Amazing Mazes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

NEW PARK, Pa. -- A soft spot for Rupert Bear, a delight in confusion and an intuitive grasp of branching theory have led Dave Phillips on a lifelong chase through the hundreds of mazes he has compulsively drawn on paper, drafted electronically, carved from a whispering cornfield.

Not that Phillips, a wry and slightly eccentric White Hall resident, can tell you how to solve his puzzles, often diabolical in their perceived simplicity. As he wanders through the "Escape from Egypt" cornfield maze he designed this fall for Maize Quest at Maple Lawn Farms in New Park, Pa., even Phillips gets happily turned around. He exalts in the way a 45-degree angle morphs into a spiral, the way that spiral returns him inexplicably to his starting place, a circular clearing within 10,000 feet of pathways cut through 300,000 living cornstalks.

"I create games where I don't know the solution," Phillips says. "I don't have a clue how to solve something, and I'll create it. Those are the best ones; I create an interesting problem and I don't know what the solution is or could be," he explains, in a rather circular way.

Since he was a kid in England, Phillips, 49, liked to get lost. "I would lead neighborhood kids in adventures, get lost on purpose, go into the woods and strange areas I didn't know anything about." More than once, "the police had to come find us," Phillips fondly remembers.

Phillips and his family immigrated to the United States when he was 9. And though as a child he had never explored the mazes of his native land, he brought with him a British fascination with the topiary art form. "It's an English thing," he says. "A lot of maze designers are English."

The spirit of Rupert Bear also made the journey with Phillips. A venerated storybook and cartoon character created in 1920 during a British newspaper circulation war, Rupert, going strong at 80, has a habit of landing far from his hometown, Nutwood.

His adventures may lead him to the North Pole or to kingdoms "above the clouds or below the earth."

In keeping with Rupert's picaresque approach to life, Phillips managed a fast-food restaurant, built bridges, labored on the London docks. He settled down to became a graphic artist, working full-time for 10 years as a technical and advertising illustrator and photo retoucher. He was a whiz with an airbrush.

And he always drew mazes. "I have a burning interest in mazes," Phillips says. "I never outgrew that interest; I don't know why."

He is the author of nearly 40 maze books, with themes ranging from endangered animals to Mars, that lift his work from the purely confounding to art. In 1992, Phillips first designed mazes for computer games. "When you make the maze move, it enters another dimension," Phillips said in an interview at the time.

In 1999, he and Rob Hafey of Germantown started eBrainyGames.com, a game Web site, where customers can sample and buy mind-boggling games and puzzles. For eBrainyGames, Phillips created his most elaborate maze to date, as well as a ferocious brain-teaser called Color Wheel, in which players must find one correct pattern out of millions.

Phillips, true to form, hasn't a clue how to solve it. "I figure to let someone else do that," he says.

The cornfield maze concept allows Phillips to enter yet another dimension in design. He loves them because they move people, not just their minds. "It's the best medium for mazes I've ever done," Phillips says. "They are complex in and of themselves."

In New Park, Phillips works on a 10-acre dirt canvas. His paint is "Pioneer 33Y10," a hardy feed corn. He began "Escape from Egypt" with a grid to scale. Starting with one point, Phillips plotted the maze from there, leading future visitors through an 18-foot-tall Sphinx straw bale sculpture, to the Pharaoh's tomb, down the Nile River, into the Eye of Horus, through a spiraling sun and pyramid. In May, using surveying tools to guide them, Maize Quest founder Hugh McPherson and staff planted the corn with geometric precision and, six weeks later, carefully pulled out 50,000 stalks according to Phillips' design.

"You'll notice that the design in the cornfield is not a series of dead ends," Phillips says. Dead ends are frustrating and can create maze traffic jams. "With systems of loops there are literally thousands of ways you can go through the maze. ... No two people go through it the same way."

Crowds "flow and flow" through Phillips' mazes without stopping; they may meet others but aren't blocked from their path. For McPherson, spirals and loops make it "easier to take care of people." Before Phillips came to the farm, McPherson, in a wooden tower overlooking the maze, would often spot claustrophobic maze-travelers crashing through the 12-foot stalks to get out as quickly as possible. "Vandalism was a big problem," he says.

Phillips, on the other hand, knows how much time to give people in the maze, "how much to frustrate people and when to give them a break." In "Escape from Egypt," there are 70 places to choose where to turn.

And even if maze explorers can't see that they are in the center of a pyramid, they "like the idea of it being a theme," and not just a "haphazard bunch of paths. You're entering into a picture."

Working with Maize Quest, Phillips has designed several mazes around the country, including a Civil War-themed maze in Virginia featuring a cavalry soldier (he could be either a Confederate or Yankee) atop a horse in full stride, and an African savanna maze in Arkansas. In New Park, Phillips has also designed an "Ever-Changing Fence Maze" that can be endlessly reconfigured, and Bamboozle, a formal maze created from living bamboo. He's already at work on next year's designs -- "top secret" for now.

Phillips sees mazes in every game he designs. "To me, a lot of mazes are invisible," he says. "Any game requires that you make choices, that you choose this direction or choose that direction. I like to create puzzles that allow you to start to make connections. And to use your own creative approach to form paths of logic."

Mazes themselves are a "physical representation of problem solving," he says. Within them, he dangles misleading options, a nice, wide turn for example, that entices you into going back to where you started. But Phillips' mazes also have a value-added self-help component: He offers you a chance to learn from your mistakes, pick up on visual clues and avoid the same old loops that lead nowhere.

How does Phillips' own brain work? Is it a maze of high-tech, neuron-firing circuitry with no dead ends? How does he take the notion of getting lost and getting found and turn it into a bewildering art form, complete with complex, theoretical givens?

"I tend not to overanalyze it," Phillips says in his disarmingly casual way. "I don't break it down into an absolute theory about why a maze works, and I don't try to figure out why a maze is so appealing. The further I dig into it, the further I can't see it."

Phillips compares his own ability to create mazes to "delving into a forest and not finding it. You're just surrounded by trees. It's a weird thing. I'm so deep in what I do, I just can't figure it out. I've stopped trying."

Mazes, themselves, have "a certain mystery," Phillips says. "A mystery I can't unravel ... it's order and design and it's chaos at the same time; chaotic paths going everywhere to bewilder and to lose you. And at the same time it's a well-structured design that is complete. You look at a maze and the solutions are right there. You just can't see it."

A word to the maze-dazed: Don't take a wrong turn and call Phillips -- who claims to have trouble helping his daughter with Algebra II -- a genius. "It bothers me when people say I'm a genius a lot of the time," he says. "They think you need to be a genius to do something very well. If it's something you love, you get very into it."

Besides, the modest eBrainy guy says, the alternative is too overwhelming to contemplate.

"If I ever understand mazes," he says, "I will understand the wisdom of the universe."

The "Escape from Egypt" cornfield maze is open Fridays through Sundays through Oct. 29 at Maple Lawn Farms in New Park, Pa. Admission is $7 for adults and $5 for kids, ages 4 to 12. Call 717-382-4878 or visit www.CornMaze.com.

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