Labyrinth display at Waterfront pathway to a poignant past
June 14, 2009 4:00 AM
The Homestead Labyrinth by artist Lorraine Vullo stands near the Waterfront shopping complex next to the historic Pump House. The installation serves as a memorial to the people who died in the Battle of Homestead, fought between striking workers and Pinkerton guards during the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.
By Martine Powers Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Artist Lorraine Vullo's new installation, the Homestead Labyrinth, lies adjacent to the community's historic Pump House near the sprawling Waterfront shopping complex -- a spot more fitting for a fast-food joint than an outdoor art piece.
But Ms. Vullo says that the 68-foot labyrinth on Waterfront Drive, which opened to the public last Friday, will serve as an enclave for tranquility and meditation.
"Inside the labyrinth, there is no right or wrong way -- just a single path that leads you to the center," Ms. Vullo, 50, said. "It's about the inner journey."
Labyrinths are winding, walkable passages typically found in cathedrals or parks. They are often used for meditation or religious rituals.
It took $90,000 in grants, and more than a month of hard labor for Ms. Vullo to construct the labyrinth on the same site where the Battle of Homestead was fought between striking workers and Pinkerton guards during the Homestead Steel Strike of 1892.
The land is now owned by the Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area, a foundation dedicated to preserving the history of the Western Pennsylvania steel industry.
Ms. Vullo said her art installation serves as a memorial to those who died in the battle, the most prominent labor conflict in U.S. history. This site, she said, "is sacrosanct."
Ron Baraff, Rivers of Steel director of museums and archives, said the organization allowed Ms. Vullo to use the land because she was cognizant of its historical importance. Approximately 250 triangular stones lie on the perimeter of the labyrinth, and most are engraved with the name of a steel mill, foundry or blast furnace in Western Pennsylvania.
"This was the perfect spot for it," Mr. Baraff said. "There are so many stories here coming together in one place."
Ms. Vullo's art piece also serves as a personal commemoration; the entrance to the labyrinth faces 123 degrees east-southeast, the location of the moon when her son was born in 1996. She said she hopes visitors from outside Pittsburgh who don't have personal ties to the steel mills will still find the labyrinth a peaceful site for meditation and spiritual contemplation.
"It's important to the region, historically," Ms. Vullo said. "But it's also faithful to the ideal of a labyrinth in that there's a personal connection and a personal significance with the labyrinth outside of its historical context."
Like most labyrinths, Ms Vullo's installation does not contain wrong turns or dead ends; instead, there is just one path that winds in parallel lines to the center of the circle.
Labyrinths are often found on stone cathedral floors in France and Italy, as well as in gardens in the United Kingdom. But Ms. Vullo maintained that hers is a riff on the traditional labyrinth. Instead of a rose at its center -- typically a symbol of the Virgin Mary -- she chose to construct a six-pointed compass star.
Ms. Vullo, Mr. Baraff and two others spent a month putting together the labyrinth and ridding the land of rocks and cement left from the old steel mill. The Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area allowed Ms. Vullo to use the land without charge for an indefinite period of time.
But the organization is currently lobbying Congress to turn the area surrounding the Carrie Furnace site, where blast furnaces once produced iron for U.S. Steel, into Homestead Works National Park. If that happens, Rivers of Steel cannot guarantee that the labyrinth will stay in the park, spokeswoman Jan Dofner said.
But for now, Mr. Baraff said, Rivers of Steel is happy to have a modern artistic addition to its historic site.
"This is really the proper use of the land," Mr. Baraff said. "It's creating green space, creating something beautiful."
Ms. Vullo said she hopes the labyrinth becomes a much-used part of the Homestead community. She expects that it will grow more beautiful as the grass thickens and wildflowers flourish on the perimeter of the circle.
It will soon be listed in the World-Wide Labyrinth Locator, and she cannot wait to see it on Google Earth.