By Krista Schwimmer

On a small lot next to the Bethel Tabernacle Church, corner of San Juan Avenue and 6th Street, there is now an ancient symbol marked on the earth itself.  Found in a multitude of cultures as early as 4,000 years ago, this circular design invites you to pause, to look and to walk. With a symbolism that incorporates themes of life and death, inner revelations and communal gatherings, you could call it a thumbprint of the gods. Most people, however, call it a labyrinth.

Sometimes confused with a maze, a labyrinth is usually circular, with a unicursal path to the center. There is one way in and one way out, with no tricks or dead ends like a maze. In the 1990s, labyrinths became popular once more. Suddenly, people wanted to build them, walk them and talk about them. As a result, you can find them in churches, parks, hospitals and private homes either as permanent fixtures or portable art.

Who is behind the Oakwood labyrinth? The trail begins with Venice Public Art and its project called “The Venice Corner Ball Park Projects.”  The goal of this project, according to VPA’s website, is to transform underutilized or blighted street corners in Venice into unique landscaped parks with sculptural seating. Lead artist to the Corner Ball Park Projects is Robin Murez, a Venice artist whose studio is right on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.  The Oakwood Labyrinth Park is one of the parks in Venice that Robin is working on right now. It has the honor, however, of being the first completed one, with the Grand Opening day set for Saturday, May 1st, a day coinciding with International Labyrinth day.

Why a labyrinth there? Throughout time the labyrinth has meant different things to different people. In Scandinavian and Baltic cultures labyrinths were built next to the ocean. Wives would run them for their husbands at sea to bring them good fortune. The Hopi cultures associated them with new life and reincarnation. Christians placed them in churches such as Chartres, and saw them as part of pilgrimage. Many people today have embraced it as a symbol of the goddess. Seeing this association with the spiritual, Robin thought a labyrinth fit well next to the neighboring church.

Besides being spiritual, the park is also ecological in design. Five hundred cement cylinders, recycled from landfills, mark the circuits of the labyrinth. Newly-planted palm trees create a boundary between the church and a neighboring home. Community members are still donating drought-resistant plants to plant in the front of the church. Other modifications include an irrigation system, an overseeding of grass on the whole area, and the addition of thyme and chamomile in the labyrinth itself, creating a pleasing aroma for the walking pilgrim. Finally, a palos, a single concrete sphere encased in black and white marble, serves as both a unique marker for this location, as well as a place for a visitor to rest.

The overall beautification also included repainting the outside of the Bethel Tabernacle church. The building dates from 1927.  One member of this aging congregation recalls it was first a dance hall. It has been used as a church now for over 50 years. Fitting with the time period and the structure, the church has been painted in traditional, craftsmen style colors.

Past and present, labyrinths bring community together. So, how has Venice responded so far? Robin says that the project has met with tremendous support, both from Venice at large and the immediate community. The Reverend Harold Smith, Pastor for the neighboring Bethel Tabernacle Church, agrees. He says he is overwhelmed with enthusiasm already with the kind of attention and attraction that this has brought his church. There were a few congregation members who were uneasy about it at first, wondering if the labyrinth was a sort of cultural thing inviting idolatry. “What we don’t understand, we don’t always make room for,” the Pastor said. Once his people understood how the community wanted not only to put in the labyrinth, but help them with repairs the church has not been able to afford, the few uncertain members were also convinced of its benefit.

Some cultures believe it is possible to reconnect with those who have died by walking a labyrinth. Maybe that’s why Robin muses out loud about the Irving Tabor home right down the street. Once the home of Abbot Kinney himself, he bequeathed it to Irving Tabor, his art director, chauffeur and close friend. First located on 1 Grand Canal, (currently the Postal Annex), Tabor had to move the home to Oakwood because he was an African-American and was not welcomed in Abbot Kinney’s part of town.

Robin likes to think that Abbot himself would approve of not only the Oakwood Labyrinth Park, but the series of parks planned throughout the rest of Venice — like the in-grown maze, poetry corner, or sundial park – all still in the works. She sees them linked together, with people walking from place to place. Each park has its own palos. The Pastor sees the labyrinth as a chance for the community to rediscover a devout and enduring congregation. Whatever the future holds for the Oakwood labyrinth, there is little doubt that its creation and its birth already have brought the Venice community together.

C’mon out May 1, from 10 am to 5 pm, and join the community in celebrating the birth of the Oakwood Labyrinth Park.

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