Middlebury College uses AIDS quilt to explore construction of public memories

MIDDLEBURY — Many of Vermont’s small towns have a Civil War monument, but how many local residents still come to these piles of marble or granite as places of memorial and healing and how many just drive by with their eyes fixed ahead on a downtown parking spot?
These kinds of questions — What do we commemorate as a nation and as a community? Whose story do we tell? And how do we tell it? — are behind the current exhibit in Middlebury College’s Davis Family Library of a panel from the AIDS Memorial Quilt.
The quilt panel has been brought to the library as part of an American Studies course on American monuments and memorials led by Assistant Visiting Professor Deborah Evans and Associate Dean for Fellowships and Research Lisa Gates.
“This class is about U.S. monuments and memorials and how we construct memory, national memory. What we remember? How we do that? What role do these monuments or memorials play in our public consciousness?” said Gates. “And living where we do — in a perfect world we would be doing this course perhaps in D.C. and then fly out and go visit Mount Rushmore, a lot of different places that would be great to study — we thought since the AIDS Memorial Quilt is by definition a mobile memorial we thought it’d be fabulous to bring a piece of it to Vermont to share it with our class and with the broader community.”
At 48,000 panels covering 1.3 million square feet, the Quilt is the largest community art project in the world. Creation of the quilt began in the 1980s to help build awareness for AIDS/HIV and understanding of the people it effects. It has helped to raise more than $4 million and has been seen by more than 15 million people. In 1989 the Aids Memorial Quilt was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize.
The idea for the Quilt began in San Francisco in 1985 when gay rights activist Cleve Jones and others taped the names of friends and loved ones who had died of AIDS to the walls of the San Francisco Federal Building and saw that the sea of names looked like a patchwork quilt.
According to the World Health Organization, close to 34 million people have died from AIDS-related causes since tracking of the disease began in the 1980s. Roughly 36.9 million people worldwide are living with AIDS and the virus that causes it, HIV. This figure includes 2.6 million children infected during pregnancy, childbirth or breastfeeding. Particularly hard hit, according to the WHO, are countries in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Gates said that the devastation AIDS brought to the gay community, especially, in the 1980s and 1990s is not something most college students today are aware of. So part of the focus in the class has been teaching about how the Quilt and the national responses to the AIDS epidemic fits in to larger LGBTQ struggles for social justice.
Gates compares the AIDS Memorial Quilt, in some ways, to the Vietnam Memorial in its power as a healing space and in its initially subversive nature as a memorial. Both, she says, are deeply personal and political.
“The Quilt was started as a way of remembering people who were being lost to history,” said Gates. “They were being rendered invisible, and they were dying in such large numbers, and these were not people who were being remembered in more public ways. So it was a way of creating memory, but it was also a way of calling attention to the epidemic.”
The Quilt, she said, creates something “that can move, that can occupy spaces, that can be present anywhere it needs to be present to demand attention, to demand that people see this and think about it.”
Gates was at the first ever display of the Quilt on the Washington Mall in 1987.
“It occupied an enormous amount of space even then,” she recalled. “The quilt had just started earlier in the year and it caught on like wildfire. And visually it is just such a tremendous statement about the loss of life and the communities that are behind these people and around these people … and how deeply tragic this whole event is and how unacceptable the kind of slow federal response to the health epidemic was. So that’s why I think it’s such a brilliant political tactic.”
Gates and Evans selected what they believe to be the only panel in the 48,000-panel quilt to specifically mention Vermont. Catalogued as panel 00990, the panel contains quilt sections made in the late 1980s for seven men, who are variously named as Charles Cating, Karl Horst, Paul J. O’Donnell, Chris Rohn, J.V.C., Farmer John and Seth. The eighth and bottom-right-most section, created by the Burlington-based Vermont Cares, is “In memory of all Vermonters lost to the epidemic, especially those whose names cannot be written. We remember them daily, in our thoughts and tears.”
Some squares are elaborately crafted with applique and embroidery, some are simple, written in indelible inks or fabric paints. Some, such as the square for Paul J. O’Donnell, give dates of birth and death and clues to the person’s life and interests, like a drum or a hockey stick, and contain written inscriptions from friends and family members. The square for Farmer John shows an idyllic rural scene: applique cows, barn, silo, trees. The square for Karl Horst contains only his name, surrounded by multicolored streamers.
Directly adjacent to panel 00990, Gates and Evans have created a space where students, faculty, staff and community members can sit and make their own square in response to the AIDS Quilt and HIV/AIDS, using colored markers, lettering, glitter glue and colored Popsicle sticks.
Two students are working on a square together that says “life” in six languages.
“We just kind of picked this word ‘life’ and then just wrote it in different languages we speak,” says Priyanjahi Sinha, a Middlebury sophomore from India. Her friend and co-artist Kamilla Domjan is a Bates College student from Hungary. The two have written ‘life’ in English, Spanish, French, Hungarian, Hindi and Arabic.
Domjan says the Quilt makes her think about “visibility and community because this was such a shameful, hidden issue in the past. I really like how we are making such an effort to bring it forward into the attention of people. I think this is a really beautiful way you can engage with it and say, ‘I am there standing with this.’”
Sinha adds, “I did not know what to expect. So when I came here and saw a few of these things, I was really moved by the effort and just seeing people’s names out there and thinking that they could have been people I knew.”
The exhibit is sponsored by Gates and Evans’ course “Constructing Memory: American Monuments and Memorials,” together with the Davis Family Library, the Center for Teaching, Learning and Research, the American Studies Program and the Scott Center for Religious and Spiritual Life.
The AIDS Memorial Quilt panel will be on display on the second floor of the Davis Family Library at Middlebury College through the end of April. The library will be open this week, Monday-Thursday, 7:30 a.m.-midnight; Friday, 7:30 a.m.-11 p.m.; Saturday, 9 a.m.-11 p.m.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].

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