Activist Michael Dowling uses art to make a mark on the city
At first blush, the rooftop of the Taj Boston seemed like an awfully fancy place to pay homage to a man who runs an arts program off L Street in South Boston.
But as Michael Dowling’s friends filled the place with their presence and affection Wednesday night, it slowly became apparent that the location was a metaphor for his life’s work, which is to bridge the many worlds that comprise Boston.
Dowling was celebrating 25 years as the artistic director and founder of Medicine Wheel Productions. Primarily, it uses art to bring together young people from across the city in an atmosphere that fosters collaboration and dialogue.
One of its signature programs, Hand-in-Hand , brings together young adults and Boston police officers to spend a day working together on art projects. The idea is to give them a space to see one another as human beings and peers, rather than as adversaries on the streets.
It isn’t unusual for participants to discover they have previously encountered one another, under less collegial circumstances. By the end of the day, they walk out with a different relationship. Both the young people and police love it: Police Commissioner William Evans is a huge supporter.
“Young people are gifts to the community, but they’re often invisible,” Dowling says. “And they’re invisible because they haven’t been invited to be active participants of he community they’re part of.”
Medicine Wheel’s alumni now number in the thousands. Many of the young adults who walk through the doors have been referred to it as a result of legal problems or other issues. They come together to make art and also, as Dowling often says, to feel part of something larger than themselves. The guiding principle of Medicine Wheel is that it is transformative when young people find their voices.
Thinking outside the box comes naturally to Dowling. He gave up a successful painting career, more or less by accident, to become an activist in a neighborhood he lived in but then detested, Southie.
When he moved there, in 1978, few were rolling out the welcome mat for a gay painter. As he became visible, he also became a target: he still talks about the St. Patrick’s Day parade during which people threw rocks at his house.
The AIDS epidemic made him start to think about art as a tool for healing, and whether there might be more to being an artist than painting. Living in South Boston led him to give Medicine Wheel its community focus.
When a suicide epidemic hit the neighborhood in the mid-1990s, the notion of using art as a tool for healing suddenly made sense. Dowling led a movement to turn a vacant lot near Dorchester Heights into a public art installation, featuring stones with the names of people who had died during the epidemic. As the project gained in popularity, Dowling began to find acceptance. People who had previously taunted him began to apologize.
A medicine wheel, Dowling explains, is a Native American concept for connection.
“My concept of it is that every spoke of the wheel is significant and if one spoke of the wheel is broken the wheel is incomplete,” Dowling said. “It’s a symbol of inclusion and being part of something bigger than themselves.”
Medicine Wheel’s definition of art is expansive. Dowling has led peace marches from Southie to Roxbury. Arts groups of every discipline use Medicine Wheel’s space. Much of Boston — not just South Boston — was represented at the gathering for Dowling Wednesday, paying tribute to a force for unity.
Dowling said Thursday he has thrived for 25 years by never dwelling on his influence.
“I never think about it,” he insisted Thursday. If I thought about the work I probably wouldn’t do it. It’s stepping off the cliff every day. I try to live my life being available to what comes to me each day.”