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The Quilt Fades to Obscurity

Once a mighty symbol of love and loss, the tribute to victims of AIDS has gone from large to largely forgotten.

June 04, 2006|Alan Zarembo | Times Staff Writer

Atlanta — She is constantly sewing. Hunched over pieces of the quilt, the seamstress stitches fraying edges and little tears that have accumulated over the years.

When she is finished mending a piece, she folds the fabric and carries it into a long, quiet gallery. Metal shelves stretch the length of the room.

Each shelf holds five 12-foot-square blocks of quilt.

Each block is made of eight panels.

Each panel, the size of a grave, contains a name.

"There are some spots that are really faded, that you can barely see anymore," said the seamstress.

Here, in a corrugated-steel warehouse in Atlanta, lies the AIDS Memorial Quilt, the most powerful icon in the history of AIDS. In the 25 years of the epidemic, no symbol has managed to capture the sense of rage and loss like the quilt, born in a San Francisco backyard in 1987.

It brought the horror of the disease to America with both its vastness and detail -- a patchwork the size of 24 football fields sewn from the artifacts of lost lives. It became the banner of the epidemic, shaking the government and priming the funding pipeline that has poured billions of dollars into AIDS research.

Today, the quilt has largely become a museum piece.

The panels, which once arrived by the thousands each year, now trickle in at a few dozen a month. The more than 50 quilt chapters that once spread the word across the country have dwindled to 16. The NAMES Project Foundation, which oversees the quilt, has downsized to stave off bankruptcy.

Though small sections are still loaned out each year to about 1,000 schools, charities and companies, the whole quilt -- acres of fabric sewn to shame, alarm and remember -- has not been rolled out in a decade.

"A lot of people think the quilt is out of business," said Beth Milham, a 63-year-old retired nurse who still runs panel-making workshops near her home in Providence, R.I. "They don't hear about it anymore."

The quilt has gone the way of AIDS itself in the United States -- swept into the background as new drugs have driven down the death rate here and shifted the epicenter of anguish abroad, where the disease kills 2.8 million people a year.

The foundation has become more a curator of history, shying away from the activism of its roots.

Executive Director Julie Rhoad said the foundation welcomed all requests.

"If you are an activist and you want to use the quilt, that is your choice. If you are a teacher and want to educate, that is your choice," she said.

But those who want to rekindle the fire of the past say parceling out the quilt for tiny displays is like letting a sword rust in its scabbard.

They point to the statistics: 15,798 deaths in the United States in 2004 and 40,000 new infections.

"The people with the quilt have a weapon that they have decommissioned," said Cleve Jones, 51, a prominent gay activist who conceived of the quilt and made the first panel in 1987 for his best friend, Marvin Feldman.


Zipping along on an orange moped, Gert McMullin blows into the warehouse each morning like a mini-tornado. The seamstress scoots right into the building, which is marked from the road by a small sign on a chain-link fence.

A gruff, bone-thin blond, McMullin motors down the hallway to her workshop across the way from the storage shelves. Inside, a sign with yellow flashing lights proclaims "Gertland." A disco ball hangs from the ceiling.

Now 50, McMullin was one of the first volunteers to work on the quilt 19 years ago, when a few people gathered in the backyard of Jones' duplex in San Francisco's Castro District.

She has never left.

She has sewn all 46,000 individual panels together into more than 5,700 blocks. It's taken more than 100 miles of stitching.

David Kurin, director of the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, described the quilt as "probably the greatest piece of folk art ever made."

McMullin simply calls the pieces "my boys," or sometimes, "my soldiers."

Through the years she has seen wedding rings, cremation ashes, a bowling ball, a Ziploc bag of marijuana, jockstraps, an air-conditioning vent, love letters, merit badges, dishonorable-discharge papers, zippers padlocked shut.

They are sewn, glued and stapled onto the 3-foot-by-6-foot panels.

A few blocks get sent out for display most days. Inside the warehouse, two workers climbed the shelves to pull down panels to send to an AIDS bicycle ride in California. The foundation usually charges $500 plus shipping for a one-block display. A 20-block display costs $2,000.

When the blocks return, McMullin checks them all. Block No. 2,414 had just come back to the warehouse. On the fabric, a red dancer leapt for Jeff Moreland. A bearded wizard held a dove for Christopher Ian Rogers. Two horses and a Puerto Rican flag stood guard for Josafat Ferrand.

Then McMullin spotted a rip, just above a pastel field of wildflowers in a panel for Orland Richerson, a New Yorker who was 36 when he died March 27, 1992. She began mending.

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