By Leslie Lee

— “It could be therapy, I hoped, for a community that was increasingly paralyzed by grief and rage and powerlessness. It could be a tool for the media, to reveal the humanity behind the statistics. And a weapon to deploy against the government; to shame them with stark visual evidence of their utter failure to respond to the suffering and death that spread and increased with every passing day.”  Cleve Jones, LGBTQ activist, Founder of AIDS Memorial Quilt. Excerpt from When We Rise: My Life in the Movement.

From the first five panels that hung from the San Francisco mayor’s balcony on Gay Freedom Day 1987 to the 37,440 individual panels that eventually filled the National Mall in Washington, DC in 1992, the AIDS Memorial Quilt helped change the trajectory of a deadly epidemic.

For those of you who aren’t familiar, the AIDS Memorial Quilt is an enormous quilt that celebrates the lives of people who have died of AIDS-related causes. Each 3- by 6-foot panel is sewn by a friend, lover or family member of a person who lost their life to AIDS. It is the largest piece of community folk art in the world.

It’s obvious what the AIDS Memorial quilt has in common with The Soul Box Project. Our project proudly follows in its footsteps. As socially engaged community art we share much of the same DNA: A visual, visceral illustration of the horrific numbers of victims. A touchstone for the individual lives torn apart by a health crisis of epidemic proportions. An opportunity for healing, open to communities affected by that epidemic.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt can give us hope that folding thousands of small origami Soul Boxes can, indeed, make a difference. We can learn from its history.

Look at the increase in HIV-related deaths (blue line) and people living with HIV infection (red line) between 1981 and 1995. Now look at the AIDS Memorial Quilt timeframe. In the throes of the disease, when deaths were increasing, the Quilt certainly brought healing to family and friends of victims. More importantly, it brought awareness and subsequent actions – such as work on the highly active antiretroviral therapy. As soon as that therapy was introduced in 1995 you see a significant drop in deaths.

When I present this information to students who are unfamiliar with the AIDS Quilt, I liken the red line to the rise of gun ownership in the U.S. which is likely to keep on rising. The blue line is the one we want to emulate: a drop in gunfire deaths due to increased awareness, education, research and a shift in the nation’s psyche about what it means to responsibly own and use guns.

It’s this courageous model – healing plus awareness to drive action – The Soul Box Project hopes to duplicate. If we’re successful, we will see fewer people killed or injured by gunfire.

Frankly, we have two advantages over the Quilt. The Quilt toured for a decade to raise awareness. We have the power of the internet and social media. And while most of the Quilt’s panels were made by friends, family and lovers of the victims, anybody can make a Soul Box and add it to the displays. That extends our healing reach beyond the affected communities to the “sympathetic public,” those who want to act, who need to heal, yet aren’t directly affected by gunfire losses. This is important because the identity of all the victims in this epidemic will never be known.

A few years into the AIDS Memorial Quilt project, the first 1,920 panels were displayed on the National Mall during the second National March on Washington for Gay and Lesbian Rights. Jones addressed the 500,000 marchers that day.

“The American people are ready and able to defeat AIDS. We know how it can be done and we know the people who can do it. It will require a lot of money and hard work. It will require national leadership. And it will require us to understand as a nation that there is no conflict between the compassionate response and the scientific response, no conflict between love and logic.” 

Today there are echoes of that call to action in our own epidemic:

“We aren’t against the second amendment. What we are against is not researching, not putting effort into researching, and not putting the funding into researching what can be used to prevent gun violence and death, whether it’s trigger locks, security, training or the idea of requiring insurance and having people have insurance in case their gun is used to kill someone else. We need to have the research and we need to have the data to back it up, and right now that’s not happening.”  Judy Melinek, forensic pathologist. Quoted in The Guardian.

The AIDS Quilt toured the country for years and exhibited on the National Mall three times, completely filling it with 37,440 panels in 1996. Today there are more than 49,000 panels.

The Soul Box Project will exhibit 200,000 Soul Boxes on the National Mall in October 2021. Join us!

Learn more about the Names Project: AIDS Memorial Quilt here.

Other counting, community and socially engaged art projects:

Monument for our Kids (March 2018) displayed 7,000 pairs of empty shoes in front of the capitol building in Washington, DC, representing the estimated 7,000 children who have died from gun violence since the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting in 2012.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC lists 58,318 people killed or missing in action during the Vietnam War.

The Children’s Holocaust Memorial was started by schoolchildren in Tennessee who collected millions of paper clips, more than one for every person who died in the Holocaust.

The Vision Quilt helps communities sew 18- x 24-inch panels conveying their visions on how to prevent gun violence and offers curriculum addressing the problem.