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Then, through the small town of Niland, past the electrical transfer station, around the bend, we could see it rise up before us, the rays of the low afternoon sun making its color blaze against the amber hills.
Salvation Mountain is the creation of Leonard Knight, who came to this place in 1984, eager to share with the world his new-found faith in God. His interaction with the mountain since then has been a series of serendipitous mistakes that never discouraged him, but always led him to try something new.
First, he tried to fly a home-made hot-air balloon emblazoned with the words "God is Love". The balloon failed, but as its patchwork of colorful fabric draped over the clay hills, Leonard was inspired to re-fashion it in clay and painted concrete.
When that collapsed of its own weight a few years later, he accepted the lesson, and started over, this time using straw and native clay to make adobe. The dried adobe is covered in up to twelve coats or more of used, donated paint in a riot of colors. Pictoral themes include flowing water, blossoms, trees and patriotic flags. Leonard's message to the world had become an attraction, and visitors from all over came to see it.
About ten years ago, he decided to add on to the mountain, and built what he called a igloo, made of bales of hay coated with adobe. It makes a quiet refuge, almost like the anchorage of a holy man, and indeed, Leonard originally intended it to be his home. But he was too accustomed to living inside his truck, so he never moved in.
The inside of the igloo is filled with devotional pictures and talismans, like a shrine.
Yet another addition is called the Museum - it's made of more bales of hay reinforced by tree limbs, truck tires and car doors.
The interior is a brilliant and kaleidescopic swirl of colors and prayers.
Everything on the site is embellished and carries the message of Leonard's faith and his belief in redemption. The vehicles and tools he used to shape the earth are etched and emblazoned with the words of the Sinner's Prayer, and paintings of doves of peace.
Leonard is now in his 90s, and can no longer live in his truck out here at Salvation Mountain, but is in a seniors facility in Calipatria. If I am writing this as if Leonard himself had told these stories directly, it's because there is a video record of Leonard sharing his mountain with the late Huell Howser, a man who truly appreciated it.
The site attracts fans of all kinds - Leonard's creation has brought together folklorists, punk rockers, hippies, religious devotees, and just ordinary people. When we were there, a small film crew was doing a shoot on location, with one cast member wearing a yellow satin sun costume, and posing from the mountain's top. Now that Leonard's no longer able to work on the mountain, a small group of devoted fans care for the site, and maintain the Salvation Mountain website. When we visited they invited us to join them for a painting party two weeks later.
In 2000, the American Folk Art Society named Salvation Mountain as a site worthy of preservation, and in 2002, California Senator Barbara Boxer read a proclamation praising Leonard and his mountain into the Congressional Record.
Photographer Larry Yust said, in an article for Folk Art Magazine:
"Salvation Mountain is the Interactive Mountain – an interactive work of art – a work of art that you can walk on and that keeps changing with your moving point of view. It’s a work of art with the artist in residence and still working, constantly making changes and additions, but always taking the time to welcome visitors and show them around, talking with them and listening to their comments. It’s people giving paint and getting beauty in return. It’s people giving love and getting love back in equal measure. It’s apprentices sharing the work as well as the fun. And finally, Salvation Mountain is a work of art that is constantly interacting with nature, mirroring the changing skies, reflecting the shifting lights and shadows cast by the desert sun."And he's right. When you visit, at first it's easy to expect something a little goofy, a little quirky, a little silly. But something about the place draws you to stretch out your visit, explore and contemplate. You revel in the exuberance of its organic shapes, the bright candy colors, the unashamed joy. You share that with other visitors, and smile at the realization that all this is out here on the edge of the desert.
"Don't be an art critic. Paint. There lies salvation." - Paul Cezanne
Now that we've found Salvation, next we have to go find East Jesus.