Salvation Mountain

In moving old posts to this site I can create new juxtapositions, such as pairing my thoughts on Alexandro Jodorowsky’s film The Holy Mountain with my thoughts on Leonard Knight’s monumental sculpture, Salvation Mountain (link to its official website). Enjoy:

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There are a number of large-scale artworks made by untrained artists – I’ll take up the whole idea of “outsider art” another time: The Watts Towers by Sabato “Simon” Rodia in Los Angeles, The Ideal Palace by Ferdinand “the Facteur” Cheval in Hauterives, France, to name two. Yesterday I went to see another: Salvation Mountain, in the deserts of souther California, near the town of Niland and the unincorporated towns of Glamis and Slab City. This large work, encompassing part of hill, was made by Leonard Knight (born 1931) between 1986 and 2011. Let’s look at it, shall we?

Knight’s inspiration was religious, obviously. The mountain is covered with references to the Bible and God – though not a great many specific Scriptures are cited. The main section of the work – the ‘mountain’ itself – is made of adobe and painted in whatever colors Knight could scrounge up or get donated to him. Hay bales and other things constitute a substrate for the adobe. The result is strong-looking, but delicate. The paint is subject to the heat and glare of the desert sun. Rain, though possible, is rare. People are allowed to walk on the mountain; there is a ‘yellow brick road’ that leads up to the top from the right-hand side, though the steps are narrow and uneven. At times the color is just garish; at others, it seems to work for no reason I can discern. Blue and white stripes appear repeatedly, and are a motif I found myself quite attracted to.

The right side of the mountain. My girlfriend Heather, who took the top photo, is at left.

The right side of the mountain. My girlfriend Heather, who took the top photo, is at left.

As you make your way around Salvation Mountain to the right, the other portions of the work appear. There are small rooms worked into the right-hand side of the mountain – chapels or cells, perhaps. Certainly they have reached the condition of shrines. People leave artifacts – coins and ID cards (presumably expired) are common. Photopgraphs – often of the mountain itself – are inset into the walls. Such self-referencing is unusual. I’m not quite sure what to make of it, though a few do show the mountain before it was completed.

That's me, in the largest of the "chapels." Photo by Heather

That’s me, in the largest of the “chapels.” Photo by Heather

The first of these “chapels” is complete, and extensively decorated. The second is smaller and less thoroughly embellished. The third was never finished, with a dirt floor and exposed hay bales. Tourists routinely refer to this as ‘the manger.”

To the right of the mountain is the Museum, a large, unfinished space of winding, interconnecting passages, the roof (where there is one) supported by scores of dead trees, whose branches make a dizzying weave of struts overhead, like a vaulted ceiling gone berserk. Bright colors are plentiful here, along with quirky elements that suggest what this area might have become: car doors inset into the walls; windows of scavenged glass set so that you can look through from one area into another.

Heather catches me at an interior window. The book is a Bible, of course.

Heather catches me at an interior window. The book is a Bible, of course.

In December of 2011, Leonard Knight was taken from Salvation Mountain, where he had been living, and put in an assisted-living facility. He is suffering from dementia. The unfocused, chaotic look of the Museum seems to reflect that loss of purpose. Worse, weather and the fragile nature of his materials imperil the mountain, especially the Museum; cracks can be seen as the hay bales have shifted and settled in the roof. Volunteers work to maintain and preserve the Mountain, but can they win against the hard climate of the desert Southwest? Could they even finish the work without Leonard Knight to guide them – or should they stop and merely conserve what is there?

In the parking lot by the Mountain there are several vehicles brightly decorated by Knight, reminders, perhaps, that his good wishes for mankind do not stay on mountains, but travel far and wide. It seems unlikely that most of these vehicles still operate. That, too, is a reminder. Artists pass away, and the memory of their art, like the work itself, comes to others’ hands.

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UPDATE: Leonard Knight died in February, 2014. Volunteers continue to work to maintain and repair the mountain, which suffered damage from heavy rains a few years ago. Their official website (linked up top) and Facebook page do not seem to have been updated since the fall of 2014.

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