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Tom Phillips: Path builder

Friends & Neighbors: EVERYONE HAS A STORY.

December 23, 2009
By CAPERTON?TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

Round, smooth stones from a river, jagged shard fragments from dynamiting, rough granite dug out of the earth, stone by stone, each carefully laid down - they took their place in a meticulously planned labyrinth.

Starting last June, Tom Phillips set aside a piece of each day to lay out a new path. As the path grew, each "piece" of day transformed itself into something different, a pocket of "peace."

A collector of rocks, he was well supplied for launching his project. A green stone reminded him of his fishing trips to the far-reaching regions of northern Canada, his good buddies there, the small peace shelter he left on an island, only to return the following year and find someone had taken the tiny copper tree sculpture from inside and left a note, "thank you," scribbled on driftwood.

Article Photos

Tom Phillips and Stony
(Photo — Caperton Tissot)

"At first I was angry," Tom said, "but then I realized that once I left the tree behind, it was no longer something to call mine. Somebody else had needed it. I was glad they found it."

Stones from local areas, from across the country and around the world delineate paths of the spiral. One from Africa sends Tom's thoughts flying to the giver, an old friend. A gritty piece of sandstone speaks of western desert winds and blowing sand, of cactuses growing in a place where he and Judy had dreamed of visiting, back when she could still walk the land at his side. A brown stone came from Italian friends; piles of small white crystals stacked on a charcoal black rock were left by a Paul Smith student. When working with these rocks of shiny purple, green laced with black, gray streaked with yellow, white wrapped in black stripes, layers of dark and tan, granite shot through with streaks of silver, a large stone glittering with garnets - Tom was flooded with memories. He gathered other material from a place which Judy and he had called home during their first three years of marriage, stones out of river-washed deposits left from the last ice age deep in the Adirondack wilds.

At other times, the very labor of bending, hauling, lifting and positioning the stones emptied his troubled mind, leaving him in a more meditative state. The summer of 2009 was full of wrenching emotion. Tom, caretaker for eight camps, is an artist. Tom, a loving husband, father and grandfather, was a man seeking peace.

Building the labyrinth was "incredible," says Tom. Anxious to share this experience with others, he invited friends to join him. Eighteen of them did, though some first had to overcome their hesitation at working on such a "strange" mission. "Once started, however, their feelings changed. They were drawn to come back repeatedly," he says. The labyrinth path, 8/10ths of a mile long, followed the pattern of a knotted rope. Tom laid it all out by eye, including the stone benches positioned at points north, east, west and south on the edge of the center circle. When checked later, his compass points proved to be exactly correct.

By July, Tom's source of materials began to dwindle, though just as his birthday arrived, so too did a truckload of rocks. A close neighbor, deeply understanding the significance of Tom's project, had sent this unusual gift.

The symbolism of labyrinths dates back to ancient times. The spiraling form means different things to different people: symbol of Mother Earth, it can be a means of re-connecting with our past, a place of meditation and self-discovery, of balance, healing and a sense of well-being.

This particular labyrinth differs from most in that its paths are wide enough for a wheelchair the wheelchair which brings Tom's lovely wife Judy out to join him. Married for over 30 years, Tom and Judy have shared their passion for the outdoor life. Judy expresses it beautifully through her photographs, paintings, jewelry, writing and cooking. Tom reveals it in his well-known rustic furniture creations, (thus the nickname "Stickman"), his lifestyle and now his labyrinth.

Visiting the pair at their home is inspiring. Upon the walls, shelves, tabletops and floors is a display reflecting years of love and creativity: family pictures, rustic furniture, landscapes, jewelry, carvings, baskets, sculptures, fabric creations, grayed smooth pieces of curved driftwood, rocks, a collection of taxidermy and a rack full of mackinaws, hats and walking sticks. An atmosphere of welcome fills the room.

For many years, diagnosed with the cruelly progressive disease of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), Judy has been a care-giver of joy and courage for daughter Dove, Tom, other family and friends. Tom, a camp caretaker by trade, increasingly became caretaker of Judy as well, when MS began taking its toll.

"It feels like three lifetimes have gone by," says Tom of this last summer. It was several months of grappling with the decision to move Judy to a nursing home. It tore at them both. "We were in pure pain." The earth shook, foundations wobbled, tears flowed. It was a time when both needed a source of extra strength. Tom found it through building his labyrinth; Judy found it in the hope that some agency would provide her with the extra nursing care she needed, making the move unnecessary.

Finally in October, with that last hope shattered, the physical parting took place and Judy moved to Uihlein Mercy Center. Now Tom carries on alone, working hard, walking the labyrinth and visiting with his courageous wife who continues to paint and still returns with him to gaze out on the woods and water which embrace their home. "We are finally out of the pain and coming into love and compassion," says her husband.

Tom's loneliness is allayed somewhat by his companion, a golden Labrador. When he and Judy first brought him home in June, the pup hopped out of the car, ran into the field, retrieved a stone and dropped it at Tom's feet. Amazed at their common bond, Tom named him "Stony." Stony the "Stoneman" lives and works with Tom the "Stickman." He, like everything else around there, is a "piece of work," says Tom.

Today, when Tom walks the spiral and reaches the center, Stony senses something special and comes bounding to his side. Next year, an apple tree will be planted in that center, there to flourish and provide fruit for the deer, seeds for new life and shade for the visitor and perhaps for future lovers.

A stack of small pebbles reminds one of a pagoda, another of a lady cradling a baby. A vertical slab points to the sky, another is the base for a carefully balanced piece of marble. Such gifts continue to appear, left there by appreciative friends and walkers of the spiral path.

An article about Tom's wife Judy appeared in this column on January 21, 2009.


The above account is based on an interview with

Tom Phillips.


Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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