Vale Patrick O’Connell, AIDS activist and father of iconic red ribbon

patrick o'connell aids red ribbon visual aids
Photos: Ted Eytan/Creative Commons, Visual AIDS

Patrick O’Connell, an AIDS activism icon who is widely credited with creating the iconic red ribbon symbol, has died. He was 67.

O’Connell passed away on March 23 in a New York hospital, four decades after receiving a HIV diagnosis in the 1980s.

Active in the New York arts community at the time, he and other arts professionals founded Visual AIDS in 1988.

The group wanted to mobilise the arts community on direct action on HIV/AIDS. O’Connell was director of the group until 1995.

Among their most high-profile achievements was the Red Ribbon Project, now worn by millions of people every World AIDS Day on December 1.

They chose the colour red for its “connection to blood and the idea of passion—not only anger, but love, like a valentine,” the group said.

O’Connell organised meetings and volunteer working bees cutting, folding and distributing thousands of ribbons all over New York.

He also sent letters and red ribbons to all the attendees of the 1991 Tony Awards.

Actor Jeremy Irons then hosted the ceremony with the red ribbon pinned prominently to his lapel.

Other celebrities also followed suit that night, and at subsequent Oscars, Emmy and Grammy ceremonies.

“We were living in a war zone,” O’Connell recalled to Newsday in 2011.

“But it was like a war that was some kind of deep secret only we knew about.

“Thousands were dying of AIDS. We felt we had to respond with a visible expression.”

Patrick O’Connell’s Visual AIDS art projects continued for years

Other projects included “Day Without Art,” in which galleries and museums shrouded their artworks to represent human loss. That project began in 1989 and continued for years.

In 1990, for “Night Without Light,” New York’s skyline went dark for 15 minutes.

Buildings, bridges, monuments and Broadway turned off their lights on World AIDS Day that year.

In a statement, Visual AIDS remembered Patrick O’Connell’s passion and his impact on the organisation.

“Armed with a fax machine and an early Macintosh computer, Patrick helped Visual AIDS grow from a volunteer group to a sustainable non-profit organization,” the group said.

“A passionate spokesperson for the organization, he helped [AIDS awareness projects] reach thousands of people and organizations across the world.”

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