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Good Causes: the quilt that cares to speak its names

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When David Lawrence died in 1984, there were no city hall speeches or official commemorations, but his friends remembered. "He was a good person," says Peggy Shinner, one such friend. "He liked cats, he liked to drink martinis; he liked to garden and he was a graphic artist. He died at 40." He died of AIDS.

To commemorate Lawrence's life, another friend--graphic artist Ann Tyler--stitched a quilt, a collage of the things he loved in life. In a way, this was not a solitary effort: thousands of such quilts have been stitched nationwide, each commemorating the life of someone who died of AIDS. And as part of a national effort called the NAMES project, 3,500 of these panels have already been sewn together--in 24-by-24-foot sections--to form, in idea at least, one spectacularly colorful, enormous quilt. When all these sections are laid out, the quilt covers an area about the size of four football fields; to view the project, people wander walkways between the sections. The NAMES quilt--to which Chicago panels will be added--will be on display at Navy Pier July 9, 10, and 11.

"The theme of this project is that AIDS has a name," says Shinner, coordinator of the Chicago NAMES chapter. "When you look at this panel, you don't know whether David Lawrence was gay or straight. You just know that he was a human being who died at 40, and that was too young.

"Each panel is three feet by six feet," Shinner explains. "That's about the size of a grave, or the average size a person takes up in the world, Unlike a grave, the quilt represents the person who lived and the person who made the panel. They are made in all sorts of fabrics. I've seen them in cotton, silk, burlap, taffeta, corduroy, and leather. There's no formula. Some people are artistic, others aren't. Some quilts are stark; some are elaborate. Many feature pieces of the [deceased's] clothing: a shirt, a hat, or a tie."

One recently made quilt is devoted to a man named Gary Ridley, who obviously loved music: the quilt is decorated with a large musical note. Another one reads: "Ron Sorkin, part of Chicago, part of us. We miss you. Love Ric, Tom, Jack, Ro, and John." ln the background is Chicago's skyline.

"The project's roots go back to 1985 with a March held to commemorate the life of Harvey Milk," says Shinner, referring to the murdered San Francisco politician and gay-rights leader. "Marchers were asked to make cardboard placards with the names of AIDS patients who had died. That gave a man named Cleve Jones the idea. Jones didn't know what to do with his loss and grief, so he made a panel for a friend who had died of AIDS." Soon hundreds of friends, lovers, relatives, and admirers of AIDS victims were making panels. The result: a massive quilt--then consisting of 1,920 panels--was unveiled last October in Washington, D.C.

"After Washington, the project took off," says Shinner. "There are now NAMES chapters in 20 cities. It was decided that the quilts should go on a national tour, which started in April in Los Angeles. The Chicago chapter is made up of a lot of people who saw the quilt in Washington and felt it was one of the most moving experiences in their lives."

The Chicago chapter began organizing in December; Shinner, Robert Adams (a Loop-based lawyer), and the AIDS Foundation oversaw the effort. They sponsored quilt-making workshops, Steven Baker was put in charge of recruiting volunteers, and Tim Eannarino was selected to coordinate them. In time, the city and state volunteered assistance, as did WPWR TV, channel 50, and the Sun-Times, the event's media sponsors.

"The Navy Pier show has no admission charge. But it's an expensive undertaking; our projected budget is $90,000." The group plans a fund-raiser and a drive for donations. "Any money we raise beyond our expenses will be divided among 22 local social service groups that work with AIDS patients."

Because the majority of AIDS victims are gay men, many federal and state politicians have moved slowly to fund research and treatment programs. Although theirs is an attitude that must change, Shinner says, "We don't push the political power of this movement. This is a memorial. But it's more than just a memorial. It's very emotional; it's a knock in the head. I think it will have a powerful effect on anybody who sees it.

"As of May 1, there were 60,852 people in the country diagnosed as having AIDS, and 34,088 who died from it," says Shinner. "There are panels dedicated to everyday people, and panels dedicated to celebrities, like Liberace, Michael Bennett, Rock Hudson, and even Roy Cohn.

"There's no limit on the number of panels made for a person; some people have as many as five quilts made in their honor. More than one person can be represented on a panel. One family made a panel for the two sons in their family who died of AIDS. It was a very moving piece. When I saw it, I cried."

At the moment, the organizers are looking for about 800 volunteers for the three-day show. "The Chicago display will be one of the biggest in the midwest. We have 96,000 square feet of space. We'll need people to mask the floor where the panels are laid, to hang them, on the wall, to direct people to panels."

The fund-raising party, featuring live music and dancing, will be held Sunday, June 12, at the Limelight, 632 N. Dearborn. 4-9 PM. Tickets are $10 in advance and $12 at the door. Donations can be mailed to the NAMES Project/Chicago Chapter, P.O. Box 148568, Chicago 60614. To volunteer to help with the Navy Pier show, or for more information, call 472-4460.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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