Imagine using a sacred instrument like a labyrinth as a search tool instead of Google or Facebook to find yourself, connect with friends and family, and answer your questions.
That’s the crux of the photo exhibit currently on view at in Half Moon Bay, “Steps Along An Unfolding Path … A Journey Through Life and Labyrinths,” a collection of footpaths by former photographer Lars Howlett, who documented his work over the past five years building and walking meditative pathways for healing and self-reflection.
The exhibit runs through Jan. 30 with an opening reception today from 4 to 6p.m., featuring Howlett’s self-published book chronicling the labyrinths he's built (available for sale and signing) and a presentation of short films and slideshow.
“Labyrinths are a sacred tool for finding peace and balance in times of transition and change,” said Howlett, who invites people to find themselves and answers to their questions beyond Google or Facebook “through the earth’s oldest search tool, the labyrinth,” he said. “People of many faiths and traditions have walked labyrinths alone and in groups for thousands of years as a spiritual practice for meditation, to find answers and deeper meanings, and self-reflection.”
Viewing his work in the space at Enso inspires one to do just that. Thirty-five framed and canvas prints documenting thoughtfully laid out labyrinths using materials found on site — from bottles and stones to wood and sand — are on display alongside an indoor labyrinth altar built of bottle caps and an outdoor garden labyrinth that spirals around artichokes.
“Labyrinths create sacred spaces for traveling deep within,” said Howlett, who describes his work in the exhibit as “meditative, peaceful and adventurous.”
“Unlike a maze, there are no dead ends," he adds. "The only decision is whether to begin."
Still, what happens when you reach the center of the labryrinth?
"Being open to your experience and trusting the path leads to finding yourself at the center," he said. "Walked as a daily prayer or meditation, the labyrinth quiets the mind and rouses the spirit. It’s a metaphorical journey that can restore faith and courage in continuing to take the necessary steps through unexpected turns and moments of self-doubt.”
As a labyrinth builder, walker and facilitator, Howlett trained with Lauren Artress (leader of the Labyrinth Movement and founder of Veriditas) at Grace Cathedral in San Francisco and Chartres, France.
“I walked the 900-year-old medieval labyrinth by candlelight and helped to build a new outdoor labyrinth with master builder and expert historian Jeff Saward,” said Howlett.
“Steps Along An Unfolding Path … A Journey Through Life and Labyrinths” is Howlett’s first exhibition of his work with labyrinths.
He’s shown his photographs in galleries, museums and outdoor installations since 1998 in places where he's lived and visited, from Washington D.C., Maine, the Bay Area, Hawaii, and Chile to along the wall on the border of the U.S. and Mexico.
“More recently, I create installations that allow the viewer to directly engage the artwork, whether the theme is immigration, music, travel or meditation,” he said.
As a documentary photographer, his photographs usually tell the story of someone else. This is the first series he’s created of literal and metaphorical self-portraits.
“It’s the story of my recent explorations with an ancient sacred symbol that has helped me find balance, cultivate peace, and re-examine my identity,” he said. “But it’s really not about me, per se. It’s about self-realization and the opportunities for personal reflection through photography and walking labyrinths.”
Howlett was inspired to start building and documenting labyrinths when first moving to Half Moon Bay in 2008 with a broken heart, settling into a new home, beginning two new jobs, and finding himself alone for the first time in California.
“It was a time of intense transformation, perhaps with more life changes in one moment since my birth,” he said.
Lost in thought, he placed a video camera on a tripod and walked in front of the lens, drawing improvised circles in the sand at sunset.
“Watching the video helped me to see deeper into myself,” he said. “I began creating labyrinths, documenting their building and walking through photography, which allowed for greater self-reflection and healing in studying and sharing my experience.”
His work with labyrinths also brought him back to his roots, the birthplace of his great grandmother where he assembled a stone labyrinth in the forest at the home of his Swedish cousins.
“There are more surviving historic labyrinths in Sweden than any other country, so it was powerful to create a new pathway on the land where my ancestors once lived and worked,” he said.
Two photographs enlarged to nearly three by four feet in size documenting these labyrinths he built while traveling last summer in Sweden are on display in the exhibit, “the largest images I have ever created,” Howlett said.
In addition to the exhibit and book, Howlett is also holding a spiritual workshop, Life’s Winding Road: Mindful Steps in the New Year, on Jan. 21 from 1 to 5 p.m. at Enso.
“This workshop will invite participants on a metaphorical journey to better understand their identity and re-awaken to the present moment,” said Howlett.
In the workshop, participants will discuss the benefits and challenges of creating and maintaining sacred space through ritual.
“Focusing our intention, attitude and awareness, we’ll cultivate mindfulness as a practice of awakening to the present moment,” said Howlett. “Through a guided labyrinth walk, we’ll take conscious steps that will further personal growth and transformation in the New Year.”
This is Howlett’s second workshop as a Veriditas trained labyrinth facilitator. Earlier this month, he led a design and building workshop that explored the history, designs, and methods for creating outdoor labyrinths.
“The artichoke labyrinth we built through improvisation as a group is now open to visitors in the garden at Enso. I have guided high school students on group walks and was an invited speaker at the Annual Gathering of the Labyrinth Society in Taos, New Mexico, last fall,” he said.
On his travels to Europe last summer, Howlett walked ancient labyrinths some 2,500 years old. Over the years, he’s created his own local meditative spaces from the top of Bernal Heights to the beaches in Half Moon Bay as well as at Mavericks in Pillar Point, among other sites in the San Francisco Bay Area and beyond.
Also as a photography teacher for seven years, “I enjoy the experience of shared learning and discovery,” he said.
Through exhibiting and holding workshops like Life’s Winding Road: Mindful Steps in the New Year Howlett is interested to hear the experience of others in viewing the photographs and walking labyrinths.
“The New Year presents a wonderful opportunity for reflection and setting new intentions,” he said. “I’m excited to share my experience with this sacred pattern and pass along its gift to others who are drawn to the path.”
IF YOU GO
Exhibit: “Steps Along An Unfolding Path … A Journey Through Life and Labyrinths” runs through Jan. 30 at Enso Gallery, 131 Kelly Ave., Half Moon Bay. Opening reception with book signing, slide show and short films is today from 4 to 6p.m.
Workshop: “Life’s Winding Road: Mindful Steps in the New Year,” is on Jan. 21 from 1 to 5p.m. at Ensos Gallery, 131 Kelly Ave., Half Moon Bay. $20-$40 sliding scale. To reserve a space in the workshop, send a check to Lars Howlett, P.O. Box 1163, El Granada, CA 94018 and/or e-mail me@FindLars.com (for transactions via Paypal).