The AIDS quilt always reminds Cleve Jones of the friends lost to the terminal disease.
Five years ago, Jones conceived of the project as a thread-and-fabric kind of memorial park, with quilt squares functioning as grave markers for AIDS victims. "Except the headstones, if you will, have been made by the people who loved the people who died."The quilt has grown large enough to drape more than 13 football fields, and more than 1,000 new panels were received last month. All the panels are tracked on a computer, as quilt sections are on display somewhere in the world every week.
Jones is scheduled to tell the story of the Names Project Quilt at 7 tonight at the Utah AIDS Foundation annual awards dinner at the DoubleTree Hotel.
The quilt, which was exhibited in the Salt Palace in March 1989, serves to memorialize the more than 50,000 people who have died of AIDS since symptoms of the disease were identified in the early 1980s. Each of the quilt's more than 14,000 squares were lovingly created by survivors: spouses, siblings, parents, children, lovers.
"People are overwhelmed by it," Jones said. "It's a very powerful piece of art." He receives letters every day from people who say the quilt has changed their lives.
Jones dreamed up the quilt after a close friend died. He was inspired both by the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., as well as feminist artist Judy Chicago's Dinner Party, a work of art to memorialize women artists. Exhibits of the quilt have inspired donations of more than $800,000 for AIDS research.
The quilt's appeal is simple. "It recalls for us all the value that we as Americans are supposed to cherish. It invokes symbols of the American spirit.
"You can sit in front of some of those quilt panels for a half-hour or more and when you leave you feel that you knew his or her humor, beliefs and dreams," he said.
Jones, himself, is one of more than 1 million Americans diagnosed as having been infected with the HIV virus. AIDS is the advanced stage of the virus, when the body's immune systems are destroyed.
The former California legislative consultant turned 36 last month. "Every birthday is a great cause for celebration. That's my big ambition. I want to be old, old, old."