Two duvets. A shared mourning

It was also around this time that the local non-profit arts organization SPOKE (formerly Medicine Wheel Productions) began observing Days Without Art, an annual lineup of cultural events between World AIDS Day and National HIV / AIDS Awareness Day for Blacks on February 7.

The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt panel for Steven Lawrence, who died of AIDS in 1988. Courtesy of Luanne Witkowski

This year marks the 30th incarnation of SPOKE’s Days Without Art, but it’s also a moment like no other. A new quilt, part of the “Touched” installation, recognizes the worsening losses of the past two years, as well as the forces that have held the people up.

“We are here, in the midst, really, of multiple pandemics – of racism, inequity, drug addiction, gun violence, COVID, always HIV and AIDS,” said Michael Dowling, artistic director of SPOKE. “How are we affected by this as people? What do we do with this? “

Lawrence contributed a 16-inch by 16-inch square to the new quilt, which has over 650 fabrics samplers, said Dowling. While the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt primarily features the names of people who have died of AIDS, the messages adorning the new quilt are larger: One patch features the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline phone number, with a heart below that says ” It’s good to ask for help. ”Others are abstract designs, like a multimedia design of a sunflower.

The two quilts, said Dowling, bring together the stories of lost lives and honor the love that endures.

“We too often look at the numbers rather than the people,” said Dowling. “These stories of individuals are so powerful. It was someone’s son, someone’s mother, someone’s sister, someone’s grandparent. These are people who had meaning in the lives of others.

Each year, SPOKE holds a central art exhibition on December 1 to honor those lost to AIDS. One year, attendees hauled thousands of gallons of water in buckets from the Fort Point Canal to the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts. SPOKE started soliciting patches for the quilt last year, but COVID-19 then forced the organization to hold its event online. SPOKE started collecting more samplers at the end of the summer, with a group of interns, staff and volunteers stitching them together.

The new quilt, hung like an awning rafters from the Cyclorama, was displayed on Wednesday alongside panels from the original AIDS Memorial quilt. The quilts were the backdrop to a 24 hour vigil; starting at midnight there were hourly artistic offerings by different acts including KAIROS Dance Theater. The quilt wasn’t on display until December 1, Dowling said, with the possibility of it being shown again on February 7. SPOKE always accepts submissions from samplers to further develop the quilt.

The nonprofit SPOKE hosted a 24-hour vigil at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts on December 1 to honor the organization's 30th annual Days Without Art installation.  Shown here is part of the original commemorative AIDS quilt on display at the event.
The nonprofit SPOKE hosted a 24-hour vigil at the Cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts on December 1 to honor the organization’s 30th annual Days Without Art installation. Shown here is part of the original commemorative AIDS quilt on display at the event. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

Dowling sees several parallels between the first public response to HIV and coronavirus. “It was like déjà vu when COVID really started to take hold,” he said. “It was like it was happening again. People are dying of this thing that no one understands.

For some visitors to the exhibit, the two quilts highlighted decades of grief. Brad Gregory, who worked at the Mission Hill Hospice during the peak of the AIDS epidemic, sat next to a panel of the AIDS Memorial Quilt designed for his friend Peter Maroon, who died in 1991.

“If I’m going to talk about resuscitated memories, it’s anger,” said Gregory, noting the high death toll in the two health crises. “We know more than that. We know how to avoid this. And, as with the AIDS epidemic, we’ve had these fools running our country yesterday and today – for the past four years, anyway. “

As part of the 30th installation in honor of Days Without Art, the association SPOKE has produced a new quilt, presented here, composed of samplers submitted by the public to honor what touched them during the "several pandemics" the last two years.
As part of the 30th installation honoring Days Without Art, the SPOKE association has concocted a new quilt, presented here, made up of samplers submitted by the public to honor what touched them during the “multiple pandemics” of the last two years. Jonathan Wiggs / Globe Staff

Other attendees, like Paula Lawrence’s partner Luanne Witkowski, spoke about the differences between pain caused by AIDS and COVID-19. “We’ve been through this before – but no, we haven’t,” she said.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, Witkowski said, she and others saw loved ones infected with HIV “in hospitals and cared for them at home, and were with them when families. others would not. In comparison, the losses during the COVID-19 pandemic were “quick and loose,” she said, because “everyone had to go into quarantine, and people were getting sick and going to the hospital. and you never see them again ”.

Despite these differences, Witkowski said she believed that a quilt was still a meaningful way to heal, providing a way to unite during times of division and resist the “finger pointing and blame” that she said. it was a marker of the two health crises. Witkowski’s sampler is made up of surgical masks and other items wrapped in bubble wrap, meant to symbolize how we avoid and seek physical contact.

A sampler for SPOKE's new quilt made by Luanne Witkowski, who wanted to capture the ways we avoid and cultivate touch.
A sampler for SPOKE’s new quilt made by Luanne Witkowski, who wanted to capture the ways we avoid and cultivate touch.Luanne Witkowski

This new quilt, Witkowski said, offers a chance for people “to breathe and see others who are also breathing,” she said. “And find some solace in there and find some hope that we can still come together, even in really deep grief.”

Around the new quilt are 36 pedestals; visitors are encouraged to place items that remind them of their lost loved ones in wooden boxes. Photographs, bracelets and dried flowers from previous years still rest inside.

“It’s important not only to remember how people died, but also how they lived,” said Wendy Ellertson, whose brother died of AIDS in 1990. She helped sew the new quilt together.

“Touched” honors the dead, said Dowling, but he can also comfort the living, give people the chance to bear witness to the stories of others and to share theirs.

“We still need to see ourselves in relation to others. And when we separate from others, something is lost, ”he said. “The outpouring of how many people participated shows the thirst for that connection.”


Dana Gerber can be reached at dana.gerber@globe.com

James C. Tibbs