A solemn and defiant mural showing streams of people carrying beaming candles past a darkened White House at an October 1989 march against AIDS is being installed this week at the Whitman-Walker Clinic on S Street NW.
The expansive work in rich magenta and blues is the creation of graphic designer Victoria Russell, 36, her first big leap out of the world of corporate brochures and posters.
Her vision: to recapture the energy of the autumn evening vigil that brought together thousands of people to mourn friends and family and to push for nationwide community support in the struggle against AIDS.
Russell was part of the crowd that night. She was there with a friend who had pressed her to read Randy Shilts's chronicle of the national AIDS crisis, "And the Band Played On." The book propelled her to get involved, she said.
"I kept casting around, thinking about what I should do. I didn't think I had any talent to work with people who were ill," she said.
First she volunteered to do graphics work for Whitman-Walker, making posters and brochures about the clinic's outreach programs. Ulysses Garner, of the nonprofit DC/Artworks, who is directing the clinic project, said he chose Russell to do the mural because of her design sense, but also because of her commitment to AIDS activism.
"You have to . . . have emotional breadth in a work of this kind," he said.
Russell and the clinic staff decided that the 28-by-11-foot work should be installed in a spare basement room, where people who decide to get tested for the HIV infection wait to have their blood drawn.
"There's a lot of anxiety around getting tested," said Adora Iris Lee, acting director of the D.C. Office of AIDS Activities, which is funding the project along with the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities. "A beautiful mural is uplifting."
Russell based her design on a black-and-white photograph of the vigil. She said she hoped the image of solidarity would reassure clinic clients that there are people in the community concerned about their plight and that there is momentum to spur the establishment into action.
It is that positive spirit that seems to energize workers at the clinic, she said.
"On any given day someone there knows someone who's just died and yet people carry on their daily business without denial, without pretending that it's not going on, but with hope and energy and sorrow," she said.
With 2,093 cases of AIDS infection reported since 1981, the District ranks fifth among metropolitan areas in the nation. Of those infected, 1,621 have died, according to D.C. public health statistics.
Russell used seven plywood panels and regular latex house paint for the mural.
In it, two dozen solumn, life-sized figures carry candles and cameras as they wind around Pennsylvania Avenue against the backdrop of a radiant sky at dusk.
"The mural is a symbol of hope and community strength," said Garner, who is behind two other mural projects about AIDS, one by muralist Ron Turner for the headquarters of RAP Inc. on Missouri Avenue NW and the other to be commissioned for the D.C. Women's Council on AIDS on Eighth Street SE.
"Art can act like occupational therapy," said Lee, who is proposing that art classes be offered at AIDS clinics and local drug rehab centers "to talk out issues through the artistic process." Such efforts, while no substitute for education, prevention or drug testing, Lee said, are a beneficial, holistic approach to fighting the depression associated with this debilitating disease.
Russell, her fingers caked with magenta paint in her studio a few weeks ago, said that as an artist she hopes her effort will provide comfort and inspiration for nervous clinic visitors.
"You just have to do what you can do," Russell said. "I can make pictures and I can use that skill to give something back."