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The Fight To Save Salvation Mountain

Evening Edition

It took artist Leonard Knight almost 30 years to build a mountain out of adobe and paint in the middle of the Imperial Valley desert. It's called Salvation Mountain and it draws thousands of tourists to the area. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone finds out why a monument to religious salvation, now needs its own savior.

Aired 1/27/12 on KPBS News.

It took artist Leonard Knight almost 30 years to build a colorful mountain out of adobe and paint in the middle of the Imperial Valley desert. It’s called Salvation Mountain and it draws thousands of tourists to the area. KPBS arts reporter Angela Carone finds out why a monument to religious salvation, now needs its own savior.

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.

Along dusty Highway 111 in Niland, California, the Buckshot Deli and Diner is the place to get a strong cup of coffee, and directions to the area’s most famous landmark. Owner Ed Brashear says he can tell immediately who wants to go to Salvation Mountain. "Sometime when they walk in the door you just know, you say ‘go two blocks to the south and turn left and go straight’. That’s just how it is. And sometimes you’ll get a 100 a day that just want to go do Salvation Mountain."

The draw is not surprising. After all, how often does one see a candy-colored mountain, three stories high and the width of a football field, in the middle of the desert? If you follow Brashear's directions down a winding road, you see Salvation Mountain in the distance, rising out of the landscape like a technicolor desert mirage.

Astonishingly, it's the work of one man: self-taught artist Leonard Knight.

This past December, Knight moved to a nursing home in San Diego county. He’s 80 years old.

Knight lived at the mountain for almost 30 years, painting every day and sleeping in the back of a pick-up truck. San Diegan Dan Westfall, a friend of Knight's, says Knight's resilience always amazed him. "The ability to live out here with zero creature comforts through the summer, it was 118 degrees out here. He had so little consideration for himself. His priorities were the message, the mountain, and he came in a distant third."

Knight’s message is written right on the mountain: "God is Love." In fact, there are bible verses plastered all over it, as well as on the many brightly painted abandoned cars and trucks on the property.

Without Knight living and working on site, Salvation Mountain's future is uncertain.

Westfall and a group of concerned locals have formed a non-profit board to look after Knight's mountain. Salton City resident Imari Kariotis is the board's secretary. "The purpose of the nonprofit is to maintain and promote Leonard’s folk art, and to pass on his message of unconditional love."

Kariotis and Westfall admit there are many challenges ahead. Westfall says security is the number one priority. "This is not a really stable, secure neighborhood. There are elements around here that don’t respect Leonard’s art." Westfall worries about graffiti and vandalism. Items have already been stolen from the site. As a solution, the board is looking for a caretaker to live at the mountain full time.

Jo Farb Hernandez is the director of SPACES, an organization that helps preserve work by outsider artists. She says a lot will be required of the caretaker. "You know Leonard was here working on it 24/7, and that’s kind of what needs to happen."

She says the caretaker will have to do more than protect the mountain. They’ll need to patch the adobe and paint on a daily basis. "Somebody needs to be here on site, somebody who knows what they’re doing, to do conservation work on an as needed because otherwise it will be impossible to save."

The day we visited the mountain for this story, there was a daily stream of visitors. Some climbed onto the face of the mountain and walked over some of the more fragile areas. Hernandez was dismayed: "People are climbing all over it. And there are cracks all over it. And somebody’s boot heel could catch in it and a chunk comes out and then the rain gets in or the sun peels back the paint and pretty soon you’ve got a much larger chunk that's out."

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

Salvation Mountain is Leonard Knight’s passion and his life work. Finding a volunteer to live and work there for a small stipend won’t be easy. Westfall understands the challenge. "I can’t imagine the amount of labor that Leonard put into this in the last twenty-seven years. That passion’s gonna take a unique individual that’s going to value this enough to say this is worth doing."

There’s also another problem: nobody knows who owns the land Salvation Mountain is on. Knight was basically squatting, like his neighbors up the road in Slab City, where snowbirds and squatters camp for free on state-owned land.

Curtis Fossum is with the California State Lands Commission. He says the state is not sure if they own the land under Salvation Mountain. As of now, they don’t have the resources to find out, and it’s not a top priority. Fossum explains, "We have about 4 and a half million acres [to manage] and this is less than one of those acres." Fossum does say that he's hopeful the state will have the resources to explore land ownership in the region during the summer of 2012.

Jo Farb Hernandez says all of these challenges make Salvation Mountain an extremely unique preservation case. "It’s probably one of the more problematic sites, but I personally believe this is one of the top tier of art environments in the country, if not the world, on a lot of different levels. I think aesthetically, conceptually, and spiritually."

In recent years, Knight was building an ever-growing museum next to the mountain. Imari Kariotis stands in it, under a web of painted tree branches that reach up toward the sky. She tries to hold in her emotions. "I want Leonard’s legacy to live on. Leonard always said 'keep it simple' and it can’t be any more simple than people coming and helping and making the mountain grow and stay for future generations. I want my grandkids to bring their kids here."

Leonard Knight recently told Dan Westfall it was time to let the mountain do the talking for him. Perhaps it's time for more people to listen.

Video by Katie Euphrat

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Avatar for user 'CaliforniaDefender'

CaliforniaDefender | January 29, 2012 at 1:29 p.m. ― 5 years ago

What is most concerning is the environmental damage this artificial mountain has caused. All the chemicals in the paint (lead is certainly present considering the age), the tons of plaster, and the mishmash of old cars and junk leaking oil and other heavy metals is causing untold damage to the area.

If those people on the "non-profit board" truly cared about their neighbors, the environment, the wildlife, and their religion, they would restore that patch of land to its native state.

Honoring your god is an action best done in a church, temple, or mosque. Not sprawled across pristine land that doesn't belong to you.

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Avatar for user 'NonToxic'

NonToxic | February 22, 2012 at 6:57 p.m. ― 5 years ago

California Defender or religious basher?

Have you visited Salvation Mountain personally? If not, ANYTHING you say about it would be a LIE.

Lead: If you did your homework before tossing your $0.02 out there, you would find that soil samples were taken to test for lead based contamination when the government attempted to stop his work years ago. Given that no paint after 1980 has contained lead, your dead wrong on your accusations. The soil showed no signs of contamination, and thus no environmental harm has occurred. The latex paint simply coats the adobe, it does not release chemicals.

Plaster: He added water to the natural adobe that was located on site, so that claim is false as well. Water, adobe, hay and latex paint. There are less contaminates in Salvation Mountain than in your home.

Oil: None of the vehicles onsite are leaking, I have been to the mountain man times. Beyond some tools and old cars, there is no trash, no litter. Slab city is just beyond Salvation Mountain, there is where you can grip about contamination. Left over concrete slabs and waste from an old military base and trash dumped by campers is what you will find. This did not happen at Salvation Mountain on Leonards watch.

Restore it to its natural state? Can we start by restoring your home to its natural state, after all, you live on top of nature as well.

Are you worried about this little man made mountain out of environmental concern, or do you just hate to see someone praise the Lord openly? Afraid he will convert some of your God bashing friends? Perhaps you should give up all the money you own, as it clearly states in God you trust. This country was founded on Christian beliefs, its sad you can't allow them to be expressed these days. No one is telling you that you must believe, Leonard is simply trying to give those who are open to the message, a chance to see the Love God has to offer.

Watch the documentary that was made on Salvation Mountain, you might learn to love it.

If you really need an issue to get upset about, try supporting the Salton Sea's clean up. All the agriculture run off, sewer water and trash dumped into is killing the fish and birds that used to thrive there. Leave Salvation Mountain to those of us who believe in the power and love of the Lord Almighty.

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Avatar for user 'daween'

daween | June 26, 2012 at 2:46 p.m. ― 4 years, 8 months ago

Are you really going to single out Leonards Mountain when there are so many REAL threats to the environment? Leonard and his mountain are no threat to any one or any thing so back off and find something worthwhile to complain about, just make sure to get your facts straight so you don't come off like a complete idiot as you did here.

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