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An Outsider Artist And His Salvation Mountain

Above: The truck where outsider artist Leonard Knight sleeps. It's painted in the same style as his monumental work, Salvation Mountain.

This post was originally published on Culture Lust in 2008. A discussion of outsider art takes place this Sunday, October 3rd at 6pm, right before the 7pm show of Athol Fugard's "The Road to Mecca" currently on stage at San Diego Rep. The panel discussion will be moderated by Robert Pincus. For more details, go here. And now for an old post about a mountain and an artist.

Leonard Knight, outsider artist who spent years building Salvation Mountain out of adobe, straw and paint.
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Above: Leonard Knight, outsider artist who spent years building Salvation Mountain out of adobe, straw and paint.

This past weekend, we heeded the strange siren call of the Salton Sea and drove once again into Imperial Valley. As an amateur photographer and a collector of stories, Imperial Valley has become an obsession. There are incredible images at every turn and generous storytellers. You meet them in the strangest places and this is the story of meeting one in the middle of the desert.

I've spent a fair bit of time around the Salton Sea (though it never seems like enough) and some surreal story always emerges from my visits to the Valley. Last July, we went to Bombay Beach and I had a terrifying encounter with thousands (millions!) of flies trapped in a car... OUR CAR!

And I'm not talking regular ole flies; I'm talking flies which had just been hobnobbing on rotting fish. Apparently bored with miles of fish carcasses, swarms of flies decided to bum rush our car (Even if you are in the 110 degree heat of Bombay Beach, don't leave your car window cracked. The flies will find you).

And you know what? There's only one way to get rid of those suckers... you just have to get in the car and drive. Imagine it right now, sitting at your desk, what it would be like to get in a sauna-like car with thousands of flies and the stench of dead fish. Now imagine having to sit there with them all over you while driving as fast as you can with the windows down so they fly out. It tested my mettle and, well...I pretty much think I'm Special Forces material now.

Anyway, for this trip, I wanted to see Salvation Mountain and Slab City, sans flies. Both places were featured in two recent films: a documentary called "Plagues and Pleasures on the Salton Sea" (narrated by John Waters!) and "Into the Wild," last year's feature film directed by Sean Penn.

Slab City and Salvation Mountain are in the middle of the Mojave desert, about three miles east of Niland, California, at the foot of the Chocolate Mountains. Driving through Brawley and Niland, we were a little worried about getting lost. Having left the GPS at home (another genius move), we figured we'd rely on the old school method of a paper map.

Words of advice: If you can't GPS, then you best not forget to laminate.

It turns out Salvation Mountain isn't hard to find. Once you get to Niland, just go to Main Street (not that many streets to begin with) and head east. Before the road bends, you catch a glimpse of the colorful, candy-like mountain in the distance.

I can't imagine what it would be like to just stumble upon Salvation Mountain. Driving in the desert always conjures up observations like: "Wow, look at that cactus!" or "Boy, is it hot out here." Sometimes you get "I wonder if there are rattlesnakes." It's not often desert landscapes inspire this one: "Hey, check out the brightly-colored mountain covered with Bible verse."

And that's why you have to see Salvation Mountain; it's so wonderfully strange and alien.

Salvation Mountain, with the moon rising.
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Above: Salvation Mountain, with the moon rising.

Salvation Mountain is the work of one man with a lot of paint and a simple message: God is Love. Originally, Leonard Knight thought he'd spread the word of God through a hot air balloon, because...you know... why not?

He spent 10 years trying to raise the money for the balloon and then decided he would try and sew the balloon together himself. He began sewing in Nebraska, but the fabric rotted one winter, and when Leonard moved to Slab City he discovered his project wasn't salvageable.

It was time to give up the hot air balloon dream and figure out what to do next. It occurred to him that he could paint a mountain into the landscape. To that I just say: it's the desert. Trippy ideas bounce off the land left and right.

Paint cans are scattered all over the land surrounding Salvation Mountain.
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Above: Paint cans are scattered all over the land surrounding Salvation Mountain.

One could attribute Leonard's dream to the desert heat or his pure evangelism, but either way I'm sure glad he stuck to it.

Leonard estimates it's taken over 100,000 gallons of paint to make the mountain, which is constructed out of adobe and straw. He's worked on it year round for almost 30 years.

In the summer months, he works early in the morning and naps during the extreme heat. If you visit, he'll be there giving tours, telling you about his mission, and posing for pictures.

Leonard lives right at the base of Salvation Mountain, in a vintage truck with a makeshift cabin built on the back. The truck is also painted in bold colors with Bible verses. Leonard has no electricity, water, or a bathroom. He's off the grid, but has an entire mountain to show for it.

Tourists and residents of Slab City and Niland bring him food and paint. Some even stick around to work with him for a couple of hours.

I read that some years back, a dust-up ensued over whether Salvation Mountain was an environmental hazard. There's probably tons of lead on that thing. Nothing much came of the controversy and in 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer placed Salvation Mountain on the Congressional Record as a national treasure. Leonard must have told us this four or five times. He's so proud that someone thinks it's a treasure.

Leonard is 77 years old [editor's note: at the time of publication in 2008] Seeing Salvation Mountain is all the more special when you can see it with him. Go visit. Bring him some paint or make a donation.

Leonard Knight is an outsider artist, a missionary, and a classic dreamer. You gotta love dreamers in the desert.

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