way, while men chiseled names in stone.
He is intrigued that the originators of the Quilt, being gay men, chose
this method, which often recorded more than just birth dates and death
dates about a particular name:

Some of the panels are indeed “volumes of hieroglyphics,” recon-
structions of human narrative that rely as much on private associa-
tions as on any public discourse-life stories that need to be decod-
ed. Moreover, intimacies are everywhere confided to strangers. The
panels betray a delight in the telling of tales, revealing in those who
have died a taste for leather or for chintz, for motorbikes or drag
shows. Secrets are shared with everybody. It is as if the survivors
had decided that the greatest gift they could offer the dead would
be telling everything, breaking the silence that has surrounded gay
life long before the advent of AIDS.9

Still, it is the name itself that holds the real intimacies, the real
secrets, and its repetition, like a litany, is the real empowerment. One
panel in particular caught Hawkins attention-as it did many others
(including John Corigliano, who chose it as one of three panels on the
album cover of his Symphony No. 1). The panel was made by David
Kemmeries for his lover Jac Wall: a simple white outlined figure stands
against a patterned background of light blue. If you walk close enough,
you can read the black printing which outlines this reverse shadow, this
body turning to light:

Jac Wall is my lover. Jac Wall had AIDS. Jac Wall died. I love
Jac Wall. Jac Wall is a good guy. Jac Wall made me a better per-
son. Jac Wall could beat me in wrestling. Jac Wall loves me. Jac
Wall is thoughtful. Jac Wall is great in bed. Jac Wall is intelli-
gent. I love Jac Wall. Jac Wall is with me. Jac Wall turns me on.
I miss Jac Wall. Jac Wall is faithful. Jac Wall is a natural Indian.
Jac Wall is young at heart. Jac Wall looks good naked. I love Jac
Wall. Jac Wall improved my life. Jac Wall is my lover. Jac Wall
loves me. I miss Jac Wall. I will be with you soon. 10

Another writer, Robert Dawidoff, has given an achingly clear repre-
sentation of what it is like to be “lost” in the Quilt, moving from panel
to panel, hearing the names read over a loudspeaker, drifting from life to
life, name to name, memory to memory: “The experience of the Quilt is
overwhelming. It is not like visiting a place or viewing something, it is
being in the Quilt, as if enfolded by it. You go to look and suddenly the


Quilt makes you present in your own life because of the surrounding
atmosphere of lives, lives, lives.” 11 He also points out, importantly, that
the experience is not a solitary one: “The other thing in The NAMES
Project is the other people there seeing it with you.” 12 The audience of
the Quilt, like its makers and those memorialized, is a kind of Rainbow

AIDS has taken every kind of life, male, female, young, old, child,
adult; every kind of person has died of AIDS. The NAMES Project
reminds us of that. A child’s bed strewn with her stuffed animals
remembers a little girl. But, as everyone knows, gay men have been
especially hard hit by AIDS. The N’AMES Project is, among other
things, a remarkable, living record of the recent history of gay
Americans. The panels unfold a story of love, friendship, creativity,
and human worth that chokes the viewer with pride and sadness ….
AIDS is not only happening to gays, let alone to gay men, but it is
happening to them and The NAMES Project is an extraordinary
tribute to and by and for a community under desperate, unlooked
for, unmerited siege. 13

Like a few others, gay theorist Richard Mohr has criticized the Quilt
for omitting certain details (specifically the more sexual details) of the
lives of those remembered-that those memorializing friends and family
they have lost, in other words, paint their own distorted pictures of the
deceased instead of letting the deceased represent themselves: “The prop-
er focus of moral concern in mourning is he who is mourned, not he who
does the mourning.” 14 But surely mourning-and certainly the mourning
associated with the Quilt-almost has to be at least partly about the sur-
vivors and caregivers, who make the panels, who view the panels, who
live the other half of the stories being told and cannot be arbitrarily
denied their part in those stories, or in the grieving that must be a kind
of final chapter in those stories. “The NAMES Project Quilt is not only
a memorial,” Susan Grant Rosen of Union Theological Seminary has
written. “If this were its sole aim, the job could have been commissioned,
and a work of consistent artistic quality produced. But the Quilt exists to
honor the survivors along with the dead.” 15 Or, as Judy Elsley has writ-
ten: “In part the panels provide a way for survivors to make a differ-
ence. Because caretakers feel particularly helpless in terms of healing
those afflicted with the disease, the quilt is something concrete and last-
ing over which they do have control.”l6

Each panel is, in a sense, a bond between the maker and the person



ART 135

memorialized, and can in turn serve as a bridge to the viewer as well. It
is in this respect that Elinor Fuchs’s initially surprising analysis of the
Quilt as a “performance” in American Theatre makes most sense: “the Quilt
is more relaxed, more inclusive, more sensual, more human, more theatrical
than anything previously imagined in the protocols of mourning.” 17 Its
spunky sense of humor helps alleviate the sadness and sobriety of the rit-
ual performance:

With all the suffering it represents, the Quilt playfully sends up the
solemnity, the rigidity, of mourning, including “permanence.”
Imagine a cemetery putting all its attendants in white jeans and
sneakers. Then imagine rows and rows of marble headstones etched
with teddy bears, Hawaiian shirts and Mickey Mouse. Imagine jum-
bling Jews, Catholics, Muslims and New Age Buddhists in the same
subdivision of the “everlasting abode.” Imagine finding a sublime
design of mountains, bordered with “Comfort, oh comfort my peo-
ple” in Hebrew and English right next to a splash of sequins cele-
brating “Boogie,” and directly below a grinning depiction of Bugs
Bunny. The Quilt is cemetery as All Fools’ Days, a carnival of the
sacred, the homely, the joyous and the downright tacky, resisting,
even in extremis, the solemnity of mourning.l 8

However, at the same time that the Quilt is performance or a kind of
camp celebration, more like a wake than a visit to the funeral home, it
also has a very serious, solemn, and perhaps sacred purpose: to honor in
death persons who, more often than not were not accorded proper honor
and respect in life, especially during their final disease. As Susan Grant
Rosen notes, “The Quilt emerges from the profound need human beings
feel to mark the passage from life to death in a way that is ‘right and fit-
ting.’ In our culture, with its religious heritage, ‘right and fitting’ death
ceremonial means honoring the sacred quality in human life.” 19 It is that
very sacred quality that is often denied to people who die of AIDS,
Rosen states: “Many AIDS patients die without the support of family or
faith community. Even when they are remembered in conventional funer-
al rites, one can question the degree to which the ceremony honors the
dead or permits a full expression of grief, since the cause of death is often
obscured to protect the family and the community from stigma.”20

Rosen quotes a woman from Nebraska who made a panel for a col-
league of her son, whom she had never met, because she was afraid his
own family would not recognize him: “I felt bad about that. I feel bad
about all the people who die of AIDS that nobody knows.” 21 A similar


touching anecdote is included by Ruskin in The Quilt: a woman who had
never met a man who died of AIDS decided to make a panel for him
after seeing an “In Memoriam” notice by his lover in the local paper. She
sent it to the NAMES Project with this note:

Dear David’s Lover:

Please know my intent, when making this panel, was not to invade
your memories or life with David. I have no memories to share of
him but I do share one thing with you. On October 23, 1986 [when
I read the death notice in the paper], a pain went through my heart
that was unbearable. A loneliness for the loss of a complete
stranger-a potential friend. To this day I cry when I think of how
you must miss each other. . . .

Love, Cindy22

The letters, like the panels themselves, are strikingly democratic: They
open the Quilt up to anyone who wants to participate. There are no
aliens, no outsiders, no foreigners or outcasts. They include the writer or
maker in a dialogue with the person remembered and are intended, as
Timothy F. Murphy, has written, “to preserve the memory of a life that
has touched them, that deserves something better than silence.” 23 Like
Aunt Ida in Melvin Dixon’s poem, each quilter chips away at that
silence. Aunt Ida is shocked at first when she hears her nephew Junie’s
quilt is going to be displayed: “A quilt ain’t no showpiece,” she insists.
“It’s to keep you warm. Francine say it can do both.” 24 And perhaps
even more:

Francine say she gonna send this quilt to Washington
like folks doing from all ‘cross the country,
so many good people gone. Babies, mothers, fathers
and boys like our Junie. Francine say
they gonna piece this quilt to another one,
another name and another patch
all in a larger quilt getting larger and larger.

Maybe we all like that, patches waiting to be pieced ….
Now where did I put that needle? 25

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