AIDS Memorial Quilt panels travel West

To understand the magnitude of the Laguna Art Museum's display the last weekend of November, don't think of it as five fragments from a project that totals more than 48,000 pieces.

Think of it, instead, as a few life stories that add up to hundreds of years among them.

This fall, for the first time, the museum will display five blocks — 12-by-12-foot segments that contain up to eight panels stitched together — from the AIDS Memorial Quilt, a project that the NAMES Project Foundation launched in 1987 to raise awareness about the disease. Most of the panels, sewn by friends or family, commemorate a specific person who died of AIDS.

Over the past quarter century, the quilt has appeared in full in Washington, D.C., and toured the United States and abroad in smaller increments. But its entire 1.3 million square feet have never been sewn together into one piece, simply because that would be impractical.

"A lot of times people think that it's one big blanket," said Julie Rhoad, president and chief executive of the NAMES Project Foundation. "But when it's spread out and connected right now, if we have it all laid out at once, it overflows beyond the bounds of the National Mall."

So when Robert Hayden, chairman of the Laguna Art Museum's board of trustees, sought to display part of the project, he had to choose carefully. Using the quilt's online directory, he settled on blocks containing panels that honored artists or were made by museums or Laguna groups.

Two of the blocks show abstract designs: a "healing circle" with rows of hearts surrounding a red one at the bottom of a deep hole, and the word "love" stacked in two tiers of letters with a dedication to Indiana artists who perished from AIDS. Others memorialize specific people with more personal messages.

Those panels will hang on the walls at 307 Cliff Drive during Day With(out) Art, an event held nationwide every Dec. 1 in honor of World AIDS Day. At the Laguna event, which the museum organized with AIDS Services Foundation Orange County, the gay men's chorus MenAlive will perform, while photographer Kurt Weston, who became legally blind because of an AIDS-related condition, will be among the guest speakers.

Artworks by Orange County high school students inspired by the quilt will be displayed alongside the blocks. In addition, visitors can create panels using a variety of media and post them in the galleries. (Those projects will not become segments of the actual quilt, which can only be expanded through a submission process with the NAMES Project Foundation.)

"We wanted it to be really a participatory event and an opportunity for people to come in and reflect on their own thoughts about either friends or loved ones that have been lost to AIDS, or friends or loved ones that are dealing with HIV now, and commemorate those feelings in a panel to be displayed at the museum," Hayden said.

Considering the statistics — more than 15,000 Americans with AIDS died in 2010, the last year for which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has figures — there may be plenty of reflections to go around. Still, the attention that once surrounded the quilt, and the disease itself, has diminished in the past 25 years.

Once, Rhoad said, the quilt drew around 11,000 submissions a year; now, the number is down to 300 to 500. With advances in medicine, AIDS patients are living longer, and the NAMES Project Foundation has downsized in terms of national chapters.

To Rhoad, though, that very decline shows how successful her group has been in its campaign to bring awareness to AIDS. Still, she lives with constant reminders that the battle isn't over.

Last year, for the first time since 1996, her group displayed the entire quilt in Washington. Meanwhile, she keeps on her wall a 1987 submission to the quilt dubbed "The Last One," dedicated to the last victim — whomever that may be — of AIDS.

Will that end ever come? Rhoad hopes to see it in her lifetime.

"It calls on us to question, what will be the ending of AIDS?" she said. "Will it be the last new infection? Will it be the last person to die from AIDS? Is part of that the last person stigmatized because of a diagnosis?

"On and on, the options are around this. And I think anyone who's ever been involved in trying to advance the HIV cause, anyone who's lost someone, who cared for someone, who's given a dollar, who's given voice is a part of the last one."

If You Go

What: Day With(out) Art

Where: Laguna Art Museum, 307 Cliff Drive, Laguna Beach

When: AIDS Memorial Quilt panels and high school student art on display from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Friday through Sunday; program with MenAlive and guest speakers from 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday

Cost: Free

Information: (949) 494-8971 or lagunaartmuseum.org

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