TLS Members e-Newsletter

Members eNewsletter
At least four times a year, TLS members are rewarded at their inboxes with a copy of the Labyrinth Society e-newsletter. It serves as a means of direct communication with the membership and provides an historical record of the Society.

An Interview with TLS Gathering Liaison Chair, Stephen Shibley

Estacada Summer Music & Art Festival

Estacada, OR, Summer Music & Art Festival.
Photo: Stephen Shibley

Second in our “Meet Your TLS Board of Directors” series, and in conjunction with the second DVD segment, "Labyrinths In Public Places" that just went live on TLS’s YouTube channel, TLS PR Chair Christiana Brinton interviewed Oregon landscape artist, builder, and contractor Stephen Shibley. Through his company, Fertile Ground LLC, Stephen creates full-scale installations in both public and private settings and includes labyrinths as often as possible. Using his own acreage in Estacada, OR as a testing ground for his unique labyrinth designs, Stephen is able to share his passion for engaging people on a journey of exploration through the simple act of walking, dancing and playing on the labyrinth patterns he employs.


TLS Gathering Liaison Chair Stephen Shibley.
Photo courtesy Stephen Shibley

Christiana: Welcome, Stephen, to this second segment of our series.  We first met in 2009 when I joined the local Portland TLS Gathering team preparing for the fall Gathering in Troutdale, OR. You seemed very familiar with labyrinths and adept at the construction of them.  What is the background that led you to include labyrinths in your landscape work?

Stephen: Thank you Christiana. Ten years ago my Mom gave me Lauren Artress’ book, Walking A Sacred Path. I then read many more books and ended up creating many temporary sand labyrinths on the Oregon coast. During a difficult time in my life I decided that I would create a labyrinth in my back yard and walk it every day. As I went through this painful yet transformative journey, I realized that if the labyrinth was a helpful tool for me, then others might want to experience the same kind of transformative process as I had.

Forestlabyrinth, Stephen Shibley

Forest labyrinth.
Photo: Stephen Shibley

Christiana: At the time, were you doing landscape installations and design?

Stephen: Yes, I’d been doing this for over twenty years prior and then added labyrinths as an adjunct piece.

Christiana: Where and what was your first public labyrinth installation?

Stephen: A church in Estacada asked me to install a labyrinth within a meditative garden next to their buildings. Then, through contacts there, I got a call about designing and installing a labyrinth for Estacada’s Public Library in their outdoor plaza area. I have just completed a labyrinth in the plaza outside the Happy Valley City Hall with the tree used annually for official Christmas lighting ceremonies in the center. In the Portland area, the one at The Grotto is one of my commissions, and I installed a grass mowed paver design at a church near Mount Tabor.

Estacada, OR Public Library.
Photo: Stephen Shibley

Christiana: Tell me a bit about your design process. How do you establish the parameters and criteria for each installation?

Stephen: Most of the time the client has a good idea of what they want in the space they have. The language used for church installations is different from that used for ones in public places.  Rarely are the words "sacred" or "spiritual" used in discussions with city officials.  Mostly it is seen as a gathering space for diverse elements in the community to use and enjoy; a pleasing area for rest, relaxation, and community events such as dance and music concerts.

Christiana: What are some of the challenges to designing labyrinths in public places?

Stephen: I haven’t been asked to do a hospital or university labyrinth installation which, I assume, would involve more layers of bureaucracy than I’ve encountered so far. I think conceptualizing the needs of my clients; imagining sacred space within a secular context, while adhering to standard town, county, state and federal regulations, including ADA requirements, is a major priority. Most public and institutional settings require a hardscape that lends itself to wheelchair accessibility so the materials I use will be pavers, terrazzo, and concrete, rather than what I call a softscape design that might involve plants for lines and grass mowed, mulch or gravel paths.

Christiana: Has there ever been an instance where your client and you differed about the concept desired?

Stephen: No, not really. Most of the time, and especially for public installations, the client has already done the preliminary demographic studies before I’m hired. The main objective for most public spaces is inclusivity: how can their space get the most use, both in terms of calendar days and population diversity? For private installations, the leeway to play is much greater. One client of mine asked me to remove the old labyrinth design on her property and install a contemporary labyrinth design symbolizing the new direction her own path was taking, with grown children moving out and a new husband in the picture. So, I created a Unity Labyrinth for their wedding that has double paths to the center.

Christiana: How do you get the word out about your business and generate more work?

Stephen: I don’t do as much as I should! It’s hard to give my website the attention it needs and complete the projects I have on time, but I have gotten jobs from my website as well as by word of mouth. Networking is key and through local contacts and organizations such as Labyrinth Network Northwest (LNN) and The Labyrinth Society, I’ve grown the labyrinth part of my business. Also, successful projects always equal more work; people walk the labyrinths I’ve installed and are inspired to create something for their church, town, or private property.

Christiana: Let’s talk about playing with your own labyrinth designs; give me some examples of ones you’ve enjoyed building.

Mount Tabor OR. Stephen Shibley

Mount Tabor, OR.
Photo: Stephen Shibley

Stephen: Well I’ve created many temporary labyrinths over the years. Two years in a row I mowed a large Earth Mother labyrinth into the lawn at Marylhurst University (Marylhurst, OR) for World Labyrinth Day. Another one I always do is on the coast, where I go camping with my kids every summer, in the woods at Honeyman State Park in Florence, OR. And, for the last few years, at the Estacada Summer Music & Art Festival, I created a labyrinth in the parking lot next to the booths.  My passion is creating opportunities for people of all ages to walk and engage in a pattern that offers a journey of reflection and celebration.

Christiana: Have you ever collaborated with other labyrinth builders?

Stephen: No, not yet, but I’d very much like to. Lars Howlett and I almost made it work, but we just couldn’t coordinate our schedules with the time frame I had. That’s really the biggest obstacle to this; we’re all so busy.

Christiana: What advice can you give labyrinth lovers desiring a labyrinth in a public location in their area?

Stephen: Critical mass is the number one ingredient to a successful campaign. You must have community support that encompasses all aspects of the process: the design, installation, maintenance and continued use of the space. This includes making sure that the labyrinth is publicized in some way either with a plaque or a kiosk holding literature that people can read and/or take, such as the one I just installed in Happy Valley. Also, I encourage my clients to list their labyrinths on the Worldwide Labyrinth Locator when the project’s finished, as well as listing special labyrinth events on the events calendars of TLS and LNN. The more people who know about these labyrinths, the more use the space will receive, which is really the point. 

Christiana: So do you have any labyrinth projects coming up?

Stephen: Well, the answer to that is just around the turn on the labyrinth path that I can’t see yet!  I’ve been working with a student group at Marylhurst University on plans for a permanent labyrinth there and there is some discussion with Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI) as well, so we’ll see.  The one thing I love about public installations is that there’s no dogma attached. It’s just about exploration and sometimes magically coming upon a labyrinth design that is immediately engaging – you can’t help but be intrigued and are compelled to walk, run, or dance its pattern. This is a joyful act.

Christiana: Any plans for World Labyrinth Day?

Stephen: No, not really. There are so many nearby that I can take my pick, but I’m getting married this summer and, for our rehearsal dinner, my fiancée and I are planning a labyrinth walk and wedding blessing ceremony on one of the labyrinths on my property in Estacada.

Christiana: That sounds wonderful Stephen! Congratulations! In closing, would you like to say anything else?

Stephen: Just thank you for allowing me to share my passion with our readers. Labyrinths touch you in so many ways. I have this amazing labyrinth family that is a part of my journey now that I could never have imagined was there and available to me before.

Happy Valley OR City Hall

Happy Valley, OR City Hall.
Photo: Stephen Shibley