A project like East Jesus really couldn't exist anywhere other than Slab City. The forlorn remnants of the WWII-era Camp Dunlap Naval Reservation three miles east of the Imperial County hamlet of Niland, Slab City has been a way station for the less-rooted almost since the Navy handed the place back to the State of California in 1961 -- a perfect place for society's rusty detritus to be transformed into art.
In other places in the desert, abandoned military bases either get grabbed by ambitious developers or left to moulder in the remote outback. But Slab City was neither remote enough to be abandoned, or close enough to money to be developed. Niland itself just barely hangs on to life, a small town dependent on the vicissitudes of agriculture. So when snowbirds started spending their winters at Slab City, camping self-contained for free, no one bothered them: least of all the officials of Niland, whose retail businesses benefited from their new neighbors.
Over the years Slab City's seasonal residents were slowly joined by people living there year-round. Some of the new permanent residents were people with few other options: the addicted, the disabled, the people with three or more strikes against them. Others merely valued being left alone to do as they pleased. An unlikely community grew among the Slab City settlers, with a community center of sorts, a library, an open-air nightclub -- The Range -- with stage and tattered seating, a small but thriving religious community.
Charles Russell, a talented artist and one of those guys who masked a mostly kindly nature with a humorously misanthropic exterior, found a spot just north of The Range, named it "East Jesus" in a nod to its remote location on the way to nowhere, and moved in. When he got there in 2006, his place was a depressing rust-strewn thicket of creosote, tamarisk, and broken glass. By the time Russell died this May of an unexpected heart attack in his mid-40s, it was a work of art.
In Russell's own words,
Wedged between the Chocolate Mountain Gunnery Range and the Salton Sea in southern California's exotic Imperial Valley, East Jesus is an experimental, comprehensive habitat and artwork comprising vernacular architecture, technophilia, common-sense environmentalism, desert survival and sculpture/assemblage using predominantly recycled, re-purposed or discarded materials, sublimating the unwanted and ugly into the purposefully beautiful. The main structure is built around a 27' fiberglass shipping container, extended by walls composed of junk (lockers, computers, refrigerators, microwave ovens, bookshelves, tool chests, shipping crates, TVs and other electronics) and recycled, re-used lumber and steel. A contiguous shade structure connects the main container to a two-level 24' trailer (found abandoned and stripped) through a row of desert ironwood trees, which themselves serve as structural elements. Begun February of 2007, the main habitat continues to grow and evolve. Adjoining the habitat is a sculpture garden whose constituents are made exclusively of junk from the immediate area, also growing and evolving. The large, open shaded area has become home to a surprising variety of wildlife - lizards, rabbits, quail, hummingbirds, woodpeckers and other avian species call East Jesus home.
Though Russell was the guiding light (and sole full-time resident) of East Jesus, the grounds there are home to installations by a surprisingly long roster of talent, from sculptor Joe Holliday's woolly mammoth made mainly of discarded truck tires (which formerly held court at Downtown LA's TOW) to Flip Cassidy's TV Wall, to "Cosmos," a stunning, rusty orrery-cum-wind-turbine by Royce Carlson.
Russell was an associate of Northern California art car maven Harrod Blank, and art cars are well represented at East Jesus as well, the pinnacle of the form being an early 1970s-era Volkswagen Campmobile redone as a meticulous religious shrine.
The whole place is a testament to finding beauty in the cast-off, whether in details like low fences made of bicycle tires; or prominent features like the slightly swaying, three-story open-framed tower of reclaimed timber. But predictably, as the land East Jesus occupies is itself more or less cast-off, the project's future is in doubt. Russell didn't legally own the land, and his friends had to scramble after his death to make sure someone was on the site at all times so that no one made off with artworks, the solar panels and battery bank, or any of the other tools and materials onsite. As Danii "Pepper" Curry, a Los Angeles artist now working as general administrator of East Jesus, put it on her
It's the middle of summer and most people that knew Charlie are waiting until fall to contribute, but the way it's shaping up the project might not make it until fall, in fact we might not make it another two weeks. The situation is absolutely dire. This is not an exaggeration. We need more than night watchmen, we need to support the folks out there that want to expand on Charlie's vision and make it work. If this doesn't happen we're faced with losing an important project and our faith that we can collectively make it happen. In a world where citizens' rights are consistently and systematically being marginalized and placed beneath the priorities of the government, individuals are desperate to see an example of a place that can exist outside of these repressive boundaries.
Curry and her colleagues hope the art community will give East Jesus a hand, whether with financial contributions or in kind, from their wish list of supplies.
Russell's collaborative artistic vision ought to be preserved and continued. It's a tragedy that he was only afforded five years to work on East Jesus. Given a span like that Simon Rodia spent on his towers, Charlie Russell might have done work to delight the world, a ramshackle Gaudi of the Low Desert. As it is, his project continues to inspire and charge young artists to do the same.
Chris Clarke is an environmental writer of two decades standing. Author of Walking With Zeke, he writes regularly at his acclaimed blog Coyote Crossing and comments on desert issues here every Wednesday. He lives in Palm Springs.