June 23rd, 2012
06:00 AM ET

On 25th anniversary, a quilt displays an American tragedy

By Moni Basu, CNN

Atlanta (CNN) - Gert McMullin scurries about a cluttered storage space, keeping track of the thousands of pieces of folded fabric plucked off metal shelves and packed into blue cardboard containers for their journey to the nation's capital.

The cloth panels are part of a quilt that has been her life these 25 years, since she began piecing together an American tragedy.

In the early days, McMullin, 57, sewed her mailing address into the panels she made in memory of friends who died. She thought they would be returned to her once America defeated AIDS.

She did not anticipate that a quarter century later, the AIDS Memorial Quilt, now 48,000 panels-strong, would still be growing.

The AIDS Quilt, and hoping for 'The Last One'

A new panel comes in almost every day to The Names Project Foundation, an Atlanta-based nonprofit organization that serves as the quilt's custodian.

On this bittersweet anniversary, the quilt will again be displayed in Washington, as it first was in 1987.

It's now believed to be the largest piece of folk art in the world. At a one-minute glance per panel, it would take a full 33 days to view the quilt in its entirety.

McMullin sees it as testimony to a generation lost and an epidemic that continues to infect and kill.

With every one of the 130 panels she sewed, a part of her was forever torn.

She fears that no one knows Gert McMullin anymore, the woman she was before she became an activist. There is no one left to tell that part of her story.

"All my friends are gone," she says.

Some now live in the quilt that weighs 54 tons and is made with panels adorned with the personal. Wedding rings and ashes, even a bowling ball and an air-conditioning grate, make up the ephemera.

Listen to McMullin describe how the quilt "saved" her life McMullin and the rest of The Names Project staff are used to packing and unpacking sections of the quilt that travel across the world for display. But this is the first time since 1996 that the entire quilt is going to Washington.

It's a massive undertaking.

Each of the quilt's panels has a file bearing letters, photographs, report cards, poems and other mementos quiltmakers send. Entire lives stored in a cabinet.

Many died alone, shunned even by their own mothers, who discovered their sons were gay.

Others died without an obituary, without a funeral, without even a marker on their grave. Such was the stigma of AIDS.

"Here is this quilt that makes this very difficult subject accessible and soft," says Julie Rhoad, executive director of The Names Project.

"It did what all great art does. It made us see people as souls, as human beings, as people who had productive lives."

Listen to why Rhoad got involved "This quilt is the conscience of the epidemic” Crafted in one of America's oldest traditions, the AIDS Quilt is like handmade social media, Rhoad says. Before email, Facebook or Twitter, people connected in this massive patchwork of fabric.

Today, the quilt is searchable online and soon will have its very own iPhone app to find lost lives.

More than 600,000 Americans have died from AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The quilt represents a fraction of those lives, and is a visual reminder of a disease that ravaged the nation.

"It is the central repository," Rhoad says.

Mothers made panels for their sons. Husbands, for their wives. Doris Day made one for Rock Hudson. And Cleve Jones made the very first one, for his best friend Marvin Feldman.

The size of a grave

Jones, a gay rights activist, first saw a report about gay men coming down with pneumocystis pneumonia in 1981. The United Press International story disturbed Jones so much that he clipped it and tacked it onto his bulletin board.

Four years later, the Castro, San Francisco's largest gay neighborhood, was decimated by the disease.

Jones, 57, recalls the fear being palpable. He saw someone one day and two weeks later, they were dead.

People didn't understand HIV then - whether it was spread through the air, through touch or bodily fluids.

And without treatment, people died very quickly.

When the first cases were detected in the early 1980s, it was called gay-related immune deficiency. Some called it the gay plague and wanted HIV-infected people placed under quarantine, their scarred bodies hidden away from society.

By fall 1985, Jones was marking a grim milestone: 1,000 San Franciscans dead from the new disease.

Most of them lived in the Castro. Jones realized then that he was at ground zero.

That same year, he joined an annual candlelight march on the anniversary of the assassination of openly gay politician Harvey Milk and San Francisco Mayor George Moscone. He asked his friends to bring placards remembering someone who had died of AIDS. They taped them on the side of the old federal building.

Jones looked up to see a patchwork of names covering the gray stone facade.

"It looks like a strange quilt," he thought to himself, his mind conjuring up the fabrics of his childhood in Bee Ridge, Indiana.

Jones could not forget that image during the next few months as he tested positive for HIV and lost his best friend, Marvin Feldman, to AIDS.

Soon after, Jones picked up a piece of white fabric and spray painted it red and blue. He stenciled Feldman's name in bold black letters.

"It was so not up to Marvin's standards," Jones recalls. He would have wanted it to be worthy of the Museum of Modern Art. Or at least the front display window of Bloomingdale's.

Soon, others volunteered to stitch panels to add to the one Jones made for Feldman. Gert McMullin was one.

She'd been a party girl who worked in the theater and behind the cosmetics counter at Macy's. She was ripped apart when all the gay men in her life began dying.

It was healing, she says, to work with her hands. To touch. To feel.

Jones wanted it that way. He also wanted to throw down the quilt out in front of the White House in Washington, to lay out the dead and demand attention for a disease that was killing his friends.

Each panel was 3 feet by 6 feet, the size of an average grave.

"It was always intended to be a weapon," he says.

The quilt grew to 1,960 panels. And on October 11, 1987, America first saw the AIDS quilt.

No memorials of marble

Chris Bartlett was a 21-year-old junior at Brown University when he arrived in Washington for the 1987 march.

"I was awestruck by the quilt," he says.

It was then that he began to fathom the impact of AIDS in America.

As the years passed, Bartlett, 46, now the executive director of The William Way Community Center in Philadelphia, realized that before anti-retroviral drugs came along in the mid-1990s, a whole generation of gay men had been wiped out by AIDS. Other communities were also left reeling.

Today, 1.2 million people are living with HIV infection and one in five of them are unaware of it, the CDC says.

Gay men still are at most risk of infection. As a race, African-Americans face the most severe burden in the United States.

Since the epidemic began, 1.1 million people have been diagnosed with AIDS in this country - 619,400 did not survive.

AIDS activists question why there are no permanent memorials. What is there beyond the quilt?

"Many of them had no obituaries," Bartlett says. "Even if they did, there was no effort to collect that centrally."

Five years ago, Bartlett began The Gay History Wiki, an online database of the then-4,600 men who died in Philadelphia. Inspired by Steven Spielberg's Shoah project, a memorial to the Holocaust, Bartlett wanted to recognize the dead.

"The quilt is literally two-dimensional," Bartlett says. "And when a panel is done, it's done. There's no more opportunity for people to add to it. The online wiki allows everyone to add - even things I don't necessarily like."

He is grateful for the AIDS quilt but he hopes his website will continue to grow because everyone can access it.

There is also an attempt to restore people on Facebook.

Philadelphia hairdresser Dominic Bash's page lists basic information like his birthday, August 14, 1946. Bash posts on his wall and makes new friends even though he died in 1993.

Bartlett was with Bash the day he died. He made a panel for him in the AIDS quilt. But Bartlett says Bash is alive today because of his Facebook page, though it is limited in scope.

"To the extent that the quilt continues to engage people in conversation, it's definitely living," he says. "But the challenge is to keep communities engaging with the trauma and grief we went through in the 1980s and 1990s. I wanted my project to tell the story of a young black man who died with no one by his bed and had no one to make him a panel."

Bartlett wants younger eyes to see the wiki and get inspired.

The girl who changed Magic Johnson

"My dream was for something greater than has happened yet," he says of his project, which he acknowledges would not have happened had it not been for the quilt.

The quilt began the tradition of honoring people who died. And part of healing, Bartlett says, is to take inventory of the loss.

'We were going to save the world'

Ricardo Ilias was born in 1987, a few months before the AIDS quilt was first displayed in Washington.

This year, his panel will also be featured.

Ilias, diagnosed with HIV at age 5, died at 23.

His cousin, Stephanie Laster, 50, raised Ilias as her own. Her uncle and aunt, and her own mother, died. The family listed diabetes and cancer for their deaths.

No one wanted the truth to get out.

"At the time, it was a white gay man thing," Laster says.

Then, people thought you were a prostitute if you died of AIDS. Or a junkie.

But now Laster knows that anyone can get HIV or AIDS, even women like her.

In 2009, 5,400 African-American heterosexual women were newly infected, the CDC says. Laster learned she was HIV-positive 15 years ago after she divorced and began dating.

She clearly remembers moving to Atlanta on a Wednesday, going to the hospital on Friday and learning her status on Monday.

She didn't cry. She didn't scream. She just absorbed the shock and kept raising Ilias, through graduation from Westlake High School and Morehouse College.

And then, he was gone, too.

He died of cranial bleeding. Laster says HIV may have contributed to his death but she doesn't know for sure.

Listen here to hear Laster's story in her own words 

She grieved by making panels for Ilias and all her loved ones. Then she sewed one that tells her family's story, of how HIV destroyed them.

"I have to let people know that HIV is not a one-person thing," she says. "If you have that information and no one knows, everyone can be affected."

Now, Laster helps others make panels for loved ones and friends.

Just like Gert McMullin.

On this summer day, Laster and McMullin are busy packing quilt panels in a nondescript building tucked behind the Silver Skillet restaurant in Midtown Atlanta.

It's the third home for the AIDS quilt in this city after it moved here from San Francisco in 2001.

"I hate Atlanta," McMullin says, never one to mince words. She is a San Francisco girl. Born there. Raised there. Formed there.

But when The Names Project moved here, so did she. She's officially the quilt production manager.

"It saved my life and it still does. I don't think I'd be here without it," she says, remembering how difficult it had been for her to cope with the deaths of 300 friends.

She came to be known as the handmaiden of the quilt. Some even call her the quilt's mother.

The trucks are here to take the quilt to Washington. McMullin furiously takes stock of all the panels and keeps track of each by number on computerized lists.

The quilt was part of the Smithsonian Folklife Festival from June 27 to July 4 and now blankets the National Mall as Washington hosts this year's International AIDS Conference.

Talk of 'cure' at historic AIDS conference

The quilt, McMullin says, makes her happy - as happy as one can be in dealing with AIDS.

Except that she, like Cleve Jones, still seethes with anger that so many people died.

She is glad to see the quilt laid out again in Washington.

She wants younger Americans to touch the panels, to understand the depth of a disease that rarely makes headlines anymore after death rates plunged and HIV and AIDS became common terms.

"It's not as visual as it used to be," she says of AIDS. "It's still a death sentence. They still haven't found a cure."

She thinks about how she put her address on the first panels she made, so they could be sent back to her after AIDS was gone and the quilt was dismantled.

"We were going to save the world and then stop," she says.

Over the years, she realized the panels were not coming back, and that she could never stop. That the AIDS quilt would go on.

It was uplifting and sorrowful all at once.

CNN’s Emma Lacey-Bordeaux and Jonathan Binder contributed audio for this story. You can also listen to the CNN Radio Reports podcast on itunes or subscribe to the podcast here.

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