CANVAS LABYRINTH HISTORY

Although labyrinth expert Jeff Saward points out that there may have been a single fabric labyrinth made in England in the 1980's, it is still a legitimate statement that portable fabric labyrinths are an American phenomenon. So mobile are we as a culture that we want to take our labyrinths with us.

As far as we know, traveling with a portable labyrinth was initiated by the Rev. Dr. Lauren Artress, canon priest of Grace Episcopal Cathedral in San Francisco, around 1994. She had learned about the labyrinth from Jean Houston and saw its potential. You can read her story in the book, Walking a Sacred Path: Rediscovering the Labyrinth as a Spiritual Tool. Her experiences with the labyrinth led her to found Veriditas, the Worldwide Labyrinth Project (see www.veriditas.net) which originally was the sole source for canvas labyrinths.

Early the next year, Ruth Hanna read a news article about Lauren Artress and her labyrinth. Since it was the Chartres design, it caught her attention, as her husband, Robert Ferre, was director of One Heart Tours which frequently took people to Chartres, France. Making contact with Lauren Artress resulted in an almost mystical experience for Robert in which, over a period of several months, he had a strong inner direction to understand the design of the Chartres labyrinth. He finally arrived at the ability to draw the labyrinth using only a straightedge and a compass, according to the principles of sacred geometry.

In September of 1995, both Robert and Lauren attended the first ever labyrinth conference, in New Mexico. There, Lauren mentioned to Robert that she had two needs. One was to find someone to lead groups to France and Germany, and the second was to find someone who could make canvas labyrinths. Everywhere she went with her portable, people asked where they could get one. So difficult had it been to make the first one that the original maker didn't want to take on the prospect of making more.

Robert assured Lauren that he could help on both accounts. Already a tour director, the travel was no problem. Although currently employed in commercial real estate management, Robert had a background as an artist and craftsman. Since he now understood the pattern, he was certain he could reproduce it on canvas.

In October, the St. Louis Labyrinth Project came into being. The use of "Project" in the title suggests a relationship with Veriditas. A number of labyrinth projects were started around the country. In November, Robert gained access to the gymnasium of a local art school (once a Catholic grade school, hence the gym) and made his first canvas labyrinth. By today's standards it was pretty crude, but Lauren was pleased and asked if he could send more. In early 1996 Robert quit his other emplyment and became a full-time labyrinth maker, providing canvas labyrinths wholesale to Veriditas. (He continues to make their Chartres portable labyrinths, to this day.) While there were others in the United States actively making labyrinths, none of them did it full time as their only source of income. Nor did they make portable canvas labyrinths.

Renting the gym at Taproots School of the Arts, Robert engaged the help of Karen Weiss (now Karen Jones) to produce labyrinths (photo). It took a number of months to find the right people to do the sewing, to find the best source of materials, and most of all, to develop the techniques and tools for drawing. Robert and Karen only drew the pattern in pencil. The painting was done in San Francisco.

To meet the growing demand for labyrinths, Robert soon began to sell retail, to the general public, and expand the number of patterns and sizes available. He also wrote the first instruction manuals to be made available through his website. A number of subsequent labyrinth builders began by studying Robert's manuals. Karen soon went on to her career as a real estate agent, and now successfully operates a yoga studio. She was replaced by Judy Hopen. Finding Judy turned out to be the single most important contributing factor to the success of the St. Louis Labyrinth Project.

In 2002, Ruth had an inspiration to change the name of the business. Within a business context it was too long and rather confusing. The name was changed to Labyrinth Enterprises, currently Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC. Judy would go on to be production supervisor and eventually studio manager and vice president. When Robert retires in 2010, Judy is the obvious heir apparent for the canvas labyrinth business.

At the first annual gathering of the newly formed Labyrinth Society, in Denver in 1999, David Tolzmann (the Labyrinth Company) presented his credentials as a maker of canvas labyrinths. He caused a stir by criticising the quality of the painting of the Veriditas labyrinths, and by stating openly that his goal was to drive other canvas makers out of business. Through the years, it turns out that David has somewhat enjoyed being the untactful black sheep of the labyrinth world. He rented a commercial space in Baltimore, but discovered that it is hard to find reliable artists. He attempted to eliminate the aspects of producing labyrinths that required a skilled operator. Instead, he used stencils and other devices to reproduce the patterns. In 2004 he famously reported that it was his goal to eliminate the art from labyrinth making, which was to say, to revert to purely mechanical means, thus not depending on the human element. He bought a plotter that would print canvas in six-foot widths and began to produce printed labyrinths. Later, he switched to polycanvas, which has a smoother surface and thus prints better. The back-and-forth lines of the stylus or jets clearly give the end result a machine-produced appearance.

Whatever David Tolzmann may have lacked with regard to conviviality, he made up for in business acumen. He was the first to invest a substantial amount of money for his Internet presence, which has placed him at the top of all of the search engines. That alone has resulted in a volume of work that surpasses the sum total of all the other labyrinth makers combined. The exact numbers are a bit hard to know, as David is prone to exaggeration. He no longer attends the Labyrinth Society gatherings. In fact, his main emphasis is not canvas labyrinths but brick paver kits. His studies in both medieval history and engineering seem like a good fit for labyrinths. His canvas labyrinths will be described in more detail in the evaluation section of this website.

On the Labyrinth Company website, David says that he made his first labyrinth in 1995. The same is true for John Ridder of Indianapolis. It seems like 1995 was a watershed year for labyrinth makers. John began making labyrinths on the side (he was a financial advisor). He offered a product not available elsewhere: vinyl labyrinths. He made arrangements to work in his church basement. John's business has slowly expanded to include canvas labyrinths, permanent labyrinths, and also wooden finger labyrinths, which now occupy him full time. (His finger labyrinths have the best detail and finish quality of any on the market.) Although John and Robert are competitors for canvas labyrinth clients, they often work together on the installation of permanent on-site labyrinths for Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC. John and Robert have both attempted to make their websites a source of public information about labyrinths (www.paxworks.com and www.labyrinth-enterprises.com, respectively.)

Each year at the annual gathering of the Labyrinth Society, people bring beautiful one-of-a-kind portable labyrinths which they have made for themselves, painted with flowers and butterflies and fairies and every other kind of decoration. More example, fabric artist Meryl Ann Butler made a beautiful rose-covered pattern known as the Flowering of Love labyrinth (see www.labyrinth-enterprises.com/mab.html). New patterns have appeared, especially relating to double-path labyrinths. Regional builders make a small number of labyrinths within their areas, such as Lisa Moriarty (see www.pathsofpeace.com) and Lea Goode-Harris in Santa Rosa (www.srlabyrinthfoundation.com). Lisa designed a very interesting dual-path labyrinth for Crossroads Elementary School for conflict resolution and problem solving (photo). Regional makers are most likely to make unique one-of-a-kind labyrinths to meet a special need in their area. Lea Goode-Harris is known for having developed a very elegant contemporary design, called the Santa Rosa. Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC, was given a license to reproduce this pattern for canvas labyrinths (having made well over 100 of them, to date). They have also produced contemporary designs for others.

In 2005, Taproots School of the Arts closed and the building became unavailable. Subsequently, Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC, has occupied a beautiful studio space in an historic building, built in 1885 to work on the local horse-drawn streetcars. The space is huge, 8,000 square feet, with large windows and clerestory. It is an artist's dream. (See: www.labyrinth-enterprises.com/studio.html). This is the only such studio in the world, dedicated specifically to hand drawing and painting canvas labyrinths. Judy Hopen has personally drawn and painted more labyrinths than anyone in all of history. David Tolzmann has a large home with room for the computerized canvas-printing equipment. John still works in the basement of the church.

A search of the Internet finds a number of people in England, such as Helen Rafael Sands, who made their own canvas labyrinths and travel widely with them. So the US can't claim a complete monopoly. Now that the dollar is so low, US products are a better buy for foreign clients. It used to be expensive for Canadians to buy labyrinths in US dollars, as a $3,000 labyrinth could cost as much as $4,000. But now the Canadian and American currencies are on a par, making the cost of a labyrinth more attractive.

The demand for both hand-made and printed labyrinths seems to be holding steady through the years. Several years ago, David Tolzmann predicted a severe financial downturn which would reduce the demand for labyrinths, and from which, only the Labyrinth Company would survive. It could be argued that the downturn is now upon us. However, as society faces more and more stressful conditions, it could also be argued that labyrinths may become more in demand. Robert Ferre, John Ridder, and David Tolzmann have broadened their product base to include permanent labyrinths, finger labyrinths, and other products. Still, canvas labyrinths remain an important emphasis. The production of such labyrinths has remained centered in the United States, although portable labyrinths have been shipped to more than a dozen foreign countries. If the demand increases considerably, we might be faced with a Third World country producing canvas labyrinths and flooding the market with lower-priced inferior portables.

Labyrinth Enterprises, LLC, closed its studio in 2010 shortly before Judy Hopen was diagnosed with the stage IV breast cancer which took her life after a brave struggle. While RObert Ferre still makes a few onsite labyrinths, canvas labyrinth making has passed on to other makers such as those mentioned above, and Robert's former apprentice, Lars Howett (see www.discoverlabyrinths.com).