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The Future Of Salvation Mountain Uncertain

Above: Salvation Mountain, with the moon rising.

Aired 12/20/11 on KPBS News.

The creator of a desert artwork known as Salvation Mountain has been placed in a long-term care facility in El Cajon. Now the future of the candy-colored mountain is unknown.

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

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

Leonard Knight has been building Salvation Mountain out of adobe, straw, and paint for almost 30 years. The colorful, three-story mountain with the words "God Is Love" on its crest sits in the Imperial County desert, east of San Diego.

The 80-year-old Knight has lived at the mountain since 1985, sleeping in the back of a painted pick-up truck and caring for his life's work for hours every day. I made my first pilgrimage to Salvation Mountain in 2008 and wrote about it here (starring a terrifying swarm of flies).

Earlier this month, Knight was placed in a long-term care facility in El Cajon for dementia.

Preservation Challenges

Jo Hernandez is the executive director of SPACES, an organization that helps preserve outsider art. Spaces was instrumental in saving the Watts Towers in Los Angeles.

She has been working with Knight, both in documenting his project and trying to secure its long-term future. Hernandez says without Knight’s daily attention, Salvation Mountain is in jeopardy. "It's out in the middle of the desert and with the way it is formed and the kind of materials [Knight] uses, I just don’t see any possibility that in the end, it will be able to be 'saved.'"

Hernandez is referring to the over 100,000 gallons of paint Knight has used to adorn and layer the mountain. Much of that paint has been donated by the thousands of visitors who've wanted to support Knight's desert dream.

Without attention to deteriorating areas, sun, rain, and even earthquakes will have their way with this relatively fragile mountain. There's also the issue of protecting the mountain from vandals. As of now, a rotating group of volunteers are monitoring it.

Hernandez says it's heartbreaking, but this is a very difficult preservation case. "What we’re really hoping for is that it will be able to be maintained as long as possible so that people can come and enjoy it....But it’s an ephemeral piece and hopefully we can let it die gracefully. I hate to say that, but I'm just trying to be realistic."

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 of the interior shrines Knight built inside a portion of Salvation Mounta...
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Above: One of the interior shrines Knight built inside a portion of Salvation Mountain.

A view of the sun setting from the top of Salvation Mountain.
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Above: A view of the sun setting from the top of Salvation Mountain.

Artist Leonard Knight.
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Above: Artist Leonard Knight.

Hernandez says at her most optimistic, she thinks the mountain could be saved through a combination of financial support and non-profit oversight. She's working with some individuals who've helped care for Knight and the mountain over the years to establish a non-profit to work on the mountain's preservation.

The Land

One of the first steps in determining Salvation Mountain's future is figuring out who actually owns the land. One thing is certain, Knight has been officially trespassing since he began building his monument.

The parcel of desert land in the shadow of the Chocolate Mountains was first given to California by the federal government upon statehood in 1850. It was one of the "school lands," which were parcels in each township given to the state for the benefit of public education. Any proceeds from the sale of those lands would go to support public education.

The federal government took back this desert parcel during World War II for military use - resulting in the slabs that mark nearby Slab City - and it was then returned to the state in the 1960s. The distinct boundaries of what the state actually owns as of today are unknown.

Curtis Fossum is chief officer with the California State Lands Commission, which manages land for the state of California. Fossum says the state definitely owns the land neighboring Slab City is on, but he's not sure about Salvation Mountain. The state hasn't had the resources it would take to find out.

As Fossum points out, the Land Commission manages over four and a half million acres, and Salvation Mountain sits on less than one of those acres. "We are a small office. We don't have the ability to go down there and fence it off. We don't have the funding for it. But we'll be looking at those issues in the coming year."

Fossum says that if the mountain was designated a cultural resource and had to be preserved, "you'd have to have some responsible party to do it and as far as I know, no party has stepped forward to take responsibility of it and make sure it's not a problem."

Thousands of visitors come to Salvation Mountain every year. In 2002, Senator Barbara Boxer entered the mountain into the congressional record as a national treasure. PBS and the BBC have both made documentaries about Knight and his work. Even film director/actor Sean Penn featured Knight in his 2007 film “Into the Wild.”

Hernandez says groups with agendas are a threat to the mountain. Various church groups have approached Knight over the years, offering to adopt the mountain for their own missionary purposes. Knight's always refused, choosing the clarity and focus of one idea: "God is Love."

In the coming weeks, I'll be looking into why Imperial County has not wanted to manage Salvation Mountain in the past and what the county's role will be in Salvation Mountain's future.

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | December 20, 2011 at 4:40 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Perhaps we need an environmental impact study before anything else is done.

With over 100,000 gallons of paint (some of which is likely leaded being over 30 years old) and other construction materials use, this is all having a negative impact on the fragile desert ecosystem. That clearly outweighs what little, if any, kitschy art value there is.

Interesting that Knight and other trespassers are watching for vandals when in fact they ARE the vandals.

Let's hope that land gets properly cleaned up and restored to its native state.

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Avatar for user 'mldgibberish'

mldgibberish | December 20, 2011 at 6:54 p.m. ― 5 years, 3 months ago

Dear California Defender:.Salvation Mountain has been tested for toxins, and it is clean;In fact ,since the surrounding area is largely an abandoned missile base,Salvation Mountain is the only certifiably clean land in the area.Salvation Mountain is a folk art environment and as such should be protected.I suggest you go check it out,while you still can.

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Avatar for user 'oogahboogahshooga'

oogahboogahshooga | January 28, 2012 at 9:22 p.m. ― 5 years, 2 months ago

gibberish is right my grandmother lives just beyong that holy place in which i have visited many many times. do i want to see it gone and disposed of? no friggen way it is that mans will and from god who has instilled his will into that man has he created such a peice of art and kept it going for so long. Im actually mad about him being instituded into a hospital because the man does not want to be seperated from his lifes work from gods work through him. when i get the chance to come back to the mainland ill be sure to stop by possibly even restore his work and keep it going. thank goodness for online classes XD

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Avatar for user 'ChrisZolezzi'

ChrisZolezzi | February 13, 2012 at 9:18 a.m. ― 5 years, 1 month ago

This is one of those places that should never be forgotten. It is one man's testament that with enough time and dedication anything is possible. This small one acre site within the hundreds of thousands of square miles of unspoiled desert is not going to do anything to disrupt any of the indigenous wild life. Especially when compared to the hundreds of thousands of acres of farm land filling the environment with heavy metals and pesticides. The idea that this work of folk art is damaging the environment is such a myopic view of the world full of real problems.

I propose that the supporters create a 501-C3 Non Profit that can raise funds to preserve the work of art and complete his hay bale museum to preserve the site forever. This group would be charged with preserving the place as a non denominational historic site in keeping with Leonard’s wishes. They could organize volunteers to protect and preserve the site. A method of preservation that would keep Leonard’s work intact and preserve it in a way he would appreciate would be to encapsulate it with anti-graffiti paint. These products are clear and have a gloss that Leonard would love. The clear coating would protect the colors from fading and the weather. They also would make any graffiti placed over the work easily removable.

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Avatar for user 'lkfriskopp'

lkfriskopp | April 9, 2012 at 8:43 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

I have known Leonard Knight since 1981. He is the real deal, he is kind, sincere and filled with honesty and a spirituality that few humans possess. There are many fakes and phoneys in this world, he is not among them. Regardless if you agree or disagree with his message he has only one thing in his heart to tell others that God loves all things and beings. He has never wavered or had second thoughts. He has never doubted his message or questioned his faith or his love of all people.
Leonard cheerfully worked at jobs that few would do weather it was picking fruit, chopping wood or helping with corn harvest in Nebraska for a friend of mine or changing tires and wrestling them on the truck in Quartzsite, AZ. My father happened upon him doing that job in 1984.Leonard did these jobs for one reason to serve God and spread God's love to anyone that would listen.
He never once said "Oh if I could only get enough money to get that new car or that new stereo. He never though of himself. He used money to barely himself physically, never to obtain luxuries for himself. If he had a new pair of shoes which was not likely and he came across someone that had no shoes he would probably give the shoes away. He would end up at the thrift store for another pair and wrap duct tape around them to last longer.
My last visit with Leonard was in 2010 as he was getting very forgetful and barely remembered me, I knew he would not be able to be out at the mountain very much longer. His body and mind simply couldn't take that desert climate anymore. I was glad and yet sad when I heard he had been placed in a home. I'm sure he would much rather have went to be with God in his sleep in the desert with his mountain.
I do hope there is a way to preserve his vision, his mountain.
It's effect is amazing on all that experience it. He said Sean Penn tried to find what he is looking for there. I don't think he's found it yet but he may yet. That's the effect that place has.
To those that want to make an environmental issue of the mountain I can only say, that's already been tried. God won that fight. In the scheme of things that paint is insignificant. Have you ever been to Nilan? there is very little that land could ever provide. The hope it may provide others far out weights the "environmental impact". Take a look at the endless number of industrial sites throughout California that serve no purpose except they made men billionaires, go clean those up and after you're done, come back to Salvation Mountain.

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Avatar for user 'bdk1521'

bdk1521 | April 17, 2012 at 6:49 p.m. ― 4 years, 11 months ago

A strong legal case could be made that Knight owns the land. California has a squatter's law that provides for ownership in the case of someone living on state land for 25 years and "improving" it.

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