A partial failure tends to make for a better story than a full success if the person who did so lives through the encounter...I made my return to the sanctum a couple days after my first experience in discovering the location. This time I arrived with about two hours left of daylight to give myself plenty of time to flesh our the complex, and see if I could uncover any clues as to what it might have been.
This time, I came prepared with full on fire gear. I brought along a cooking whisk and string for spinning flaming steel wool, nylon rope soaked in charcoal fluid and a metal pipe with large hooks protruding out the side to create walls of fire during my long exposures. With this equipment in tow, I imagined creating large walls of fire in the inner, open portion of the sanctum. Something resembling an unforgiving hellscape with walls of fire in a burning maze between the giant iron columns. This would be the grand finale after spinning the steel wool, which I planned to use in my artistic warm-up. I would begin the process by flinging sparks from the top floor down, so that way when I got ready to make the walls of fire there would be no backtracking up the stairs once it had become dark.
I parked my car close to where I had first entered the complex on my previous visit, and this time due to having more daylight I noticed a separate wall opening about a hundred yards away. I decided to go here first. I walked inside to find another staircase leading to the upper level rooms, and not far from it was yet another open section closely mirroring where I had been the night before, but with slight structural changes.
Reaching into my bag, I pulled out my camera and began taking photos. At this particular time I was not shooting for artistic purposes, but more so for documentation. If this location was to be a viable site I would continually return to for photography, it would be best to use my eyes, as well as the camera's, to better investigate any detail we came across. I walked away from the staircase and into this section's open area. Looking back across the space to the upper floor, I noticed perpendicular iron beams running across the open air in an arrangement which suggested at one point a roof rested on their support. This was where I wanting to sling the stool wool, and the iron bars would give the fire a perfect ricochet effect in the photos.
After investigating this new area for my fire photography, I decided to take time and explore more of the ground floor for clues about the facility's origins. Close to this section's staircase, I found piles of old, thin wood covered in a solid layer of dust. The ground nearby had litter strewn about, in fact, there was much more scattered around these floors than where I had already explored. The garbage materials mere largely the same as I had already seen, yet there were more plastic containers and clothing items within the clutter.
My eyes scanned from the middle of the floor by the staircase to the nearby wall. Surprisingly, the space within the wall's proximity was relatively free of materials with the one exception being a group of about ten fire extinguishers standing together in an almost bowling-pin arrangement. As far as their origin, I could not say. were they remnants from back when the building was still in use, or did someone bring them later? I fet it appropriate on the day I decided to make flame paintings there would be a lifetime supply of fire extinguishers at my nearest convenience.
Once I had become familiar with this quadrant, I began walking toward the section I had been to the other night. With daylight still shining I was able to see clearly why I had not noticed this section of the facility the other night. A wooden door, the same brown color as the plaster walls surrounding it, was the sole connection between the two spaces. I pushed the door open, and then stepped into the section where I made lightpaintings two nights ago. Everything had been placed where I remembered, thought with the added daylight I was able to see in much greater detail.
When I felt content I had fleshed out the bottom floor enough for clues about this place, then proceeded to head up the stairs to the upper level for the first time. Much like the firs floor, this one was littered, though it was also covered in a layer of thin, worn out carpet. I walked over to the ledge where the side had fallen, or been burned off long ago. The view was a sight to behold. The clouds streaked across the sky in vibrant yellows and oranges. Late afternoon sunlight hit the red brick on the opposite side of the complex and gave the area the appearance of having a red aura. The golden hour was almost at hand, and soon it would be time for lightpainting.
Running back downstairs, I went back to my car to grab my tripod, and some bananas I had brought earlier as a snack. With growing excitement, I was ready to set up for the evening's festivities. As I walked back through the entrance by the staircase, I noticed while I had been outside a man had come and sat on the third step. Since I was already heading toward the direction where he was sitting, I decided to kill more time before darkness and introduce myself.
At this particular time, I did not realize how I must have appeared to the man. It was not until later I realized he must have thought how out of place I seemed. I was dressed in solid black attire from head to toe, and was still carrying the hooked metal pipe for my fire walls. The expression on the man's face seemed startled, and I set the pipe against the staircase to ensure him I meant no harm. "My name is T.J. Legler and I am a local artist and photographer in this city. I am going to make a wall of fire once it gets dark." Before I continue any further with my story, I do have to briefly interject how outlandish lightpainting, or any form of long exposure photography must sound to those who are unacquainted with the processes involved with creating these types of images.
Upon hearing the words, "wall of fire," I noticed the man's eyes beginning to open with fearful expression. Nervously the man replied, "My name is Kelvin. I came here to sit down and change my bag, but I won't get in your way and stay much longer." I felt guilty for feeling as if I were introduing upon him so I reached into my bag of bananas and gave him two, then began peeling one for myself so we could share a snack together in order to alleviate any tension.
Several bites of banana later, and we were both engaging in casual conversation. Kevlin told me he worked in the construction industry, and had taken the train from Charlotte, North Carolina to work on the new Westin Hotel in downtown Jackson. The hotel was structurally complete, and would be open for business a month later in August. I asked Kelvin what led to him being on the streets and he told me after a series of bad payments he had been forced out of his hotel, as he could no longer afford to pay for nightly dues.
Looking into his eyes, I new he was being completely honest. There was no dishonesty in his sad blue eyes. His face appeared dry, and wrinkled with the hardships he must have endured the past few months, and his skin was dark brown like someone who had been outside for days in the sun. "The Lord has blessed me," Kevin said,"He been lookin' out for me and when it came all them rains that room over there kept me warm!" Kelvin pointed to the room where I had made my light graffiti the other night, and I suspected now the sleeping bag I found in there the other night could have likely been in his possession.
Not wanting to keep Kelvin any longer, I shook his hand and thanked him for his time. He rose from his step and thanked me once more for the bananas, and I said it was the least I could offer, especially considering I had initially terrified the man. "The Lord blesses me!" Kelvin shouted as he walked through the hole in the brick wall. "He keep blessin' me!
Once Kelvin had left I began to wonder as to what he may have thought of my presence in this location. My appearance, to those who do not know me or what I do, must have seemed very unnatural. A young man, dressed in solid black and carrying a large metal pipe with rusted hooks protruding from the sides must have appeared ethereal. I also realize in hindsight, when I told him about creating the fire wall he could have thought I was a being with supernatural abilities. I wondered if this line of thinking was why he kept mentioning to me that the Lord had blessed him. Did he think I was some kind of demon, or angel? I accept the answer to this question will likely never be known.
By the time I reached the second floor again, the sky had gone through a dramatic transformation of color. The clouds were now a vibrant menagerie of purples, pinks, and reds. I chose to seize this opportunity and set my camera on its tripod stand and attached my neutral density filter to the end of the lens in order to do a long exposure of the sunset. The image turned out spectacular! I took this as being a good omen for my lightpainting later that evening. Hopefully they would turn out as stunning.
Feeling content with my sunset picture, I laid down on the concrete slab nearby then watched the sun beginning to disappear over the horizon. With the ever fading light, the sky began shifting in contrast from bright vibrant colors to darker, more grey tones. Eventually the sun was gone. I kept looking up at the sky and then noticed the first star appearing directly overhead. I decided to wait until I could count ten stars in the night sky before spinning the steel wool. One, two, three, four....five, six.....seven......eight, nine, ten!
The hour of lightpainting was at hand and darkness was in full abundance. I positioned myself on the opposite ledge as my camera then with a quick slide right my A7rii began its self-timer countdown. I then tied the string connected to the whisk onto my wrist and sparked my lighter on the steel wool. as soon as I saw it had a good burn I began to spin right at the same time as the shutter released on my camera. We were live, and alive.
A flurry of hailstone sized sparks radiated out from the epicenter of fire where I was spinning, and crashed in a chaotic spectacle all around in a rain of fire. The sparks scattered from the clumps of flaming steel wool then exploded in bursts onto the ground floor below. A few brief seconds later and the hot, burning core of steel wool shot upward and outward falling to the lower level, which signified the end of this round of spinning. Eager to see what my camera had captured, I rushed over to where it stood and began scrolling through the playback. I had set it to take a burst of five photos with a four second exposure time each.
As I was scrolling through the camera and examined my handiwork, I noticed out of the corner of my eye something truly ominous. A flickering orange glow began growing in size close to where I had been spinning. My heart began to pound, and adrenaline sprung my body into action. My worst fears had come to life. A fire was growing.
Charging in its direction, I was relieved to see the fire was contained, though considering how large it already was I knew it would take long before things got out of control. Behind where I had been spinning a few moments earlier stood a large plastic container which held old clothes and bedsheets where one of my sparks had fallen into and caught fire. I had to be very delicate in this situation. The flames were already three feet high and still growing. I began stomping at the base of the flaming clothes, and though it helped prevent the fire from spreading any further, it nevertheless maintained its size. Realizing this would not work to squash the flames, I reached into my bag and emptied my water bottle onto the hot fire, but I failed to make any sort of progress.
My options were running out. Normally in this situation I would have been prepared with my fire extinguisher....That was it! The fire extinguishers downstairs would be my key to victory. With a jolt of speed I darted down the stairs towards the fire extinguishers and grabbed the closest one within reach before running back upstairs. When I arrived the fire had grown to a very dangerous size. The flames now stood as tall as my head, and the plastic container where the fire was born was outmelting its usefulness.
Holding onto a prayer, I aimed the fire extinguisher hose at the flames and sent them straight to Hell. The fire fought fiercely for a few moments, but eventually the tide turned in my favor. With a few blasts directly at the base of the embers the fire was snuffed out. I had won the battle, and was able to finally breathe in a sigh of relief.
No matter how many ties prior I had used fire in lightpainting, it was still something which could be extremely dangerous. In this case, I was reminded how quickly things could go wrong if I came unprepared to deal with the eventual consequences of slinging flaming material within a large trajectory space.
Despite having no fear remaining of being guilty for burning down the sanctum, I decided this would be a good stopping point for the night. Though I had almost torched the campus, I was content with the shots I acquired. They were good enough to have a nice haul going home, and I was content with leaving my wall of fire project for some other time.
To read Part I in this series & learn about my initial discovery of The Sanctum click here.