Faith Fuels the Construction of Spectacular Work of Outsider Art in California Desert
Leaving Palm Springs to the army of tan, fit golfers who play on the 125 courses here, I embarked on my quest for Salvation Mountain. With a new friend, I headed out on Route 10 into the desert, past the wind farm, with its 4,865 turbines standing sentinel at the foothills of the San Jacinto and San Gorgonio Mountains. We passed the cell phone towers dolled up as palm trees, and then the massive Shadow Hills seniors’ community, with its 180 social clubs. We passed Mecca, where you can have a date shake at the date palm farm/RV park combo. We passed the pumice fields, where the spongy stones abound, relics of long ago volcanic eruptions.
Deserted Niland bank. Credit: Meg Pier
The wind farm . Credit: Meg Pier
And along the circumference of the Salton Sea, we came to Niland, a lonely crossroads. A bank sat forlornly on one corner, its cash flow clearly dried up long ago, its still-imposing Ionic columns scarred with graffiti. Diagonally opposite, a train sat dead in its tracks. We headed further into the desert, the expanse around us studded with molehill-like protrusions of old Army bunkers. Suddenly, lo and behold, we saw an exuberant oasis of swirling primary colors rising from the dusty desert floor, reaching for the indigo sky. We had reached Salvation Mountain.
Pulling into the parking lot, we passed a baby-blue mailbox proclaiming “God is Love.” I couldn’t help but grin at this monumental work of Outsider Art for which the site was named. Salvation Mountain is a 50-foot high, 150-foot wide peak in the middle of nowhere that Leonard Knight erected entirely by hand over a 24-year period, using local adobe clay and donated paint. A man-made desert garden stretched out around its base—Leonard had given an assortment of broken-down vehicles new life, every inch of their surface emblazoned with primitive, child-like designs of birds and flowers in vibrant hues. A pickup truck, camper, two motorcycles, and a boat had each been transformed into individual beds of vivid blooms—I buzzed from one to the next, savoring the sweet artistry.
Leonard Knight: An Instantly Lovable Rebel
A wiry and spry Leonard Knight made a beeline for me from inside the mouth of the Mountain, and cried out a warm welcome. The creative force behind Salvation Mountain, Leonard was tan and lean, with good teeth and tousled white hair. Dressed in a cotton button-down shirt and chinos, he looked as though he could have been on the 19th hole, save the multi-colored paint splotches. His boyish appearance belied his 74 years of age and was enhanced by his earnestness and lack of guile. He was, in short, imminently and instantly lovable. I didn’t know what I had expected of someone who had wound up here 24 years ago from Vermont and began a new life by slapping adobe on the hillside, and painting it with biblical passages. I was pleasantly surprised and deeply touched by Leonard.
Leonard Knight in front of his artwork. Credit: Meg Pier
A self-described rebel who nonetheless was bullied as a kid, Leonard made his first trip to California in 1956. Eleven years later, he returned to visit his sister in San Diego. It was here where he experienced his first religious feelings after he rejected his sister’s attempts to teach him about Jesus.
“I was about thirty-six years old and I’d never spent one minute, hardly, thinking about God or the Lord. I remember it was on a Wednesday, about ten-thirty in the morning in 1967, in my van, by myself and I just started saying ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart.’ I figured, hey, I’m all alone with Jesus, there ain’t no harm in me keeping repeating this. And, man, for twenty minutes I was just saying it over and over again, and it changed my life completely to the good.”
He returned to Vermont, impassioned to share his conversion. One day, he happened to see a hot air balloon pass overhead. Inspired to build his own as a means of promoting his message of salvation, he spent the next 14 years traveling across the country, all the while sewing a massive inflatable that, alas, he was never able to get airborne. In 1984, he found himself defeated and deflated, in the desert, his dream dismantled. He decided he would spend one week making a “small statement” before moving on. As Leonard told someone twelve years later “It’s been a good week.”
Tour of Salvation Mountain
He gave me a personal tour, as it seems he does for every visitor, and enthusiastically showed me around his Candy Land-like patch of desert. He pointed out the evolution over the past quarter century of his three-story Christian cartoon, now spreading over a couple of acres of dunes—for which he has used more than 100,000 gallons of paint.
Leonard's form of expressing his feelings of salvation and love for God. Credit: Meg Pier
I took in the latex “sea” at the mountain’s base, akin to a huge kiddie pool; the blue-and-white striped waterfall aside the ‘yellow brick road,’ that climbs to the top of the painted pinnacle, with a 15-foot cross at its peak, just above the big red heart shouting ‘Say Jesus I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.’ Leonard then guided me through the latest addition to the Mountain, an igloo-shaped structure attached to its side that he called the ‘museum.’ He told me that the trees he made here are forged from cast-off wood and tires salvaged in the desert, and showed me his technique for creating the flower swirls embedded in them—balling up his fist and smashing it into the adobe thick with paint. Flower power!
As he briskly led me around the mountain he confessed, “I don’t know what I’m doing. But God does. And so I just keep doing it.”
And God let him, despite some adversity. In 1994, hazardous waste experts appeared and cited Leonard as creating a toxic site with the lead in his painted mountain. Leonard fought the charge, and won. Publicity surrounding the controversy attracted the attention of a Hollywood producer, who formed “Friends of Leonard Knight,” which counts among its members several museum curators. In building his missionary mountain, Leonard has been hailed as a visionary artist, and in 2000 was given a plaque by the Folk Art Society of America acknowledging the artistic merit of the sculpture that is Salvation Mountain.
In 2011, five years after I met Leonard, he was placed in a long-term care facility in El Cajon for dementia. He left this physical plane in 2014, but his spirit lives on—certainly in my heart, and through the work of a non-profit group that maintains his work of art.
Like Leonard, my awakening is slow going and marked with uncertainty and missteps. I, too, often feel I don’t know what I’m doing. But I also share with Leonard the gratitude that I get to “just keep doing it” despite convention and common sense often seeming to dictate things should be otherwise.
A section of Salvation Mountain. Credit: Meg Pier