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Arts & Culture

The Fight To Save Salvation Mountain

Leonard Knight, outsider artist who spent years building Salvation Mountain out of adobe, straw and paint.
Angela Carone
Leonard Knight, outsider artist who spent years building Salvation Mountain out of adobe, straw and paint.
Can Salvation Mountain Be Saved?
The Fight To Save Salvation Mountain
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.

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 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.

Corrected: December 1, 2023 at 3:53 PM PST
Video by Katie Euphrat