Quilt exhibition educates people about AIDS awareness

Dec 1, 2011

Today is World AIDS Day and a special quilt exhibition is taking place in Syracuse. 

John Wikiera has been living with AIDS for eighteen years. He spends a lot of time doing this -- forming communities for support, and educating people about the disease. Right now, it’s through quilts.

“As a person living with AIDS for 18 years now, I think ‘holy cow, this could be me someday’. I would love to be remembered in this way,” said Wikiera.

John organized the quilt exhibition in Syracuse but it’s certainly not his first time with the quilts.

“There’s not a year that doesn’t go by that during this time of year I shed a few tears,” he said.

Central New York is second only to New York City in the rate of HIV infections in the state. With that in mind, this year the exhibit is all about education. Steve Waldron has been helping organize these events for years and will tell you how important it is to teach people about the disease.

“I think it’s an awareness message,” said Waldron. “What’s really inspiring is the content of these personal messages that students write on the panels after they’ve observed the exhibition. The hope is what they got there and were able to express then will translate into behavior changes and lifestyle choices.”

Walking into the exhibition you’re surrounded by colorful memorials. Ideas of life and death are all mixed up together with emotion and come out in these… pictures. Pictures that you can’t help but notice, are very personal.

“Like this one on the top,” said Wikiera. “That, I think is beautiful. That’s something I would do. Standing in the hills, looking at the stars and the moon and the water. To me, that’s just so peaceful.”

People like Michael who are living with the disease can’t help but feel the power the quilts have.

“For me, the emotion is still raw,” said Michael. “Some of the quilts, if they’re not here, there are some that still go back 20 years, when it was just known as AIDS. And…you just treat them with respect.”

Michael was diagnosed in 2006 -- and like many of the people memorialized in the quilts, he has a story to tell, but it hasn’t been easy.

“It’s taken me 4 years to actually get out,” he said.” As I’ve told John (Wikiera), I think now is the right time for me to actually get out and tell my story. Because they’re all so different and the one who have paved the way for 18 years, I’m sure it’s as raw for them as it is for me today.”

Michael’s found a community in Syracuse he can trust. A community that, working together, is making this exhibition happen. With people like John and Steve, and others living with the disease too, like Jessica.

“When you come into a group of other people who are positive and you can just release and you can be 100% open and honest and accepting,” said Jessica. “No matter who they are, no matter what their background is, where they come from or how they got it.”

The quilts were produced by the Syracuse names project, and will be on display at the Southwest Community Center until the end of today – World AIDS Day.