The founding director of Visual AIDS, Patrick O’Connell -the organization that used art to raise awareness of the AIDS epidemic and also supported artists living with HIV-died of AIDS related causes on March 23, 2021 in New York City. He was sixty-seven years old.
We are deeply saddened to learn of that Patrick O'Connell has passed away.
His iconic red ribbon campaign brought widespread awareness to the HIV/AIDS crisis. ❤️https://t.co/XNEjI89ykg
— Congressional Equality Caucus (@EqualityCaucus) May 4, 2021
O’Connell’s massive activism had truly humble beginnings. As the AIDS crisis overtook New York City in the 80’s, it left the gay community, specifically the entire arts community, both confused and directly impacted by the pandemic; funerals were literally occurring daily. O’Connell started meeting with other concerned community members at a loft in Chelsea, which eventually became the headquarters of Visual AIDS. 1991 saw the launch of The Ribbon Project, which produced simple inverted V-shaped red ribbons, which would go on to become a global symbol of AIDS advocacy.
One of O’Connell’s most creative missions was the organization of “ribbon bees”. At these events, thousands of the scarlet-colored ribbons (a color chosen as it represented blood) were cut and folded at these events, with the intent of having the ribbon first appear at the Tony Awards telecast that year. After having the ribbons placed on the seats of the theater by volunteers that year, actor (and host that year) Jeremy Irons walked on stage, complete with vibrant red ribbon on his lapel; a cultural moment of activism was officially sparked. The AIDS ribbon went on to appear on every major awards ceremony, with the United States Postal Service issuing an actual red ribbon stamp in 1993.
Of the ribbon, Issac Mizrahi told The New York Times in 1992 “If you can’t do anything big about AIDS, second best is to appear to do something,” the fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi told The New York Times in 1992. “That’s why I love the ribbon. It ruins whatever you’re wearing, it doesn’t work compositionally, it’s the wrong color, it throws your hair off, and who cares, because you have human feelings and you’re showing them.”
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