Arts center opens annual AIDS project

“Artists were dying everywhere. People said: ‘Because we are losing so many people, we need a day without art,'” Wendy Baring-Gould, spokeswoman for the Boston Center for the Arts, said of the idea that prompted 600 U.S. museums, galleries and art institutions to close their doors for a day of recognition of the AIDS epidemic in 1989.

Seventeen years later, Boston continues to host one of the only remaining artistic traditions to grow out of that movement.

Medicine Wheel, developed by artist Michel Dowling in 1992, is an annual community art project that invites visitors to leave offerings — personal items, photos and letters — on one of 36 altars arranged in a circle under the cavernous 60-foot dome of the cyclorama at the Boston Center for the Arts on Tremont Street in South Boston. The 2006 exhibit, which opened Monday, will culminate with a 24-hour vigil tomorrow, beginning with a midnight procession and ending with dance, song, rituals and prayers.

“We have all been touched,” reads a neat chalk greeting outside the gallery. “Leave your mark on the wall. Hatch marks where the walls are blank, and with blacked handprints where marks exist.” From there, chalkboards stretch as far as the eye can see, each filled with hundreds of thousands of haphazard hatch marks.

“Two years ago, we started making marks on the chalk board,” said Dowling, a South Boston artist. “Some people were counting, some people were meditating. There was an urgency. In the middle of the night, it became a chant because the scratching sound of chalk was all you could hear, with maybe a hundred people making chalk marks.”

Dowling said he invites visitors to “add a layer” of black handprints over the thousands of white hatches, encouraging them to don latex gloves and dip their hands in soot. The ritual of the latex gloves, Dowling said, symbolizes sterility and human contact, as well as safer sex practices.

The ritual also represents the uncertainty associated with the AIDS epidemic, he noted.

“What happens is, people still get marked by soot,” he said. “No matter how careful you are over here, the soot is still going to get on you.”

The format of Medicine Wheel has changed little since 1992, but the evolving reality of AIDS has altered the meaning of the annual art installment.

“For middle class people, AIDS has practically disappeared,” said light projection artist John Powell. “It’s important for people to see that for a vast segment of the population, it is still a very frightening thing.”

According to Dowling, AIDS remains the number one cause of death for black women in the United States. Thirty-three percent of black men between 25 and 40 are HIV-infected. Sixty-seven percent of all new infections among teenagers are black teenage girls.

Medicine Wheel now reflects the burden American youth carry in the AIDS epidemic. The first thing visitors see upon entering the building are the words of young people, projected in big sloppy script against a black wall in the lobby:

“Heroine — is there an end to it”

“Don’t share needles”

“Venom running through your veins”

An “I don’t know” blinks brightly in the center of the wall.

Powell, the light artist, took the phrases from booklets made by students enrolled in one of several youth programs Medicine Wheel has operated since 1996. That year, Dowling began working with the South Boston community and area youth to reclaim an overgrown “no man’s land” behind South Boston High School. Today, teens are paid to build and maintain the park and also receive instruction in poetry and dance.

Eighteen-year-old Ryan Evans said he thought he was signing up for a gardening job when he joined Medicine Wheel five years ago. The South Boston resident now works with Dowling and has a growing interest in poetry and dance.

“If I had never met Mike, if I never met up with Medicine Wheel, I probably wouldn’t be here today,” Evans said.

“These are not kids that have a background in art or even really an interest,” said Ingrid Schatz, a dancer who works part time for Medicine Wheel. “We don’t teach them technique per se. We try to help them become artists.”

Students from the Medicine Wheel and other student groups will meet at a youth forum Thursday to compose an “epic poem” based on the experiences and observations of a generation raised in the AIDS epidemic. The poem will be projected onto the exterior of the BCA building during tomorrow’s vigil.

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