The Leaf Project is a creative arts initiative to provide awareness and education around issues of HIV and AIDS. The auspices of The Leaf Project include exhibitions, lectures, workshops, and fund raising endeavors inspired by Eric Rhein's AIDS memorial, The Leaf Project.
The AIDS memorial The Leaf Project pays tribute to people who Eric Rhein has known who died of complications from AIDS. The project, which began with tributes to 80 individuals, now numbers more then 180, mirroring the ongoing AIDS epidemic.
Rhein originally conceptualized the work during a fellowship at the MacDowel Artists Colony in 1996 while adjusting to his profound return to health, resulting from the effectiveness of the then new HIV medications.
Walking the grounds of MacDowell, he gathered autumn leaves, each invoking memories of a friend or acquaintance who had died. He began to create individual leaves drawn in wire to pay tribute to them. A sampling of the titles: "Cousin Jimmy", "Lovely Tina", "Dancing Jean Louis", "Art Critic Paul", "Klaus the Swedish Diplomat", documents the multi-faceted loss to Rhein and to society, spanning relationships from love and admiration to professional.
As the noted AIDS activist and art historian Robert Atkins wrote in 1999, "Art has always played a role in coming to terms with collective tragedy, and the role of the artist has frequently been to bear witness. Surely an art of memory like Eric Rhein's can help harmonize our views by suggesting that honoring the past is one way to live more fully in the present." As the artist himself noted in 1998, "One by one, I picked up leaves until a host of kinsmen was gathered in my arms. In death, they continue to be the teachers that they were in life, generously sharing with me the gifts of their individual attributes."
As a means of promoting HIV and AIDS awareness through artistic form, The Leaf Project continues to evolve into various presentations in both public and private institutions, such as the XVI International AIDS Conference in Toronto, Canada; The Neuberger Museum of Art, SUNY Purchase; The Memphis College of Art; and the American Folk Art Museum in New York.