Location at busy downtown corner belies soulful solitude of the mini-park at Lithia Way and Second Street
By Peter Finkle for Ashland News
What is a labyrinth? Ancient. Mysterious. Stimulating. Soothing. Playful. Sacred.
It is a winding path, like life.
Where is a labyrinth? There are thousands all over the world! At churches, hospitals and schools; in meadows, forests and beaches; at parks and public spaces. Here in Ashland, you’ll find a beautiful labyrinth at the mini-park next to Trinity Episcopal Church at Second Street and Lithia Way.
Last week Tuesday, Sept. 19, labyrinth builder Lars Howlett completed the restoration of the Trinity Episcopal Church labyrinth installed by Robert Ferre in 2004. Howlett estimates he is one of only eight full-time labyrinth designers and builders in the country, so we were fortunate to receive his expertise in our town.
My first question to Howlett was: “Is there something important you want to say?”
He replied: “The biggest thing about this project is that it’s a restoration of a labyrinth that my mentor created. Robert Ferre is the master labyrinth builder I trained with as an apprentice from 2012 to 2015. He retired, and now I’m kind of ‘carrying the tape machine’ (i.e., ‘carrying the torch’) into the future. To help ensure his work continues and to be here where he was 19 years ago is very meaningful.”
The Ashland labyrinth is an 11-circuit medieval Chartres labyrinth, based on the famous one inside Chartres Cathedral in France, which was built more than 800 years ago. Labyrinths at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and many others around the world are also based on the Chartres pattern.
Since he has seen so many of them, I asked: “What is special about this labyrinth?” His short answer was: “What’s unique about this Chartres labyrinth is that it’s in this beautiful setting — and it’s a place for people from all walks of life.”
Howlett traveled to Ashland from Maryland, to where he recently moved from his 20-year home in the Bay Area, to work on the labyrinth
Restoring the labyrinth was a four-step process. The first was to clean and prepare the surface with two pressure washings. When Howlett arrived, he began applying masking tape — with help from church volunteers — on both sides of every line and “lunation” (the semi-circular outer notches of the pattern). Another layer of blue masking tape strengthened the lines for the next step.
For the third step, Howlett used a crushed granite called GraniTite mixed with a liquid acrylic polymer in the form of a thick paste. No color is added, so this material won’t fade over time like paint does. He was then helped by 12 people working in shifts to apply this crushed granite over the fading painted lines of the 2004 design.
The GraniTite was troweled on by hand, as close to 1/8-inch thick as they could make it. After removing the two types of masking tape, Howlett and a helper detailed the crushed granite lines with grout knives and pumice stones to smooth them out. Hand-taped and hand-troweled, the labyrinth renovation is literally “handmade” — with small imperfections and lots of loving care. The final step in the week-long process was application of a protective sealant over the entire labyrinth design.
Howlett, who has designed hundreds of labyrinths in the past decade, described a variety of aspects that impressed him about this labyrinth. He was especially impressed with the beautiful garden setting.
As he put it: “Here there has been a lot of intention to create a container for the labyrinth. It’s especially important here because it is a busy intersection. The location is a benefit, because it’s highly visible: more people are going to find this labyrinth, they’re going to ‘happen’ upon it. It’s accessible: people can walk here from their homes or their work.”
He described the entire setting as “well balanced,” pointing out the low plants and ginkgo trees, the corner arbor, the columbarium and the fountain.
Two other aspects impressed Howlett when he walked the labyrinth. He liked how it is oriented to the fountain, which serves as a focal point when one reaches the center. When he stood in the center, he was happily surprised to find that each one of the petals of the central rosette design is oriented to one of the six ginkgo trees. He told me with a smile, “When you stand in each rosette, you face a tree. I had never thought about orienting the rosette to the landscape, so I think that’s really cool that the trees reflect the center.”
The final words of this story go to the church, which has offered this “gift to the community” for the past 20 years — and into the future. In its brochure “Trinity Garden: Labyrinth & Sacred Ground,” it says of the labyrinth and garden:
“A gift to the community from Trinity Episcopal Church, the garden is a place for prayer, meditation, introspection and relaxation. The sacred space includes a columbarium and sacred ground for the remains of parishioners, and a 42-foot Chartres labyrinth for all to use. Enjoy!”
Peter Finkle gives Ashland history and art walking tours. See WalkAshland.com for walking tour information, or to request a private tour for your group or family.