Largest Piece of Art in History

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By Caryl Bryer Fallert

It’s hard to believe my visit to Washington for the unfolding of the AIDS quilts on the National Mall was 14 years ago today. It was one of the most emotionally wrenching experiences of my life. My eyes still fill with tears when I talk about the experience. It was definitely more than a two hanky day. As a flight attendant and textile artist, Ihad lost many of my friends to AIDS. I was honored that my medium of choice, art, was being used to bring awareness to the AIDS epidemic. I was happy to help.

It is impossible to imagine the scope of the NAMES project without being there. Every panel is poignant in a special way. The sheer physical size of the quilt conveys a message that no news media or individual panel ever can. What caught my attention almost as much as the the quilt, were the lines of people still waiting to turn in their panels.

In May of 1996 I was asked to make this panel on behalf of United Airlines and my deadline was three weeks. I spent several days designing the 12 foot square panel and getting approval for the final design. The design has a six foot center panel with a globe and a bird to represent United Airlines and the company’s employees. A redcandle remembers those we have lost. In the upper left corner of the quilt are the words “we remember”, and in the lower right, “United Airlines.” In two concentric circles surrounding the globe are the words “we remember” written in 15 different languages.

On Saturday, October 12, 1996 I arrived at the Capitol Building in Washington D.C. just in time to watch the last of the panels being unfolded on the National Mall. The unfolding ceremony required hundreds of volunteers, dressed in white, and lasted about an hour and a half. The quilt is made up of three by six foot panels with thenames and memories of individuals who have died of AIDS. These are sewn together to form twelve foot squares. Each of the twelve foot squares is surrounded by a three inch white canvas border with grommets. The twelve foot panels are lashed together to form twenty-four foot squares. As each panel was unfolded, the volunteers moved to their next assigned panel and surrounded it, holding hands.

When all were in position from one end of the mall to the other, a signal was given, and all the panels in a single row were unfolded at the same time.

After our quilt left my hands in June, it traveled to 26 different cities in the United States and Europe. At each city, United employees were offered the opportunity to sew a red ribbon on the quilt to remember a fellow employee lost to AIDS. When the quilt was unfolded in Washington, it was covered with more than a thousand red ribbons.During the unfolding, thousands of people stood quietly around the periphery. At the end of the unfolding, the thousands of visitors were invited to walk among the quilt panels. The walkways were often as crowded as the airport on a holiday weekend, but there was a quiet kindness and respect among the visitors. The crowd was as diverse a group as you could ever expect to find in one place (White, African American, Asian, Latino, rich and poor, gay and straight, able bodied and disabled). Some individuals wept silently by the panels of those they had loved and it was not unusual to see a stranger approach and lay a comforting arm on their shoulder. No one is untouched.

I decided to try to walk through the entire quilt. The experience of walking among the panels is beyond words. The majority of panels are for young men and women in the prime of their lives.The panels are filled with photographs, memories and expressions of love from friends and family members. The panels of the well known, like Arthur Ashe, are sewn to panels of those known only to a loving family or a close circle of friends.

As I walked along the sidewalk back to the Capitol, I saw volunteers filling the remaining spaces under the trees with new panels. They say the quilt now fills more than twenty-four football fields and is the largest piece of art in history. This may have been the last time physically possible to display the entire quilt in a single setting. The leaders of the NAMES Project have vowed to continue spreading the quilt on the National Mall in Washington until a cure is found and available to those who need it.

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