South Boston activist uses art as a threshold to build community

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By Ed Karvoski Jr., Culture Editor

Michael Dowling
Photo/Craig Bailey

Boston – South Boston artist Michael Dowling felt compelled to complement his successful career as a painter with creative activism. As founder and artistic director of Medicine Wheel Productions, he strives to build a more unified community by helping Southie residents express themselves through art.

Dowling worked as a landscape painter after graduating from Boston University with a BFA in 1977 and MFA in 1979 in painting. His current mission began in 1992 with an art-as-healing project named Medicine Wheel. When this and other public art projects grew, his efforts became incorporated in 2000 as the nonprofit Medicine Wheel Productions. 

Selfie
Photo/Michael Dowling

“Every spoke of a wheel is significant; if one spoke is broken, the wheel is incomplete – that’s at the core of what we’re trying to do,” he noted. “My life’s work is to create equitable opportunities for people’s voices to be heard collectively.”

In 1992, Dowling accepted an invitation from Boston Center for the Arts to create a ritual in its Cyclorama Building for Day With(out) Art, aka World AIDS Day. The arts community has nationally observed the day to remember AIDS-related deaths and inspire positive action each Dec. 1 since 1989.

For Boston’s 1992 inaugural, Dowling scattered blocks of stones around the cyclorama. He asked participants to lift stones and carry them to the room’s epicenter to build a memorial cairn. Noticing two women pushing an unusually heavy stone, he offered multiple attempts to help.

Decorated water buckets at Boston’s 2019 Day With(out) Art instillation
Photo/Michael Dowling

Dowling recounted, “One of the women looked at me and said, ‘You don’t get this, do you? Her son, my nephew, just died from AIDS. This is our weight.’ I felt like I had been kicked in the gut. It gave me insight into what I was called to do with my art. I had some dissatisfaction as a gallery artist and started to see that art is not a commodity.”

Each year’s Medicine Wheel installation is based on an element: air, earth, fire or water. 2019’s element was water.

“We invited artists to decorate water buckets,” Dowling noted. “Many artists decorated the buckets – amateur and professional, kids in grammar and high schools, anyone can take part in this project.”

Dowling has observed an increase in older attendees at the recent years’ installations.

“The survivors of the lost generation are showing up in large numbers,” he said. “There’s still a real need to connect to the stories that perhaps only we remember.”

At the 2019 Bayard Rustin Community Breakfast at John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: Michael Dowling (front, second from left), honored as artistic director of Medicine Wheel Productions, with guests (front, l to r) Mary Dowling, his mother; Dan Hurley, his husband; Kenyans Johnson, youth worker; (back, l to r) Elizabeth Goreham, his sister; Susan Krause, director of development; with her wife, Donna Penn
Photo/Deborah J. Karson

Another public art project rooted in the 1990s has prompted several current year-round programs for youth. In 1996, Dowling helped residents of all ages reclaim an abandoned space between South Boston High School and Dorchester Heights known as No Man’s Land. He encouraged them to bring stones as well as stories that described what connects them with their Southie neighborhood.

“To my surprise, 300 people showed up with stones and stories,” he relayed. “We all placed our stones in a spiral circle that is still the center of the work at No Man’s Land.”

Two years later, Dowling responded to a request for assistance from a group of Southie youth who needed a safe space to grieve amidst stigma associated with addiction and suicide.

“Kids were dying from heroin overdoses, and suicide became an alternative for many young people,” he explained. 

When Dowling met with them, one teen boy took the lead and proposed an idea with a simple drawing of what became known as the Celtic Cross Memorial.

At Boston Center for the Arts’ 2017 exhibit of Medicine Wheel Productions’ Hand in Hand, a program that pairs youth with police officers: (l to r) then-Boston Police Commissioner William Hanks (now Boston College police chief); Detective Janine Busby; Michael Dowling; then-Deputy Superintendent Nora Baston (now superintendent); and Kawanza Butler
Photo/Amit Dixit

“This kid had seven court cases against him and his family had been evicted from the housing projects over a racial incident,” Dowling said. “He drew a cross that we set in stones later that day. For the next several years, the community held vigils at that cross around suicides and drug addictions in South Boston. This project became a threshold that connected youth back to the community and their families.”

Now, young people maintain No Man’s Land through a paid employment program.

“There’s a hunger to use our art in service, but sometimes making a living gets in the way,” Dowling acknowledged. “I’ve become more open in a meditative way to let what seemed to be impossible go through me and come out as artwork.”

For more information about Medicine Wheel Productions, visit mwponline.org.