I’m fascinated by the lives and processes of compulsive makers. Individuals who dedicate so much time and so many resources to their craft, regardless of a conventional skill level. I’ll be seeking out these individuals and bodies of work in a new series A Life of Epic Compulsion.
This past weekend I ventured to Coachella Valley outside of Palm Springs, CA to document the month-long installation of Desert X. The site specific series contrasted with the unyielding landscape for some compelling juxtapositions. I thought the work was smart and offered interesting human/environment interactions. But the highlight of this trip stretched much further into the desert of Southern California to the acclaimed folk art site, Salvation Mountain. A labor of love for over 30 years by self-taught artist Leonard Knight, the mountain is a colorful landscape dedicated to one man’s simplistic proverbial devotion.
Past the once-glorious Salton Sea, infamous for its smell of death, and a town miles from anything, the long stretch of road into the desert is ominous. Driving south with two friends, we sing along to The Beach Boys, unsure if Google Maps really knows where we are going. Past two sets of train tracks, further into the valley. We round a corner and in the distance, contrasting with the horizon, a vibrant structure appears. The words “GOD IS LOVE” is painted in bright red against a white background, calling out to visitors right off the road. Graphic patterns come into better focus as we pull up to the mountain. For such a desolate spot, there are at least 20 people meandering slowly along the bright yellow walking path.
White and blue stripes, egg-colored sculptural polka dots, and abstracted floral motifs cover the base of the site and climb the mountain. There is color on every surface – slippery latex house paint, shiny on untouched curves and faded under areas of curious wear and persistent sun. Upon further exploration there are two paint-laden volunteers carefully restoring tied-off corners to their former brightness.
“JESUS I’M A SINNER PLEASE COME UPON MY BODY AND HEART” is repeated across dilapidated cars, sides of the mountain, a makeshift mailbox. Knight’s religiosity is minimal in message – repent and spread love, an idea not fully supported by the religious institutions Knight sought out. He believed in a simple divine relationship. As a testament to his unyielding faith and spurred by a lack of community, Knight discovered the remote riverbank in Niland, CA and devoted 30 years to constructing this monument.
Knight saw as his mission to convey a message of love and repentance. He initially attempted constructing a hot air balloon to fly over the desert region and failed to ever launch it. Determined to create a resonating image of God’s love, Knight began work on his first monument at the site – an unstable structure filled with sand and random debris that ultimately collapsed after 4 years of work. Rather than give up on construction, Knight understood this collapse as God’s teaching, and soon after began work on the mountain currently standing, using old hay bales, adobe clay, and layer upon layer of house paint.
Salvation Mountain was Knight’s daily dedication for almost 30 years. The man lived with no electricity, gas, running water, electronics, heating, or air conditioning onsite until his passing in 2014. He was widely regarded as one of the happiest folks around. From the main Salvation Mountain site, “On a typical day [Knight] rises at 5:00 AM and heads into town for a cup of coffee. He is soon back at the mountain working the adobe clay… There is always painting to do… he is always working on something.” In the unforgiving desert heat Knight would work in the cool hours of the morning and late afternoon. Visitors came year round, more frequently in the winter months, and in his later years, Knight would spend much of his day answering questions and sharing his work and the history of the site.
The most compelling facet, to me, of Salvation Mountain is its existence due to brazen determination; a monument dedicated to the manifestation of one man’s epic compulsions. Ten years into his second construction, the monument was almost shut down by a falsified toxicology report, a front for a quick land-grab by the California government. A widely circulated petition from Knight’s passionate fan base and a corrected lead levels report kept the site intact and furthered his devotion to a higher power. The tenacity, or possibly bullheadedness, of this man is astounding. Lack of skills and resources didn’t hinder his commitment to expression, he possessed a single-minded focus.
Knight dedicated the later part of his life to creating a complex body of work seemingly without an audience (save his savior.) Salvation Mountain is the unorthodox visual manifestation of one man’s message and reflective of the unrefined aesthetic of outsider art. The mountain has since been established as a National Folk Art site, highlighting the importance and relevance of unconventional visual representations. Knight’s dedication to his craft culminated in a far-reaching message more explicit than “GOD IS LOVE” – a monument reflective of the aesthetics of effort.