Patrick O'Connell, an icon of HIV activism and a leader in establishing public awareness of the disease, died recently from AIDS-related complications in a New York hospital. He was 67.
The New York-born O'Connell immersed himself in the New York art scene of the 1980s, running art centers and galleries in Buffalo and, soon after, Manhattan, working with legends like Cindy Sherman. His art career was ascending as AIDS began to decimate New York and, especially, its creative communities.
O'Connell, diagnosed with HIV in the mid-'80s, leapt into action. Along with other artists and creatives, he began the organization Visual AIDS, which created "conceptual art-based awareness campaigns that forced the public to reckon with the disease," according to The New York Times.
Under O'Connell's guidance, Visual AIDS launched events like 1989's "Day Without Art," which shrouded famous artworks in New York and Los Angeles museums to evoke the human toll of AIDS; the event would continue for many years. Soon after, the Visual AIDS-sponsored "Night Without Light" blanketed New York's skyline in darkness to increase media coverage and public awareness of HIV. The federal government would follow suit when Bill Clinton was president, covering the White House in darkness for World AIDS Day in 1993.
O'Connell's most iconic invention was the Ribbon Project, which, in 1991, created and distributed simple red ribbons around New York. The color evoked the blood that runs through all human veins, while the simple design represented the public and government's relative ignorance and silence about HIV at the time. The ribbons created conversations and discussions, and O'Connell plotted an even bigger platform for them: the Tony Awards.
Through his connections and tenacity, O'Connell's ribbons were seen on numerous celebrities at the 1991 Tonys, including cohost Jeremy Irons. Soon, Hollywood awards shows would follow, with Elizabeth Taylor donning the red ribbon at the 1992 Academy Awards.
“People want to say something, not necessarily with anger and confrontation all the time,” O'Connell told the Times that year. “This allows them. And even if it is only an easy first step, that’s great with me. It won’t be their last.”
O'Connell had his own share of personal struggles and triumphs. He beat back alcoholism,but suffered severe injuries from an antigay hate crime attack in the 1970s. He would lose much of his social circle to AIDS in the 1980s and '90s; his partner, James Morrow, died of cancer in 2000. O'Connell's activism slowed in the past decade, when he lived modestly on disability assistance in Manhattan's Washington Heights neighborhood.
O'Connell's friend Peter Hay Halpert described the Visual AIDS mastermind as a central figure in early AIDS activism. Before O'Connell's death, Halpert said he was "one of the last survivors from that time still left."