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Art aims to help lawmakers find their way

An artist sets up temporary labyrinths on the East Lawn of Capitol Hill, saying they may help lawmakers in Washington sort out their troubles.

According to legend, kings in ancient Scotland strolled the passageways of labyrinths when they needed to meditate or ponder difficult decisions. Within labyrinths, it was thought, lay the route to wisdom, peace and knowledge.

Centuries later, a Virginia artist has brought that tradition to the nation's capital with a two-week display of temporary labyrinths on the East Lawn of Capitol Hill.

"The labyrinth is a container for change," said Sandra Wasko-Flood, 57, an artist from Alexandria, Va., who spearheaded the two-week project, "Labyrinths for Peace: 2000."

She said labyrinths, which are often circular and whose paths lead to a common center, have long been prized in ancient cultures as sites for meditation and healing.

"You go in there with a particular problem or concern, and you come out with a resolution," she said. "The labyrinth balances the conflicts between the head and the heart, so the right decisions get made. It's walking meditation."

The project opened March 13 and will run concurrently with a labyrinth photography exhibit in the rotunda of the Cannon House Office Building.

Lawmakers have until today to take advantage of these "focusing and meditation tools," said Wasko-Flood, who said she sets up the labyrinths with volunteers each morning by 9 a.m., then takes them down at 5 p.m.

The labyrinths, some as wide as 48 feet, are made of tape and surveyor flags, and can take as long as two hours to set up, she said. Wasko-Flood had hoped to set up permanent labyrinths on the lawn, but government rules prohibit permanent displays.

Some visitors to the Capitol are already roaming the labyrinths.

"Walking through the labyrinth was a very centering experience for me," said Janet Ott, of Reston, Va. "You're able to focus inward more easily. I went in there with things on my mind and they seemed to resolve themselves in a very subtle sort of way."

Wasko-Flood said she initially wanted to place the labyrinths on the floor of the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol.

"Activities that would block the public space aren't allowed there," she said, "so we had to set things up outside."

She said she decided the Capitol could use a labyrinth of its own after she visited American Indian ruins in Chaco Canyon, New Mexico.

"I was blown away by what I saw there, but I sat on the idea to put a labyrinth in Capitol Hill for a couple of months," said Wasko-Flood, who is a member of the Labyrinth Society of New Canaan, Conn., a group that supports labyrinth construction throughout the nation.

"In the end I just felt I was called to do it; if I didn't do it, I don't think anyone else would have."

She emphasized that the labyrinths are not a political statement.

"The labyrinth is tied not to any particular cause or religion, but to human beings," she said, noting the labyrinth is central to the spirituality of many cultures. "All cultures have discovered the labyrinth in some way, so it's a very basic and universal symbol of peace. What we want to do is encourage politicians to find that inner peace, too."

Marty Cain, an artist from New Hampshire who designed and helped erect the labyrinths, agreed.

"With inner peace, people are better able to relate to their families and their friends, and if you start with inner peace then you can have world peace," she said.

"Politicians don't get any nourishment, they just get a lot of criticism. They need a place to be nourished, and that's what the labyrinth is for."

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