I first met Leonard Knight around the same time I had stumbled upon the Salton Sea. In 1996, I had gone south to visit a former teacher of mine who was living seasonally at the Slabs east of Niland. Considered geographically a Northern Californian at the time, I was sadly, completely oblivious to the presence or background of our state's largest body of water located in a dry and economically impoverished corner of Southern California. To say that I was overwhelmed by this strange place upon visiting is an understatement. My ongoing obsession with the Salton Sea grew into a graduate thesis project, website and eventually a book published for the centenary of the sea's awkward creation in 1905.
My interest with the Salton Sea and its built environment grew to include the array of curious characters that inhabited the surreal landscape -- Knight included. For those uninitiated to the site, Salvation Mountain is a wonderfully odd, but highly inspirational public art installation constructed nearly single-handedly by Knight from straw, locally sourced adobe mud and discarded house paint over a nearly thirty-year period. Located at the entrance of Slab City near the "seen better days" town of Niland, California, not far from El Centro and the U.S. Mexican border. This large-scale religiously themed structure is impossible to miss. Folks have made pilgrimages from all other the globe to view and walk the mountain and, more importantly, visit with its creator.
A bit of background
Leonard Knight was born in 1931 in Shelburne Falls, Vermont. Growing up on a working farm, Knight dropped out of high school early on. By age twenty, he had been drafted into the military, serving in the Korean War until honorably discharged. Unmarried, he worked a variety of odd jobs in several states, traveling in an old truck while finding time to teach himself to paint along the way. By the late 1960s, he traveled out West to visit family members, where it seems he first had the spiritual epiphany that led him to devise a creative way to spread the word of God.
His initial effort began with an attempt at creating the world's largest air balloon, cobbled together with a patchwork of left over resources donated from a Nebraska-based manufacturer that was covered with colorful, "God is Love" spiritual messages. Knight worked on the 200-foot balloon project for nearly ten years but at the end, it never made it off the ground. Still, the failed endeavor managed to set the stage for his next inspired undertaking -- the creation of Salvation Mountain.
Knight first arrived at Niland during the 1980s and ended up staying permanently. Several years after setting down camp at the infamous RV squat known as "the Slabs" just east of town he began he to construct the mountain in 1985. Unfortunately after five years of persistent labor on his part, the mountain collapsed due to lack of structural integrity. Undeterred, Knight began reform the mountain a second time, fashioning the relief with a stronger application of hand-mixed adobe, completing his sculpture in a colorful pastel palette from the thousands of gallons house paint donated by his frequent visitors and fans. To this day, thousands of people have traveled annually to this area just to visit Salvation Mountain.
The main focal point of the installation is the brightly painted "God is Love" message. Below this statement and within a crimson heart is inscribed: "Jesus, I'm a sinner. Please come upon my body and into my heart." Everywhere the eye travels, brightly painted waterfalls, flowers, birds and biblical references abound. Knight could still be seen working diligently at the site, repairing or repainting the mountain until 2011, when at age eighty, he was relocated to an elder care facility near San Diego. When asked if he considered himself an artist, he simply explained that he "works with the mountain and doesn't try to control it," suggesting that another presence other than himself directed him to continue his work.
During my early visits, I was always taken with the fact that Knight did not believe in "preaching on the mountain." He once explained that he was disappointed with religious groups who try to claim his creation for their own personal missions and institutions. He preferred not to be associated with any particular faith and actually said once that "it doesn't matter if you are Christian, a Buddhist or whatever" -- it was important to know that "God is Love." Obviously, he was a man who loved and respected all forms of spirituality.
'Keep it simple'
Another beautiful aspect of Knight was how simply he had lived at the mountain. For years Knight resided in a wonderfully painted old truck that brought to mind Eastern European gypsy caravans. A group of stray-ish cats and on occasion a dog or two shared this home. Often times, close friends and visitors would camp on site. When not working, Knight played a mean game of horseshoes and enjoyed to singing and strumming Hank William tunes on his guitar. I like to think back to game of horseshoes that we played together on an unusually stormy and cool, quiet afternoon with just three of us there at the mountain.
In 2000, I made a portrait of Knight while he was in the midst of constructing his first straw bale structure, embedding the inner walls with painted niches containing religiously inspired objects. A later addition to the site was a constructed straw bale wonderland featuring a design that for me surpasses the mountain itself. This maze-like domed structure is full of architectural innovation and surprises. Knight's incorporation of sustainably salvaged refuse including car doors, windshields, and an entire fallen tree is as "green" as anything I've encountered. Of course, it was lovingly painted in Leonard's capricious signature style featuring an abundance of blue birds in addition to his whimsical religious symbolism. The Folk Art Society of America declared his creation "a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection" in 2000. Later, in 2002, California Senator Barbara Boxer called it as "a unique and visionary sculpture...a national treasure...profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives." 1
Strangely enough, Salvation Mountain has had its share of detractors in the past. In 1994, a group of overly zealous environmentalists intervened claiming that his creation was a "toxic nightmare." They lobbied for the mountain's destruction after grounds-testing suggested heavy metal contamination. Knight decided to collect soil samples from the same "twelve holes that they dug" and proceded to have his own tests done in a private lab in San Diego. His results came out negative, thus ending the controversy.
Visitors continue to arrive from all over the world to view Leonard's creation firsthand. Today, a group of dedicated volunteers work to protect the mountain Leonard created from vandalism and the harsh desert environmental forces. In recent years, a non-profit was established with Leonard's blessing to oversee financial support to maintain and preserve the mountain. Still, much is unknown about the fate of Knight's creation. The California State Lands Commission is not certain if the state actually owns the land it sits on (nearby Slab City lies on state holdings) so the future of Knight's inspirational earthwork is precarious indeed.
Additional sites of interest: