'East Jesus' Desert Art Project In Peril

A portion of East Jesus, including art cars and the wind sculpture Cosmos. Photo by Flip Cassidy.
A portion of East Jesus, including art cars and the wind sculpture Cosmos. Photo by Flip Cassidy.

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.

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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,

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.

The shadow cast by Royce Carlson's Cosmos. Photo by Flip Cassidy.
The shadow cast by Royce Carlson's Cosmos. Photo by Flip Cassidy.

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.

East Jesus art car. Photo by Flip Cassidy
East Jesus art car. Photo by Flip Cassidy

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 blog,

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.

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