Levi Wertz’s first float tank experience began how many did in Lincoln in the early 2010s — in an industrial-looking steel box in Jeremy Warner’s basement.
Wertz had been listening to comedian and podcaster Joe Rogan tout the thought-clearing (and thought-forming) virtues of floating in a sensory deprivation tank — for the uninitiated, a sound-proof, light-proof chamber filled with a small pool of extra-buoyant salt water, heated the temperature of a human body, all meant to give the floater an out-of-body experience, or at least a healing one.
Wertz, 36, wanted to have one of those experiences, and began Googling to see if there was one in Lincoln he could rent some time in to space out. He found a phone number for a massage studio that used to have one, and was directed to the man who’d built it.
Warner, whose Escape Pods are built in Lincoln and have been shipped to float studios and homes all over the place, invited Wertz over for a basement float, as he’s done for several curious people in the area (including this writer, in 2013).
The first 30 or 40 minutes, Wertz said, he felt like he spent just trying to float, even though the heaps of Epsom salt dissolved in the warm water were providing all the buoyancy he needed.
“I had just never been in an environment like that,” he said. “All of a sudden … I just stopped, and next thing I know, I was experiencing things I’d heard about. It was like a conduit into my consciousness.”
It’s hard to describe the experience in words, said Wertz, who has since opened Lincoln's first float center and his first business, Lost in Float, 8244 Northern Lights Drive.
The experience is why he leaves out a set of markers and chalk, along with pens and journals, for clients to write, doodle or draw with once they’ve concluded 60- or 90-minute sessions in one of the four Escape Pods.
Wertz said he used to pore over the entries after each client finished writing or drawing. Now, he peruses them every couple days. Still, the contributions can wow him, like one that Jennifer Barnason left after her fourth float.
Barnason, 32, of Lincoln, said she’d been periodically looking for a float center in Nebraska after reading about the emerging relaxation technique. Her first float, she will admit, she “splashed around in it like it was a kiddie pool.” After she got used to the water, she said, it felt like she was floating in space.
“The feeling is sort of a precious one,” she said.
When she’d get home, Barnason tended to draw or paint something post-float. Rather than wait, before her fourth float, she decided to bring in some watercolors, a hobby of hers. After her session concluded, she began to paint.
“I think it was mostly just wanting to see where it goes, just wanting to see what came out on the paper,” Barnason said. “I wanted to make something that related to the feeling that the tank catalyzed.”
It was a scribble session a few minutes long, she said, but Wertz was blown away by the painting, a silhouette of a figure floating in the tank, surrounded by black and blue water. The figure’s head and hands were painted a metallic gold, Barnason said, in an effort to represent the feeling she had of conquering a lousy day.
“It kind of made me feel like you’ve got this,” Barnason said.
Her experience made Wertz feel like a project Lost in Float had created could yield some exciting results. This month, the business is providing three free floats for a collection of artists who submitted portfolios in August.
It’s a substantial investment for the startup business — an introductory deal on three floats costs $99, though the business offers pricing plans for entire companies, as well as memberships. Those chosen for the artist program are expected to create a piece that will be displayed at the float center within a month of their final floats.
Wertz said it was inspired by a project done at Float On, a Portland, Oregon, float center where he and his wife, Gina, apprenticed once she too became convinced that Lincoln needed a float center of its own. (Lost in Float also offers cryotherapy.) Float On published a book in 2011 titled, “Artwork from the Void: 150 Pieces Inspired by Sensory Deprivation,” which collected submissions from Portland-area artists.
“There is a level of creation that comes with the tank,” Levi Wertz said.
Trent Grooms, one of the artists chosen for the project, has perused a copy of that book at Lost in Float often during the 30 or so minutes he said he spends in the center after his floats. You can tell the submissions were from people who’d just experienced substantial sensory deprivation, Grooms said. After five floats, he said, he got to the point where it feels like “you’re basically just a thought floating in space.”
He recognized that experience in “Artwork from the Void” pieces, he said. The colors tend to be on the dark side. There are often visual representations of the actual tank. That might be the way he goes with his submission. It might not. Grooms, who has been adding to a chalk drawing he made of a skeleton with one eyeball flashing a peace sign beneath a multicolored star over the course of his Lost in Float visits, said he currently has three blank pages framed and laid out.
“I want to try to get three pieces done,” he said. “I know they’re not expecting three.”
Levi Wertz said he has no particular expectation.
“I might look at that and go, 'What does it have to do with floating?” he said.
But the agreement doesn’t involve artistic representations of floating. The goal, he said, is to use the time in the tank to create visual expressions of the mind’s journey to the void and back.
“However you produce that, I don’t really care,” he said.