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Learning Labyrinth Provides Opportunity to Rethink Education and Conferences

Freelance photographer and labyrinth builder Lars Howlett creates a path for conference attendees in Half Moon Bay to walk and listen to their own inner wisdom.

Posted by Christa Bigue (Editor) , December 09, 2013 at 07:26 AM

He's a freelance photographer and labyrinth maker. He's Lars Howlett, a former Half Moon Bay resident who was also a staff photographer for the Half Moon Bay Review not too long ago.
Howlett was recently in town participating in the Big Ideas Fest conference as both photographer and labyrinth builder.

The Big Ideas Fest, hosted by the Institute for the Study of Knowledge Management in Education (ISKME), a non-profit education institute that pioneers open access learning technologies based in Half Moon Bay, is a three-day conference of the nation's most creative makers and doers in education.

Howlett says he used to live down the street from the offices of ISKME in Princeton and got to know the organization during a community art walk in the area. 

Lisa Petrides, the founder and president of ISKME, asked Howlett about photographing their annual education conference. 

"I mentioned the possibility of doing both photos and a labyrinth, which resonated with her," said Howlett. "Each year there is a collaborative art project, so we got together to brainstorm about the intention, materials and design of a labyrinth."

The end result was a labyrinth made for the conference attendees of objects that represented learning. Those objects of learning were 2,000 used textbooks brought into the Ritz-Carlton Half Moon Bay where the conference was being held last week.

"We got excited about the possibility of old encyclopedias," said Howlett. "We couldn't find enough of those, but asked for 2,000 used textbooks instead from the Internet Archive, who provided them as a donation."

For the opening exercise, ISKME education program manager Megan Simmons led the conference participants in a re-branding exercise folding book covers, providing new titles and images for re-thinking education. 

"Classical labyrinths also look like a cross section of the brain, so together I thought the books could represent our collective wisdom," said Howlett.

The Big Ideas Fest was Howlett's second time building a labyrinth for a conference. 

Last year, he created a temporary labyrinth with chalk outside of the Wisdom 2.0 Conference in San Francisco, "so I was excited to build off that temporary path with a fully developed installation," he said. "Since people mostly sit at conferences and listen to others knowledge, I thought it would be a good compliment to provide space for walking and hearing their own inner wisdom. I'd much prefer giving people the opportunity to experience a labyrinth for themselves rather than getting up on stage and trying to explain it to them."

It took Howlett about two hours to measure and tape the pattern onto the floor of the Ritz Carlton before the conference began. That evening about 10 volunteer organizers and attendees helped stack the books along the pattern adding some of their own ideas to the construction process.

"Instead of textbooks we ended up with about 2,000 novels that had been withdrawn from the Boston Public Library. The Internet Archive had acquired them for a book scanning project and delivered them to the hotel for us to use. The Ritz Carlton staff received the books and helped transport them to the space, being very accommodating about this unusual installation art," said Howlett.

Close to 100 people walked the path during the conference estimates Howlett.

"It's my hope that people found the labyrinth to be a place for reflection, calm, and being with their thoughts. More and more schools are providing labyrinths for their students to promote focus, mindfulness, and creativity," said Howlett, who taught photography at Sacred Heart Preparatory in Atherton 10 years ago and used to lead his students on a labyrinth walk on the first and last day of the semester to set intentions and reflect on learning. 

"I hope other teachers at the conference will carry the seed of the labyrinth back with them to schools across the country and world as a tool for education," he said.

Howlett has also worked with teachers and schools on building labyrinths at Denison University in Ohio and Sofia University in Palo Alto. In January he plans to be the visiting artist at a high school in Hawaii for two weeks teaching about labyrinths and helping the students to create a canvas labyrinth of their own. 

"I also look forward to creating more labyrinths for other conferences out of other unusual materials," he said. "Imagine one made out of CDs, beer bottles, or toothbrushes!"

For those who are interested in learning more about Lars Howlett's labyrinths, visit or and Twitter @LarsHowlett.
Publication Date: 
December 09, 2013