Today marks World AIDS Day. Founded in 1988 amid the peak of the AIDS crisis, the day is meant to show support for people living with HIV/AIDS and to remember those who have died from AIDS-related illnesses.

To put faces, names and stories to this mountain of casualties, SPOKE,a nonprofit art organization in Boston, has organized a 24-hour vigil to remember and celebrate some of those lives lost to HIV/AIDS.

“These are not just numbers. These are humans who have a story, who have a life, who have been here, who will continue to be lifted by the living. So this becomes a living memorial of love,” said SPOKE Executive Director L’Merchie Frazier.

A woman stands next to an art installation, which is an open box, containing a copper star.
SPOKE Executive Director L’Merchie Frazier.
Jacob Garcia GBH News

The vigil, which is called "Days Without Art," originated in 1992 in response to the ravages of the AIDS epidemic and the lack of official response. Located at the Cyclorama in Boston’s South End, it features altars, music, poetry, dance, sections of the historic AIDS/ Names Memorial Quilt and an installation composed of portraits by SPOKE Artistic Director Michael Dowling.

“There’s 400 guys here, and about 60 of them I knew,” said Dowling.

Dowling composed each portrait by hand, using the actual obituaires of those lost to HIV/AIDS among other pandemics as the background.

“I did all of these drawings as a meditation piece over the last three months,” he said. “They invited big pauses to look at the story of someone. And then oftentimes then I would Google that person to find out more about them.”

A man stands in the middle of a large art exhibition. Dozens of portraits of people who have died from complications from HIV/AIDS hang in the background
SPOKE Artistic Director, Michael Dowling.
Jacob Garcia GBH News

SPOKE is also committed to creating a space for the community to gather by including a participatory aspect that includes poetry, song and dance so that people can add their voices and experiences.

“My career just gets topped off by this each year,” said professional singer Nancy Armstrong.

Armstrong has been singing at the annual Boston vigil for over 30 years.

“It's always an honor to come and see what he [Dowling] has created and the honoring of these treasured souls that are not here,” said Armstrong. “I put it on my calendar every year and circle it.”

A man stands in the middle of an art installation. He is holding a memorial to his friend who died from complications from HIV/AIDS, which is part of this art exhibit. The memorial is a white paper bag and it has a black and white photo of his friend attached to it. On the bag is a handwritten message that says " John Pfisterer 1947-2003.....we love you and miss you"
Bill Nigreen holds his memorial created for his friend John Pfisterer
Jacob Garcia GBH News

Among those in attendance were Bill Nigreen and Kathy McDermett, who came to pay remembrance to their friend John Pfisterer.

“We're definitely here for John, but you can't help as you walk through, your heart goes out to each one. A whole generation of thoughtful, creative, activist people lost,” said McDermott.

“John was the brightest guy, the smartest guy of a group of people that I now still know 60 some odd years later,” said Nigreen. “And all of us from 1960 when we met were out there with him when he died. So he's a very special guy.”

Pfisterer’s memorial is a white paper bag filled with sand from five years ago according to Nigreen. He was shocked to see the preserved memorial still intact.

“John said, 'Don't forget me,'" he recalled. "I'll send a note to his sister this morning.”