This summer, a busy corridor on Capitol Hill will be home to the AIDS Memorial Pathway, a new permanent installation marking the legacy of the AIDS crisis in the Northwest through the work of local artists and designers Christopher Paul Jordan, Storme Webber, Horatio Hung-Yan Law and design studio Civilization.
At the northwest corner of Cal Anderson Park, a giant X made out of speakers invites celebration and grief, glowing sculptures bridge earth and sky, and protest signs are forever. In the heart of the park, you’ll be able to read the stories of activists who responded to the AIDS crisis with mutual aid and radical care. The new works will be formally dedicated and open to the public on June 26; installation is still in process.
Based on an idea first introduced by former City Council member Tom Rasmussen in 2015, the AMP is a public art project years in the making that invites visitors to mourn and respond in “a physical place for remembrance and reflection.” Here’s a look at four artists and designers behind the AMP’s installations — and the stories behind them.
‘Andimgonnamisseverybody’ by Christopher Paul JordanArtist Christopher Paul Jordan works on his sculpture, ‘andimgonnamisseverybody’ before its installation at the AIDS Memorial Pathway on Capitol Hill. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
“Andimgonnamisseverybody,” Tacoma artist Christopher Paul Jordan’s large-scale installation for the AIDS Memorial Pathway, takes its name from a Bone Thugs-N-Harmony song, “Tha Crossroads,” a tribute to producer Eazy-E, who died of pneumonia caused by AIDS.
“What’s important to me about that moment when the song came out, is that 1995, the same year that Eazy-E died, was the year when the cocktail was released,” said Jordan, referring to the antiretroviral combination therapy commonly used to manage HIV and AIDS, “a treatment that was possible to make it so that AIDS was no longer a death sentence.”
The song also fit Jordan’s vision because it “doesn’t just deal with AIDS as an isolated issue, but it grapples with the entire legacy of Reaganomics and the culture of incarceration, the war on drugs, and policing that underpins the systemic impoverishment, and multiple forms of mass death … that Black people were grappling with at the time,” said Jordan. It reveals how AIDS is “interconnected with underlying endemic cultural and political issues that give rise to vulnerability.”
It was important to Jordan that any AIDS memorial acknowledge these intersecting points of inequity, and the disproportionate impacts of illnesses like HIV on communities of color.
“I’ve been organizing … around strategies to counteract the erasure of Black people in the AIDS epidemic within the history of AIDS in the U.S.,” he said, about his work with the Tacoma Action Collective’s #StopErasingBlackPeople campaign, which means building “on the sacred efforts, knowledge, consciousness, strategies of our queer elders and progenitors who have made this world a more survivable place.”
With any attempt to memorialize these stories, he said, “there’s a great deal at stake in terms of how we remember that.”
A 20-by-20-foot sculpture, “andimgonnamisseverybody” presents as a massive X. It evokes a cross, among other symbology, but it also can be read as a plus sign, a marker of HIV, tilted to one side. “I was thinking about what would it be like to have this symbol of solidarity between HIV positive and negative people that acknowledges the ways that our health is not based on individual choice,” said Jordan. “Our health is tied to the health of our communities.”
This is something that Jordan’s had on his mind during the COVID-19 pandemic, and its echoes of the AIDS crisis, especially regarding the discourse around masking. Folks’ disinclination to wear a mask for collective safety reveals “the egregious … sociopathy of disregarding the health of others to our own demise,” Jordan said. “It poses a lot of questions for us as a community, but what would be really incredible … is to see how our fight isn’t over. And to see how the work of continuing to protest, of continuing to celebrate and continuing to mourn is really fundamental to being able to arrive at … a society we can truly have health.”
And mourning can coexist with revelry, care with celebration. “Black music has been so foundational to making queer, celebratory gathering space and dance space possible,” said Jordan.
This celebratory invitation gives viewers the chance to remember loved ones through the idea of meeting at the crossroads between this world and the next, knowing “that our connection transcends the limitations of the physical world,” said Jordan. He thought of it as “a perpetual dance party or a silent rave” where people could dance and connect as a way of remembering loved ones, in the spirit of “so many of the artists and musicians and playwrights and activists and storytellers, who were stolen from us due to the AIDS pandemic.”
“We’re already here” by design studio CivilizationCivilization’s Gabriel Stromberg, Corey Gutch and Michael Ellsworth are seen with “We’re Already Here” in Capitol Hill. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
In April 1990, The Seattle Times ran a story on a rally in Madison Park. Led by activist Brian Day, activists (including Cal Anderson) showed up to support the AIDS hospice that would grow into Seattle’s Bailey-Boushay House. Asked how he’d respond to people in the neighborhood who didn’t want people with AIDS nearby, Day said simply but memorably: “We’re already here.”
That became the name of design studio Civilization’s contribution to the AIDS Memorial Pathway. “We’re already here,” the majority-queer-identified design studio’s first public art piece, draws on artistic responses to AIDS in the 1980s, like those of Gran Fury and Act Up, which employed graphic design and advertising tactics to encourage activism and awareness of HIV and AIDS.
“The ‘Silence Equals Death’ campaign … used the language of popular advertising to really interrupt people’s natural state of walking through New York … and get them to look a bit deeper into what the message is,” said Corey Gutch, co-founder and principal of Civilization.
“We’re already here” incorporates a very specific form of graphic design: protest signs. They’re “often discarded or destroyed along the way,” said Gutch. “And so we saw this as an opportunity to preserve them, and to honor them as these really important and powerful tools.”
In 1978, local activists and organizations successfully deployed protest signs against Initiative 13, an effort to repeal LGBTQ+ protections. (LGBTQ+ stands for lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer/questioning, with the + denoting everything along the gender and sexuality spectrum.) One of those signs appears in “We’re already here.” It says “Human rights for all humans.”
“It’s this ephemera that now is in steel and concrete,” said Civilization co-founder and principal Michael Ellsworth.
That transformation is a way to celebrate “what was really transformative, what really was impactful were people coming together within really, really dire circumstances, people finding the courage and the strength to actually take to the streets, and fight for social change, for people to take notice, to bring focus and to bring light to what’s happening,” said Gutch.
“Ribbon of Light” by Horatio Hung-Yan LawFor the AIDS Memorial Pathway, Horatio Hung-Yan Law — in Portland, Oregon, recently — created “Ribbon of Light,” a trio of laminated glass sculptures. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Horatio Hung-Yan Law became an artist because of the AIDS crisis. “I’d sort of dabbled in art,” he said. A trained biologist, Law was living with family and working in a cancer research center in New York when the virus surged. He’d always been drawn to art, but when the AIDS crisis hit, it was clarifying. “Suddenly you realize your life on Earth is very short, and what are you going to do with it?” he said. “And in this case, I felt there’s so much emotion, and both rage and anger … art could be a way to express it.” Law went back to school for his MFA, and completed a graduate thesis about AIDS, death and religion.
For the AIDS Memorial Pathway, Law returned to these origins with “Ribbon of Light,” a trio of laminated glass sculptures throughout Cal Anderson Park, drawing on the idea of geologic time and the words of poet Michelle Cliff, who wrote of a friend’s death from AIDS: “The morning you died a piece of blue glass fell out of the sky … when it is all over, we become light.”
The image hit home for Law, who recalled the AIDS crisis as “a rude awakening” for folks coming of age in the ’80s. “I was celebrating, expressing my gay identity,” he said. “At the same time, we had this dark shadow looming behind us about this disease … it felt sort of like a meteoric kind of impact for me.”
Even in Seattle, said Law, where the LGBTQ+ community quickly organized in response to the epidemic through groups like the Chicken Soup Brigade, for people who lived through the crisis, “you easily have people who lost most of their friends.”
This was true for Law, living in New York at the time. “I can count less than a handful of people I know back from that time. So it’s tough for a lot of people.”
The AIDS crisis, he said, invoked deep feelings, some of which had to be compartmentalized. “Some of these feelings you just have to put away so you can move on, but that is still a part of us,” he said. “So I’m trying to use little keywords to help people to bring out these feelings, but not directing what to think.”
It still is, he added, especially for communities of color and transgender folks.
The pieces in “Ribbon of Light” invite a reengagement with emotions through warm and inviting lighting that’s visible at night; the sculptures’ frosted surface encourages a glowing quality. There are words engraved on each piece and embedded between the layers of glass, a triplet of words for each sculpture; Law calls them “murmurs.” The words are evocative but vague — “enrage, courage, engage” on one; “losing, releasing, forgiving” on another” — and intended to elicit an emotional response in the viewer, but not a prescribed one.
“A lot of artists feel that you just have to do so much compromise [in public art], people feel that it’s kind of ‘work by committee’ — that’s one of the phrases people use,” he said, but it hadn’t been his own experience. “The public is my audience, is our audience. And in a way that opens up new possibility.”
‘In This Way We Loved One Another” by Storme WebberStorme Webber is seen with her installation “In This Way We Loved One Another,” located on Capitol Hill. (Erika Schultz / The Seattle Times)
Every artist interviewed for this story mentioned the response Seattle’s LGBTQ+ community brought to the AIDS crisis. But poet and multidisciplinary artist Storme Webber has been documenting it. “As someone who grew up in Seattle’s gay community and witnessed its activism, I wanted to make evident the links between the radical work that preceded the AIDS crisis, and the ways in which BIPOC [Black, Indigenous and people of color] and non-BIPOC people were able to take positive action,” she said.
Webber’s storytelling project, “In This Way We Loved One Another,” will be on view in the Cathy Hillenbrand Community Room in Community Roots Housing’s Station House Building, centering narratives of women and working-class people of color through text and image, and examining the ways people found to advocate for change amid the crisis.
“My work is often concerned with restoring missing narratives,” said Webber. “I feel that the stories of marginalized people are more than worth telling, they are vital as heartbeats.”
She was drawn in particular to anti-racist community-building and efforts to provide physical, mental and spiritual support that “prefigured current mutual aid projects.” “I think it’s important in this moment of resurgent white supremacy to note that these organizations were Black-led and by/for Black/POC people, and also some, like the Rev. Gwen Hall’s Sojourner Truth Ministry, were also multicultural,” she said. They also understood something vital: “When the most marginalized people are cared for, we are all cared for.”
Webber created “In This Way We Loved One Another” amid the COVID-19 pandemic and uprisings against racism and white supremacy, and felt called to represent the queer community in its full complexity.
“I felt that to really represent the queer community in its fullness that it is important to create containers which hold all of us, with care,” she said. “It is important to lift the stories of the Black queer community, particularly as the Black community has been disproportionally affected by this disease. All of us are affected by the rise of violent white supremacists. Our democratic, peaceful transfer of power was threatened on Jan. 6 by this same violence.”
Amid this turbulence, the care leaders and activists showed during the AIDS crisis holds lessons for responding to the coronavirus pandemic today. “We face many of the same obstacles during this pandemic, we see disproportionate impact and access to health care, and the resurgence of white supremacy has made this time arguably even worse,” said Webber. “Along with coronavirus, we are faced with an epidemic of racist violence and hatred. What better time to reflect upon those who came before, who saw a need within community and built and nurtured communities of care?”