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April O’Neil: Learning about Labyrinths

April 28, 2012

As promised, here’s a recap of my first article I wrote for the Annex Gleaner. I had the pleasure to interview Himy Syed, founder of the Toronto City of Labyrinths Project. This initiative is to create enough labyrinths in the city so that every Torontoian is within walking distance of one. Syed also ran for mayor in 2010, the former Executive Director of Canadian Muslim Civil Liberties Association, is the Founding Editor of Torontopedia.ca, a city wiki emphasizing neighbourhoods AND a remarkble labyrinth maker.

One of Himy Syed's early labryinths, in Christie Pits Park, Toronto

I had the pleasure of interview Mr. Syed as he prepares for the Toronto City of Labyrinths Walk, part of the city-wide Jane’s Walks Festival happening May 5th and 6th this year. Jane’s Walk, an urban neighbourhood walking tour honouring the life and achievements of Jane Jacobs, an author and urban advocate. Jacobs believed in civic engagement and imagining cities that are pedestrian-focused. The walk began in Toronto six years ago and has spread to Ottawa, Victoria, Montreal and internationally to cities like  Sao Paulo Brazil, London England, Jeruselum Israel and even Wuhan China. There are a confirmed 170 walks in Toronto alone, and one of the most anticipated walking tours is the Toronto City of Labyrinths Walk.

“I stopped counting after 60,” Syed confessed as he described the attendance of last year’s walking tour. There’s certainly an interest in labyrinths and I myself am exceptionally curious. But I thought labyrinths and mazes were the same? Himy Syed gave me to low down:

  • Labyrinths have one entrance and a centre, one path to follow making it impossible to get lost
  • Mazes may have many entrances, dead-ends and no centre.
  • Labyrinths are meditative: the focus is to walk the path
  • Mazes are ‘amazing’ and designed to trick and ‘frustrate’: the focus is to escape.

“Mazes are like traffic and labyrinths are like walking.”

There are also many different types of labyrinths that Syed explains in his walking tour. Naturally there will be segmented time to walk an actual labyrinth located at the centre of Christie Pits Park.

“There’s no wrong way to walk a labyrinth. Kids never walk labyrinths, they always run.” Syed explains that the journey through the labyrinth is what’s important. In Montreal, my first labyrinth experience, I was with a friend and he told me to bring a problem in with me and as I walk the path, I meditate on the problem. Once I reach the centre, I’m to concentrate again on the problem, meditate or pray. Then I walk the same way I came out. By the end, I will gain clarity. Syed tells me that’s one way to walk a labyrinths. “I’ve seen sometimes see people walk on the line itself.” It’s very fascinating learning about labyrinths, as Syed digs deeper into the three Rs:

  • Releasing: letting go of daily distractions and choosing to walk the labyrinth
  • Receiving: taking in the sensations, thoughts and subtleties of the journey
  • Returning: calmly returning to the beginning with new insight

The spiritual nature of labyrinths, of Himy Syed’s labyrinths specificially, are also linked with space. Many of his labyrinths are in close proximity with water. The first labyrinth Syed showed me, is located right in front of Christie station.

Courtesy of Toronto City of Labyrinths Project

Some may remember that there once was s water fountain on the city island on Christie and Bloor. When the fountain didn’t work and after countless demands to the city to fix it, Syed decided to create a labyrinth around the defunked tap, to draw attention to it. Today the fountain has been removed altogether but the labyrinth still remains, three paint jobs later. Another labyrinth designed by Syed incorporates the circular shape of the wadding pool at Christie Pits. If there are natural cracks in the ground, pot holes and the like, Syed highlights these elements into the design instead of going over them.

Labyrinths have been created for centuries, and Himy Syed draws me one of the oldest designs right in my notebook:

It starts with a cross shape and then, by drawing from one corner to the next, you great pathways. To make it a bit more complicated, you can add divets in the corners of the cross-shape. Syed tells me that ancient labyrinths were made of sand, stones and drawn with sticks. This is very reminescent of his latest installation, a beach labyrinth on Woodbine Beach, a piece in honour of the Irish population designed in the shape of a cloverleaf.

I am most impressed by how Syed’s creations all have a purpose. Not a labyrinth but a large street map of the TTC subway stations can be found outside of Bickford Centre, an ESL continuing education school. In 2009, there was a gun scare that some say the media dramatized and created a stimatization of new comers and violence. In light of the event, Syed painted a giant subway map on the street, that is geographically to scale but more importantly, it is multilingual.

“I wanted to let [people] know that they are welcome.” And the population near the school, a mix of Korean, Chinese and Ethiopian students are reflected in his work. Syed also explained that he has created all white “ghost” labyrinths in specific areas of the city effected by violence. “It’s my way of healing the city”.

Himy Syed will be running six Jane’s Walk tours this year, including the Toronto City of Labyrinths tour which is scheduled for May 5th at 6pm starting at Christie Station. Be prepared to walk a labyrinth! **NOTE TIME CHANGE, the walk is now 6pm NOT 5pm***

For more photos of Himy Syed’s work, check out on flickr here! Keep your eyes people Toronto, there are labyrinths in the least expected places.

Over and out!

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