By ERIC A. HOWALD
Of the Keizertimes
To call Jonathan Graf a puzzle-maker is something of an understatement.
The mazes he constructs on paper dance gleefully on the line between hobby and artistic pursuit. Some of his largest creations – like one titled The Red Door that has a working space of roughly 400 square inches – he’s turned into prints. Others are etched into thick parchment paper that gives them the feel of relics. Smaller ones vary in size from 4-by-4-inch cards to large sketchbook pages.
While size and the intricacies of his work have changed over the years, the reason Graf has stuck with forging mazes hasn’t.
“When I was about 10, I started making them in the classroom and getting in trouble, but it helped me focus in school. It helps me even now, especially when I am trying to focus. The only difference is now I know how to make it look like I’m taking notes,” he said.
Graf is no ordinary maze-maker, but he started out the way most others do. The “easiest” way to make a maze is starting out with a large outline and adding smaller shapes with openings into the next smaller shape until the center of the largest object is filled. Then, most maze-makers map out the path they want the solver to take through the maze. At that point, the only task left is to close off all the other possible paths.
“That doesn’t work for me because it feels like I can see the solution right away and I think others will, too,” Graf said. “I know it’s easy to cheat mazes. If you start at the exit, you’ll find your way to the entrance fairly quickly. I want my mazes to be just as difficult starting from the exit as it is if you start at the beginning.”
Graf has an idea of the overall maze he wants to create in his head before he begins, but everything is constructed in the moment, section by section, without plotting out the solution in advance.
In his Red Door maze, which has a large, red rectangle in the center, solvers will know they are on the right path if they’ve touched all four inner and outer corners. However, there’s another wrench in the works, too. None of lines guiding the solver touch another or cross paths. That means there is no easy way to eliminate dead-end options because the whole thing looks like the folds of a two-dimensional brain.
Inspiration for Red Door came from a combination of the cover to Carl Jung’s The Red Book and listening to an audiobook version of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick while he made the maze. The final version took somewhere between 40 and 60 hours to complete.
“There’s a story to most of the mazes, but I couldn’t tell you what each one was,” Graf said.
What he’s discovered by talking to other maze makers is that each designer has his or her own set of rules. For Graf, rule No. 1 is: the lines don’t touch. Rule No. 2 is: no right angles. Rule No. 3 is: use all the space.
“Some people make elaborate mazes with relatively simple paths to solve them. If the solution is simple, make a smaller maze,” said Graf.
Beyond those three guideposts, his rules can vary from project to project.
After more than three decades of sticking with his hobby, Graf said there is an apology built into each time he tells someone new about his favorite pastime, but the responses are generally one of acceptance.
“Most people say it’s really cool, and then hit me with a pun,” Graf said. He grew tired of maze-inspired puns years ago.
Even Graf’s 8-year-old daughter is picking up some of her old man’s habits. Graf frequently uses his mazes to focus his attention when the family engages in reading aloud, his daughter is now doing essentially the same thing, but her chosen medium is the three-dimensional world of Minecraft, a video game.
Knowing how forging mazes improved his own attention while learning, he’s much more understanding than the adults in his life were at the same age. As much as maze-making is a tool for his personal learning, Graf said, there is something else that keeps him pushing his limits as far as creating them.
“I haven’t made a perfect maze. I don’t really have a goal in mind. I get lost in making them; and I hope for a short time, someone gets lost finding their way out. Perhaps the perfect maze is the one in which I forget I’m drawing,” he said.
Editor’s note: Jonathan Graf’s mazes are going to be a new, regular feature in the Keizertimes. Make sure to check back each week for a new one to solve.