A Tribute to Joseph Wheelwright by Donna Dodson

When the student is ready, the teacher will appear.

For years I had a distant inkling to whittle wood like the Beverly Hillbillies. This urge came from a void that had appeared in my life when my best friend joined a convent and abandoned the future I had imagined for the two of us. The urge to fill the void was channeled into something tangible due to my recent epiphany. The first step to quitting smoking was a spiritual awakening for me. Even though several cessation attempts had failed, I started to feel guilty for littering fiberglass cigarette butts. My second epiphany was that I needed to find something to do with my hands if I was going to stop smoking and stay stopped.

My first forays into art making came from my self-proscribed atonement to Mother Earth. I would pick up trash from my local park to pay for the sins of having littered for the previous couple of years that I was a smoker. Then it was just like Close Encounters of the Third Kind. The pile of things I found in the park that I took home with me took on the shape of a giant face in my living room floor. Then two more appeared: one made from recyclable materials and one made from found objects. As it turned out the face that was made from ephemeral materials was only a temporary installation. Same for the recyclable one. However, with rudimentary carpentry skills, the found objects made their way into sculptures. These found object sculptures were charming but also very fragile and it felt like I was forever fixing them- reapplying the epoxy, or repairing other parts that would fall off. I came to the realization that I would need to learn how to weld in order to take this body of work further. I called it my found object assemblage series. But I could not figure out how to depict myself autobiographically in this medium.


Fast forward to one day, while we were visiting an art museum exhibition, my mother made a very poignant comment, “Did you notice on all of the artists’ resumes, that they each studied with someone?” Shortly after that, I met Joseph Wheelwright at his studio during South End Open Studios. We connected over the fact that he taught art at my alma mater, and we had friends in common. He invited me to join his Boston master class at his studio on Wareham St. To supplement my knowledge of wood, I worked as a cabinetmaker for Dixon Brothers Woodworking, an architectural millwork shop in the South End.

With Joe, I took the beginner’s track- carving first a spoon then a bowl and then a few masks. The next thing I carved was the head of Ganesh followed by “Pegasis,” a feminist spin on the Greek myth. My goddess figure had a horse head attached to a woman’s body with wings, no arms, two hooves and a tail. For me it represented something powerful, something personal and a new direction in my work. Joe’s teaching opened up a mature body of work for me that I am still developing more than twenty years later. 

Our relationship changed over the past 20 years from teacher/student to colleague and friend. At his urging, I applied to the Boston Sculptors Gallery in 2008 and have been a member ever since. Upon learning about the recent news of his illness, I went to visit him for the very last time.

RIP Joseph Wheelwright. I first saw your ice sculptures during First Night on Government Center when I was in High School in 1985. Then I remember seeing you at Wellesley College when you were a visiting artist in 1990. I ran into you again in 1995 ... and you changed the course of my life by teaching me how to carve wood. For that I will be forever grateful. 

Your forever fan, Donna Dodson