On a grassy corner of the Ellipse south of the White House yesterday, Lela Houpis Barnes, 51, stood over a large square of fabric, her son by her side. They had come to Washington from California to see the coffin-size panel made in honor of her brother, Nick Houpis, who died of AIDS in 1999, at age 43.
In the center was a snapshot of Nick on a water ski, at play in a blue lake made of cloth -- a rendering of Spofford Lake in New Hampshire, where the family spent their summers. In one corner was an image of a Yahtzee cup with dice, Nick's favorite lakeside pastime. In another corner was the sun coming through the clouds.
It was one fabric memorial among thousands, and that's what got to her. "You can't imagine the power," Houpis Barnes said, "of seeing so many amidst the one you love."
Nick's panel was one of 8,000 on display yesterday at the Ellipse, the first large portion of the AIDS Memorial Quilt to be unveiled in Washington since 1996, when the quilt's 40,000 panels covered the Mall. The panels created since then will be available for public viewing today and tomorrow, weather permitting.
The quilt has become a powerful symbol of the global AIDS crisis since the project was begun in San Francisco in 1987. Each panel is sewn to remember someone who has died of AIDS in the United States -- though some of the panels are from other countries. Each panel's design attempts to capture loved ones' personalities in a 3-by-6-foot space.
Yesterday, tourists, federal workers on lunch break, quilt volunteers and family members strolled along a black tarp that divided the Ellipse into large sections of panels, or "blocks." The panels were laid out on the grass of the Ellipse like a multicolored, patchwork flag. Some panels displayed pictures and other items dear to the deceased, such as a college marching-band jacket, a blow dryer, a teddy bear. Someone had sewn a picture of singer Melissa Etheridge onto one panel; someone else attached a tiny toy piano to another.
The green-colored panel for David L. Morgan included a red plaid kilt and "Love Ya', Mom," written in black marker. The panel for Carlos Ramirez featured an image of the Virgin Mary.
Individually, the panels "tell intimate stories of love, life and loss," said Julie Rhoad, executive director of the Names Project Foundation, which oversees the quilt. But Rhoad said that collectively, the panels tell a much larger, more urgent story about AIDS in America.
According to the foundation's research, nearly a half-million Americans have died of AIDS and nearly a million others are infected with HIV, the virus that causes the disease. The number of new infections in the United States has not decreased in the past decade, remaining at roughly 40,000 each year.
"Our work is far from over," said Rhoad, one of several speakers who addressed a small audience of volunteers and family members before the panels were unfolded. Speakers included Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson, who pledged his support for National HIV Testing Day, which is tomorrow.
Yesterday's event also launched a 50-city tour that beginning in October will take a portion of the quilt to shopping malls across the country. The foundation hopes to bring the entire quilt -- more than 88,000 names and growing daily -- to Washington for display in June 2006. The last time the quilt was unveiled in its entirety was on the Mall in October 1996.
After the officials' remarks, the volunteers and others walked on the tarp in groups to unfold the bundles scattered across the grass. Each bundle contained four blocks and each block held eight panels. Over the loudspeakers, people read the names of loved ones they had lost to AIDS.
Gert McMullin, 49, a longtime volunteer with the Names Project, read the first 150 names, her voice cracking with emotion periodically as it echoed across the Ellipse. Afterward, she walked off the stage and friends came up and hugged her. "It really is a wonderful healing device," McMullin said of the quilt.
Jay Menser, 28, of Raleigh, N.C., said he was struck by each panel's focus on how people lived, rather than how they died. "I've never seen anything like this," said Menser, who said he received a diagnosis of HIV two years ago. Menser and others spoke of the power of the quilt to remind people that much progress has been made in fighting HIV and AIDS, yet not nearly enough. "It's not cured," he said. "It's not gone. It's not forgotten. It's still here."
Standing at her brother Nick's panel, Houpis Barnes of Piedmont, Calif., fought back tears. It was her first time seeing the panel displayed with so many others. She and her son, Jonathan Barnes, 23, helped unfold it.
She and Jonathan were on their way to Nick's beloved Spofford Lake for the summer. "It was his heaven on Earth," she said.