Hard Times on Salvation Mountain

Salvation Mountain in HDR, though it hardly needs it | Creative Commons image by Jesse
Salvation Mountain in HDR, though it hardly needs it | Creative Commons image by Jesse

Let's start with the good news: Leonard Knight, creator of the folk-outsider-art desert installation Salvation Mountain, seems to be doing better than some news reports in the last week might have led you to believe.

Supporters of the project feared, hearing that Knight had moved to a care facility in El Cajon specializing in dementia, that the artist's health might have declined dramatically. That may well be true, but in an impromptu interview conducted by filmmaker Patrick Rea in Knight's hospital room, Knight is clearly lucid, looking forward to continuing his work despite what turns out to have been a mini-stroke.

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Salvation Mountain, a popular folk art site started by Knight 30 years ago to advance his nondenominational evangelical Christian faith, is a three-story construction of adobe and acrylic paint occupying most of a small hill east of Niland. Beloved of outsider art fans and evangelicals alike, the mountain has been held together by Knight's tenacity, as well as by at least 100,000 gallons of paint.

In a video posted on December 6th, Knight's caretaker Kevin Eubank updated fans of the Mountain on Knight's condition, speaking of the artist's declining health, cognitive lapses and general frailty, and announcing that he'd taken Knight to the hospital after a bad night.

A week later, on December 13, Eubank died of an apparent heart attack.

Volunteers are now guarding the mountain around the clock. Supporters say that some well-funded evangelical groups have expressed interest in taking over the site and adapting Knight's all-inclusive message to their own missions, which Knight's supporters vow to resist. Visitors to the nearby encampment of Slab City also pose somewhat of a threat, as random vagrants and tweakers occasionally vandalize or burglarize their neighbors' property.

The biggest threats to the site will take more than a community watch to counter. In 1994, Imperial County threatened to close the site down over fears of toxic contamination from the huge amounts of donated paint essentially dumped on the site. Independent soil tests paid for by Knight showed minimal contamination off-site. Ironically, it turned out that the only lead-based paint onsite had been donated by Caltrans, and Imperial County backed off after having threatened to delcare Salvation Mountain a Superfund site. Acrylic paint pigments do sometimes contain cadmium, chromium, cobalt, and additional toxic substances other than lead, and there are constant rumors of continuing county concern over the environmental legacy of the site. Efforts to close the site down may be stymied by a 2002 formal statement of support by US Senator Barbara Boxer, but that's far from certain.

The biggest threat to the site, though, is simply the ravages of time and the elements. Without continual touch-ups by Knight, the acryliic-coated adobe heart of Salvation Mountain will soon be worn away by desert sandstorms, wind, and torrential winter rains. Though Knight seems chipper in his recent interview, it's likely asking too much to hope that he'll recover sufficiently to move back to the site and fully resume his work. Volunteers can perform minor patches and upkeep, but long-term conservation of the site would require either a professional conservator -- an expensive proposition -- or a new lead artist, who would be unlikely to hew strictly to Knight's vision.

It's certain, in other words, that Salvation Mountain is approaching some major changes. But at least the site's fans can still send their fond wishes to Knight via the mountain's Facebook page and website, and at least Knight is still around to hear how his work has affected people's lives -- a fortunate situation for any artist.

- Video: Desert, Folk Art, Love: A Visit to Salvation Mountain
- "East Jesus" Desert Art Project In Peril

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 week. He lives in Palm Springs. Read his previous posts here.

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