Michael Dowling keeps the wheel turning and moving forward. Medicine Wheel was founded in 1992 out of a need to help people heal through art. Michael began leading his community in using public art to transform an abandoned piece of land behind Southie High – known as “No Man’s Land” – where drug use and violence had become rampant. In 1996, a devastating wave of teen suicides hit South Boston. Michael invited the friends and family of those who died to help with the project with the goal of reclaiming their lives. For almost a decade, work continues and Michael mentors young people as they add gardens, pathways, and sculptures to No Man’s Land. What was once a dark part of the landscape of South Boston, is now a vibrant symbol of hope. In the near future, a path will be created to connect this land to The Boston National Historical Park at Dorchester Heights.
Last summer, Medicine Wheel marked the 50th anniversary of the Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech by hosting over 3000 people in a lantern walk around Pleasure Bay. On this foggy August evening, Castle Island was illuminated with lanterns handmade by the community while footage of King’s speech was projected on the side of Fort Independence. This night proved to be healing for one man in attendance who wrote to Michael to share his experience that night. In his own words:
In my sixty-nine years as a black male, I have endured many injustices and slights both small and large. If I were asked to give you examples I might tell you, “You don’t have enough time”, but if pressed several would be at the top of my list such as…
– The day I entered a bar in downtown Louisville, KY; a young draftee in full military winter dress uniform and after ordering a drink three times to no avail, a waitress said. “We don’t serve you here.”
– The school day during the times of Boston school desegregation when returning from a wonderful recording studio day trip I had arranged as a part of my JazzEd Program, I and my group of kids from East Boston’s Otis school were talking about our days experiences when a group of thugs on the corner chose to address me with the “N” word through our open windows and silenced the whole group.
These are but a few of the “death by a thousand bites” many African American males experience daily, however yesterday something surprising and very positive happened that will occupy my memory alongside the above mentioned negatives. Looking to get a bit of fresh air before the days close I went to Castle Island where there was a large crowd assembled and everywhere blue lanterns lit by flashlights. I found that I’d stumbled upon a large celebration of the 50th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther Kings “I Have A Dream” speech. The speakers emphasized, “Southie is changing” and indeed it would be hard to imagine such a gathering years ago when I was an artist circuit rider trying to help kids understand our commonalities rather than our differences. Then as the film ended folks picked up their lanterns to walk together around Pleasure Bay, I strolled down the hill in the crowd when a young white male touched my hand and said, “I’m sorry.” I thought he was apologizing for bumping into me but then he did it again. When I turned my face in his direction he said, “I’m sorry for what my people did to your people. I’m sorry!” I was so touched and shocked I couldn’t find words for an appropriate response. I mumbled something but I really needed to give him more in return for such a soul barring statement. I doubt that I’ll ever see this man again but I’ll put this out into the universe and hope the energy will bless him somehow. Young man, no need to be sorry. Go forth with that feeling in your heart and strive from this day forward, to make the world a better place. Your words last night healed a few of my scars from times gone past and the memory of your courageous statement will exist as a bright light penetrating the darkness of past inequities.”
Michael believes that engaging young people alongside adults to create and experience art is vital to the overall health of our community. “Medicine Wheel has provided me with the opportunity to witness peoples lives and respond with art. The stories are numerous and profound. In 1996, I invited my neighbors to help me reclaim No Man’s Land. To my surprise, 300 people showed up carrying a stone and a story of what connects them to South Boston. Those stones are a testimony to a community that has deep roots.”
The scoop on Michael:
- Grew up in North Quincy
- Moved to Southie in 1978
- Often spotted around the neighborhood walking dogs Dante and Penny
- Has been a self-declared artist since the age of 8
- He is a world-renowned painter
- He is the president of the South Boston Non Profits Association – a collation of not for profits that help to build a healthy community by offering services to all sectors of the South Boston community. “Our latest campaign is, “We Are South Boston, an invitation to all who to claim South Boston as home.” This past St. Patrick’s Day parade, this group marched with large rainbow banners reading “We are South Boston.” According to Michael, the banners were a symbol of inclusion. “What I realize more and more is that work happens from the inside out. All too often outsiders think they know what we (Southie) need and how we should think. The work of so many claim an authentic community voice in the “We are South Boston” campaign. The cultural action of taking those banners of our truths to the streets spoke volumes to help define the true South Boston.”
On Thursday, June 12th from 7pm to 10pm the Annual Turning the Wheel Fundraiser will take place at Grand Ten Distilling in South Boston. This event will help Medicine Wheel move forward on their goals to support their current and future programs and will be co-hosted by Mayor Marty Walsh and Senator Linda Dorcena Forry. Enjoy live music, handcrafted cocktails and mocktails, food, silent auction, raffles and a live auction hosted by celebrity auctioneer Tom Tinlin.
The work of Michael and Medicine Wheel is important to strengthening the fabric of our neighborhood and beyond. They are using art as a threshold for inclusion, helping employ young people in the creative sector and using art as a tool to build community. It’s making South Boston a better place.
To purchase a ticket you can visit: http://www.eventbrite.com/e/medicine-wheels-13th-annual-turning-the-wheel-party-tickets-11623308629?aff=efbevent:
As for what’s on the horizon for Medicine Wheel, Michael is excited about the newest art project called “Dance the Dream” where people will literally dance from South Boston to Roxbury. “This is part of a three year effort to build a cultural link between Roxbury and South Boston for the people that live along the route connecting Franklin Park in Roxbury to Moakely Park in Southie – breathing new life into the unfinished link of Olmstead’s Emeradl Necklace. Our hope its to use art as a way to break down barriers that disconnect us and a tool to explore our common human condition. Our motto at Medicine Wheel is moving beyond diversity to inclusion, building community from the inside out.”
To learn more about Michael Dowling and Medicine Wheel, you can visit: http://www.mwponline.org/
Photography by Joel Benjamin
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