Salvation MountainLeonard Knight (1931 - 2014)

Status

Extant

Address

603 Beal Road , Niland, CA, 92257, United States

Built

1984 to 2011

Visiting Information

The site is open every day from dawn until dusk. Please be aware of and respect signage that designates if an area of the site is closed due to rain or maintenance. 

About the Artist/Site

Down what is left of Main Street, Niland, California, past a grid of houses, a cluster of motorhomes, and a grand but decrepit building with graffiti-laden Doric columns, over the railroad tracks and past the solar panel farm, you enter the Sonoran Desert landscape on what seems to be a road to nowhere. Looking towards the horizon line, an unintelligible blip of jumbled, pastel colors begins to mediate the meeting of those two expansive nowheres. You have arrived at Salvation Mountain–a Mountain that’s not a mountain in a place that turned out not to be nowhere. Leonard Knight, the creator of Salvation Mountain, lived onsite and continually labored on his creation for 28 years to create a prismatic roadside billboard promoting the message central to his practice: “God is love.” Knight was moved from the site into a nursing home in 2011, and he passed away in 2014; however, the Mountain continues to beckon travelers like a verdant oasis in an expansive field of sky and dust.

Salvation Mountain is an approximately three-story-tall and 100-foot-wide artist-built environment constructed onto the side of a natural desert ridge. Its primary call to action, “Say Jesus I’m a sinner please come upon my body and into my heart,” is flanked by the lush, Edenic imagery of undulating cerulean rivers cutting through patches of moss, kelly, and forest greens robustly dotted with bright flowers and trees. Located in Southern California’s Sonoran Desert, this palpable mirage is extremely vulnerable to the elements of its volatile environment, including high winds, extreme heat, and a flat, empty landscape that provides no respite from the sun’s punishing rays. In addition to the environmental risks, the site is also exposed to human dangers due to the influx of thousands of visitors each year. While there is a caretaker (Ron Malinowski at the time of this writing) on site to mediate riskier behavior, guests to the Mountain are still encouraged to climb the “Yellow Brick Road” that snakes up the Mountain and provides a panoramic view as that is how Knight originally intended for the site to be experienced. 

Combining the death of its maker in 2014 with the precariousness of its unforgiving and unstable landscape and its popularity as a tourist destination, it seems probable that Salvation Mountain would already be in ruins. However, the constant care that the site requires has been continued by a group of Knight’s supporters who are dedicated to preserving the Mountain as it existed when Knight was present as well as protecting the artist’s original message of universal love. This team of volunteers, a Board of Directors called Salvation Mountain, Inc., comprises Knight’s friends, family, and members of the adjacent community Slab City, a haphazard desert village populated by wanderers, drifters, escapists, and retirees. Years ago, a “Slabber” named Bill Ammon was hired by Knight to assist with the original construction of the site. “Builder Bill” is now a member of the Board and acts as the Mountain’s on-site manager. Having worked directly with Knight, he is intimately aware of the authentic techniques used to create the artwork and leads volunteer parties in their efforts to continue layering on protective layers of paint (in their original colors as determined by vintage photos) as well as repair damage when necessary. It is integral to the Board’s mission that Knight’s original design and techniques are utilized; however, some of Knight’s more creative methods have been abandoned. “One time I was down to see him work and he’s up on this spindly-ass ladder on the very top… on one foot leaning over with a brush painting something… I remember it was yellow paint. And I said, ‘Leonard, aren’t you worried about dangling like that?’ And he says, ‘No, He [God] knows I’m supposed to be doing this.’ And it was just like that, you know?” reminisced Ammon.

In attempt to guarantee their ability to preserve the site, Salvation Mountain, Inc. was previously involved in a multi-year process to purchase the small parcel of land immediately surrounding the Mountain from the State of California. (The land is currently in possession of the California Bureau of Land Management and has been since Knight was present at the site.) However, it has become clear to the Board that taking ownership of the land is an untenable proposition due to liabilities, code enforcement, etc. As Westfall described of their predicament, “Leonard built the place in limbo, and we’re still here.”

On December 23, 2005, Knight’s friend Larry Yust interviewed him with the intention of forming a will outlining Knight’s wishes for the inevitable day he would have to leave his technicolor dreamscape. Yust begins the conversation by citing fellow friend of the Mountain Anita Roddick’s opinion that when Knight passes, so too should the Mountain pass and “slowly disappear into the desert.” Knight immediately responds that he “positively agrees with that totally,” and then just as quickly, his stance begins shifting as he declares increasingly optimistic hopes that the Mountain would still be standing “20 years from now,” then “45 years from now,” finally saying, “I’d like to make it [the paint] so thick and so solid that it’ll [Salvation Mountain] be here for so long that people won’t believe it—70 years.” The Mountain is certainly vulnerable and its future is precarious; however, as long as Salvation Mountain, Inc. and the people of Slab City continue to act as stewards of this extraordinary site and honor the intentions of its equally-extraordinary maker, visitors to the unassuming town of Niland, California will find a thriving expression and expansion of the art of the 20th and 21st centuries.

 

- Annalise Flynn, 2020 

Materials

adobe, hay bales, paint, tree limbs, car windows, telephone poles, found objects

SPACES Archives Holdings

4 folders, 1 binder: clippings, correspondence, images, pamphlets

Related Documents

Contributor

Annalise Flynn 

Map & Site Information

603 Beal Road
Niland, CA, 92257 us
Latitude/Longitude: 33.2417998 / -115.5011796

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