The only color in the landscape for miles, Salvation Mountain looms like a mirage on the horizon. The three-story, three-decade work of artist Leonard Knight, who died yesterday at the age of 82, is a piece of brightly painted, hand-sculpted California desert, like an impossibly scaled cathedral made from Play-Doh.
Knight built his 50-foot tall, 150-foot wide mountain in the desert about an hour east of Palm Springs, near the edge of the Salton Sea, a vast inland ocean created when an engineering failure allowed the Colorado River to flow into a nearby valley. In this sparsely populated basin, Knight began creating a hillside with scriptures and religious affirmations back in 1984.
After Knight began work on the project, Salvation Mountain quickly became a must-see for tourists making a pilgrimage to the eerie beauty of Salton Sea. An estimated 40 to 100 people stop by per day as part of an itinerary that includes a dying body of water ringed with fish skeletons, vacant resorts dotting the once-posh shoreline, and Slab City, an informal community of free-spirited squatters and seasonal snowbirds. Knight was a squatter himself: The land Salvation Mountain sits on is owned by the state.
The technicolor, DIY aesthetic often draws comparisons to Watts Towers in South Los Angeles, another "outsider art" project that was largely the work of a single man. Knight's construction methods included stacking haybales like igloos, binding together tree branches with nylon cording, and self-mixing his own adobe clay, which he'd pack into shapes and slather over with paint like frosting on a giant birthday cake.
According to the Los Angeles Times, Knight grew up in Vermont where he was a "welder, handyman, guitar teacher, painter and body-and-fender man." After having a spiritual epiphany, he decided to devote his life to spreading messages of devotion and prayer. He came to Slab City with a hot-air balloon emblazoned with the words "God Is Love" that he planned to fly across the country. After the heat and sun destroyed his balloon's nylon, he turned his attention to an outcropping of rocks where he planned to paint his message. His first attempt at building the monument collapsed because he had used too much sand in his adobe.
Knight didn't charge admission to visit (although there is a donation box), instead, fans often left cans of paint to contribute to the project, along with other offerings like brushes and tools, and found objects like trophies, which he'd add to his collections.
Salvation Mountain was named a National Folk Art Site by the National Folk Art Society of America in 2010 and several documentaries and television shows have featured Knight's work. Senator Barbara Boxer spoke at length about Knight in a 2002 Congressional address. There's a website created for the project, and a group of volunteers on Facebook who appear to be maintaining the artwork (which I'd think would need to be repainted regularly to save it from the bleaching sun).
Until a few years ago, Knight would receive visitors in person, invariably wearing a paint-spattered shirt and a wide smile as he gave tours, played guitar, or worked diligently in the searing desert sun. He lived in his truck on the property until he was moved to a convalescent home in San Diego, where he died peacefully, and hopefully well-assured that his message had indeed been received. [Los Angeles Times]
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