Traveling through Venice’s Oakwood neighborhood at Sixth and San Juan avenues, passersby may now notice a maze-like design on what was formerly a vacant church lot.
As they approach the circular in-ground pattern, they will find that it is not that of a maze but rather a labyrinth, said to be a non-denominational spiritual path.
The creation of this symbolic path is the first completed in a series of planned park projects initiated by Venice sculptor Robin Murez to transform underutilized or blighted street corners throughout Venice into neighborhood green spaces fit with landscaping and sculptural seating. A centerpiece of the projects, which she calls the Corner Ball Park Project, is a concrete sculptural sphere with a mosaic image created by Murez that is meant to symbolize a certain area of the community.
The green spaces, formed with the help of neighbors, community groups and other volunteers, are intended to beautify blighted Venice areas while celebrating the community’s diversity and encouraging residents to interact, she explains.
“This project is not just to make the neighborhood safer and more beautiful but also more interesting,” said Murez, a former attorney who has an open-air art studio on Abbot Kinney Boulevard.
Having identified a space on the lot of the Bethel Tabernacle church in Oakwood for the first dedicated ball park project, Murez said she wanted to create something that would offer a connection to the church. She said she chose the symbol of a labyrinth, which can be found in churches and parks around the world, due in part to its spiritual connotation, noting that they have historically been used for meditative purposes.
The spiritual symbol of the labyrinth, defined by some cultures as a path toward enlightenment, is a fitting design for the concept of enhancing blighted areas, the artist said. The corner lot where the labyrinth sits is in a neighborhood that has had a history of criminal activity, but the area has undergone a transformation in recent years, something Murez hopes the labyrinth can provide for the vacant church lot.
“It’s a location that sure could benefit from some spiritual healing,” Murez said of the park site. “I think the (park space) enhances our quality of living; it makes you feel happy and serene and no longer worried.”
Murez said Bethel Tabernacle has embraced the project and dozens of neighbors have offered to lend a hand over the last month, helping to dig the trenches and place individual concrete cores that form the circular pattern of the labyrinth. Local businesses have also stepped in to donate palm trees for the park landscape and install an irrigation system. Murez has created one of her concrete sphere sculptures with a labyrinth mosaic that will be placed in the background.
As part of the beautification effort, volunteers helped to repaint the church, a former dance hall built in 1926 that stands across from the one-time home of Venice founder Abbot Kinney.
The new green space with an in-ground labyrinth will open to the public in conjunction with the Venice Garden & Home Tour, which goes through the Oakwood neighborhood Saturday, May 1st. Murez noted that coincidentally, that day is also observed as World Labyrinth Day. The project volunteers plan to celebrate the event with live music, dance, labyrinth events and food from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. at Sixth and San Juan avenues.
Oakwood resident Sirpa Baylis said she suggested to Murez that the empty lot would be a good spot for one of her ball parks, noting that it’s one of the few open spaces in the area that’s not fenced in. Baylis said she has seen how the neighborhood has experienced changes over the years and she is supportive of the art project as another improvement.
“A labyrinth is nice because people can walk around it and meditate,” said Baylis, who worked with others on the project.
“(The project) shows that the neighbors care and everyone wants the neighborhood to be safer. It’s nice when you can do something for your community.”
Another project volunteer, Anna Metcalf, said she had wondered why the vacant land was not more regularly used before but she is pleased that the new feature has been dedicated for the community.
“It’s nice to see that (the lot) is being cared for and actually being maintained. I’m happy that it’s going to be used for something everybody can enjoy.”
Metcalf pointed to the distinction between a maze and a labyrinth, noting that a maze offers choices of path and direction, while a labyrinth has only a single path toward the center.
Michael Krival of the local chapter of Architecture for Humanity said the organization was intrigued at the opportunity to offer volunteer assistance for the project and he is impressed with how the design turned out.
“When Robin described the project it just sounded perfect. We immediately wanted to do it because it’s exactly the type of thing Architecture for Humanity is interested in,” he said.
The Bethel Tabernacle church was appreciative of the park volunteers’ work to repaint the church and install irrigation as part of the overall project, Pastor Harold Smith said.
As Murez opens her first corner ball park and makes plans for other spaces around the community, she says that neighbors will be able to work together to represent their areas and in doing so, they can get to know each other better.
“It’s all about building community and building a space that encourages more community ties to be made,” she said.