One side of the AIDS Quilt display. Courtesy of Matt Terrell and apexart.

Matt Terrell’s dream has finally come to fruition. On June 23, his exhibition, “Living Room, San Francisco, 1986,” opened in the Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center.

A professor of Communications at Kennesaw State University, Terrell has made statement art pieces before, such as “Atlanta’s HIV+ Population Now,” which currently sits outside the National Center for Civil and Human Rights. However, this new exhibition is his largest and most ambitious.

For years, Terrell applied for grants from apexart, a nonprofit in New York that funds artists, trying out different ideas. Finally, he had a winner: the AIDS Memorial Quilt as a piece of fine art. The judges loved it, and Terrell got his funding in April of 2020.

The AIDS Memorial Quilt is “an epic 54-ton tapestry that includes nearly 50,000 panels dedicated to more than 110,000 individuals.” Each panel represents a person or group of people who lost their lives to AIDS. The panels are typically 6 feet by 3 feet, about the size of a grave, and each is decorated uniquely. Terrell said that one of the hardest parts for him was the size of the sections he picked, which are 12 feet by 12 feet.

“The hardest thing was, undoubtedly, finding the right gallery space,” said Terrell. “I couldn’t even find a space that had a ceiling height that could accommodate this. And you can’t have any natural light in the gallery, so nothing with windows, [which] eliminated a lot of spaces.” The Fulton County Aviation Community Cultural Center’s gallery ultimately fit his needs.

Artist Matt Terrell speaks with visitors to the exhibition opening on June 23.

Terrell is not displaying the entire Quilt, only a few sections of it. When asked how he picked which panels he wanted, Terrell said he focused on local interests.

“One was made by Atlanta Gay Men’s Chorus in 1988 in honor [of members] who had died of AIDS. And another one I chose was African-American entertainers in honor of Eazy-E, Arthur Ashe, Willi Smith, [and a] bunch of others,” Terrell said. “Another quilt that I chose is in honor of Keith Haring, and it’s an entire Keith Haring motif … I think it’s really one of the most stunning quilts.”

Terrell said one of the most meaningful panels has just first names on it. “It’s one of the earliest, from when people were too afraid to put a last name on the quilt for fear of outing their friends’ having had AIDS.”

Terrell has had struggles in creating this gallery, such as having to build platforms to hold the quilts. But he’s rolled with the punches, including some of the panels being in poor condition.

“Another thing that was a surprise was [that] the African-American entertainers quilt, when I got it, was in really bad condition. When it had been made, the people who made it put original vinyl records and CDs on the quilt, and they were just all shattered when I got it … and it had mildew on it, and there were seams that were torn,” Terrell said. According to the keepers of the quilt, this particular panel had been up for maintenance when Terrell requested it. Instead of sending the quilt back and picking a different one with less meaning, Terrell chose to add a quilt-repair guide alongside the panel, turning the quilt’s damage into another educating moment for the public.

“We’ve got an entire poster up on the wall that explains what’s going to happen to the quilt when it gets back, how it’s going to get repaired, what’s going to get repaired, what’s going to look different about it. And so we’re using it as an educational piece about how the quilt works, basically,” Terrell explained.

This hasn’t been an individual project, either. Terrell has multiple artists collaborating with him on this exhibition, including fellow KSU professor Robert Sherer, Joey Terrill, Aubrey Longley-Cook, Charles R. Drew University professor Cynthia Davis, and Emily Davis. All of their work focuses on different aspects of the AIDS/HIV epidemic. Cynthia Davis and Emily Davis’s (no relation) works form the “touch” area of the exhibition — Cynthia makes Dolls of Hope and Emily created a whole new quilt panel that visitors can touch. Terrell credits Sherer with inspiring him to do exhibitions around AIDS.

Terrell talks with visitors in the mock-up of a San Francisco living room in the 1980s during the height of the AIDS crisis.

When asked what he hoped people would take away from this exhibition, Terrell didn’t hesitate.

“I want them to feel like they got to see the early days of the AIDS Quilt and people using art as activism to fight AIDS, and I want it to be in a way that’s more than just work on the walls, but is more experiential. That’s why we have the touch part of the exhibition, that’s why we have a living room that’s got chairs you can sit in … I want people to feel like they are witness to history.”

“Living Room, San Francisco, 1986” is open until Oct. 15. You can view it online or in person.

Madison Auchincloss is an editorial intern for Rough Draft Atlanta and a student at the University of Michigan.