Medicine Wheel’s signature event is “A Day Without Art,” the cultural community’s annual response to the AIDS crisis. Launched in 1992 in reaction to the devastating AIDS pandemic, this 24-hour vigil is now Greater Boston’s premier gathering to reflect, remember, and celebrate. “A Day Without Art ” has established itself as Boston’s largest annual observation of World AIDS Day.
World AIDS Day has taken place each Dec. 1 since 1988 as an international day dedicated to raising awareness of the AIDS pandemic caused by the spread of HIV infection and mourning those who have died of the disease. The acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) is a life-threatening condition caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The HIV virus attacks the immune system of the patient and reduces its resistance to other diseases. Government and health officials, non-governmental organizations, and individuals around the world observe the day, often with education on AIDS prevention and control.
In 1987 a small group gathered in a San Francisco storefront to document the lives they feared history would forget. This action served as the beginning of the Names Project, also known as the AIDS Memorial Quilt. Day Without Art began on December 1, 1989 as the national day of action and mourning in response to the AIDS crisis, which had rapidly hurt the artistic community. Jane Alexander, then Chairman of the National Endowment of the Arts in 1993, describes the day as a “powerful symbol of the devastating effect of AIDS on the arts community. This day reinforces the vitality and power art brings to our daily lives by showing how the absence of art leaves a void of spirit.” The day coincides with World AIDS Day, which began the year before in 1988. To make the public aware that AIDS can touch everyone, and inspire positive action, some 800 U.S. art and AIDS groups participated in the first Day Without Art, shutting down museums, sending staff to volunteer at AIDS services, or sponsoring special exhibitions of work about AIDS. In Boston artists alongside students and children created thousands of 12” x 4” paper prayers in response to a call by Yezerski Gallery. In those early years artists and activists were asked the unimaginable question: Where would we be without art?
Michael Dowling created the Medicine Wheel installation and A Day Without Art vigil as epic, communal works of art as one response to that question. Produced annually since 1992 at the Cyclorama in conjunction with World AIDS Day, A Day Without Art has brought people from every walk of life and every social class together to commemorate the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, or any loss, in their own communities and worldwide. The primary visual component is the wheel itself: thirty-six pedestals and portable shrines arranged in a circle. The Medicine Wheel and the vigil has become an enduring testimony to HIV/AIDS in our lives and one of Greater Boston’s signature art experiences. Over the years as many as 1000 visual artists and 250 performing artists have participated.
The Days Without Art vigil invites the community as participants and co-creators. All are welcome to enter the space and respond to it creatively. We also invite participants to leave personal mementos such as jewelry, letters, poems, photos and other items. Objects left are placed within the pedestals at the conclusion of the vigil, joining those left in previous years.
Starting in 2011, the organization extended the event through February to create “Days Without Art,” in partnership with a range of Black artists, health care organizations, and advocates, to mark National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day. Medicine Wheel also supports and promotes contemporary, Boston-area artists in its Spoke Gallery, hosts adult painting classes, and organizes an annual artist retreat.
In 2020, SPOKE extended the event through Feb. 7′s National Black HIV/AIDS Awareness Day to use art to raise consciousness of deep, persistent racial and health inequities. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic last year’s event was streamed virtually via YouTube and Facebook Live, still accessible here: Days Without Art Livestream 2020.