Leonard Knight

LEONARD KNIGHT (1931–2014)

photography  AARON HUEY

Salvation Mountain: A Beacon of Love in the Desert. The barren slopes of Imperial County’s desert plains can leave very little to the imagination. The typical frame of reference for the land east of the Salton Sea is a seemingly endless stretch of sand, rock, and expired plant life suffocating underneath a blanket of sweltering heat. Miles of arduous territory seldom explored by human feet can leave a lone traveler thirsting for more than just water — some form of gratification or surprise, perhaps? Hours of trekking lead to wondering if the splash of color up ahead is merely a mirage. There’s a mountain in the distance, which isn’t unusual for this kind of environment, but the hues of red, green, blue, and yellow covering it strike a loud chord of disharmony around the neighboring desert. Upon closer inspection, you notice the painted designs of nature and Biblical scripture embedded on the rock, culminating into large text reading “GOD IS LOVE” towards the top of the mass. You have reached Salvation Mountain.

Behind every piece of art is a creator who made it come to life with a purpose, and Leonard Knight was no exception. Although he passed in February of 2014 at the age of 80, Knight left behind a legacy with Salvation Mountain — a colorful testament that promotes love and hope for future harmony among people. It was always his intention to spread word of God’s unwavering mercy and acceptance, but the effort would prove to be more difficult than anticipated, as Salvation Mountain’s origins span about 40 years in the making.

Leonard Knight lived a quaint existence in his childhood home of Vermont until a trip to San Diego to visit his sister completely changed his outlook on life. The year was 1967 and Knight, 35 years old at the time, had found himself repeating the Sinner’s Prayer by himself: “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” It was then that Knight had a new undying faith overcome his heart and he was determined to spread this newfound passion to the world somehow. One day he came across a hot air balloon in the sky with words printed on its side. Knight thought it was the perfect way to show the Sinner’s Prayer to others around the world. There were many failed attempts at making his own hot air balloon; Knight bought all of his materials with money earned through various odd jobs and stitching the fabric with a sewing machine given to him from a friend. The project soon became too overwhelming to handle and had no success getting off the ground. After 14 years, Knight decided to put his efforts to a halt.

Feeling disappointed from the supposed failure, Knight wanted to leave a kind of symbol to represent all his efforts to promote God’s love. He used half a bag of cement to create a small monument, which eventually grew into a bigger monument, and in the course of four years it became a full-fledged mountain standing over 50 feet. The mountain ultimately fell apart because of the way it was constructed — made from old junk from the dump and sand covered with paint and cement. Knight did not get discouraged, however, because he felt it was a sign from God telling him the mountain wasn’t safe and to try to build a better structure. Knight attempted to construct another mountain, more structurally sound than the last, using adobe mixed with straw and over 100,000 donated gallons of paint. That second attempt later became the Salvation Mountain that stands to this day.

Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain quickly became known to the public eye and is now regarded as a highly unique piece of folk artwork. It was not without its share of controversy, however. The mountain was prematurely labeled a “toxic nightmare” in 1994 when it was tested by a toxic waste specialist for supposedly high amounts of lead in the soil. This prompted the county to petition the state of California for funds to tear down the mountain and haul it away to a toxic waste disposal dumpsite in Nevada. The unwavering support of the community prevented this from happening, as they helped Knight collect soil samples from the very same holes as the expert had used and submitted them to an independent lab in San Diego. The results found that the soil contained no harmful toxins and Salvation Mountain remains to this day as a testament to enduring struggle through determination.

Throughout the years, the mountain has appeared in various newspapers, on television shows and films — including Sean Penn’s 2007 film Into the Wild and British band Hurts’s music video for their song “Somebody to Die For.” California Senator Barbara Boxer even deemed Salvation Mountain a national treasure in 2002, saying it is “a sculpture for the ages–profoundly strange and beautifully accessible, and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.”

Coachella Magazine had the opportunity to interview Dan Westfall, a good friend of Leonard Knight who is also president of Salvation Mountain, Inc. — an organization bent on maintaining Knight’s legacy through public interaction, artistic programs, and charitable relations.

Tell us what your first impression of Leonard Knight was.
His humility. He offered to give us a tour just because we showed up. And he asked if he could do it!

What was your relationship with him like?
We were good friends. I’m a holistic body worker with a private practice in San Diego; a caregiver by nature and profession. By the summer of 2009, Leonard was 78 and no longer able to ignore the difficulties of living off the grid, especially in the heat. I was very impressed with his ministry, but my initial reason for getting involved was humanitarian.

How long did you associate with Leonard?
From July 2009 until his death in the Eldorado Care Center in El Cajon on February 10, 2014.

How would you describe Leonard Knight in one word?
Commitment or dedication. If you gave me one more word, it would be loving. Lots of people are, fortunately, loving, but I’ve never met anyone nearly as determined to share that love and message as Leonard.

How would you describe Leonard’s artistic style?
There are many terms in the art world: Primitive, Outsider, etc. I think it’s just child-like. I once told him that if God had a refrigerator, his mountain would be on it and God would be telling everyone, “Look what one of my kids did.” Leonard liked that.

Do you think Leonard would have ever anticipated Salvation Mountain becoming such a significant cultural landmark?
No. He was continually amazed at how much attention his mountain was getting.

Did you yourself think it would garner so much acclaim?
I always thought it deserved it, but I still find myself pleasantly surprised at how far some people have come to see it. I rarely spent a weekend there that I didn’t meet someone from at least three different continents.

Why are people so captivated to visit Salvation Mountain?
Mostly simple curiosity, but I’ve seen lots of other reasons — some religious, some not.

How do you think Salvation Mountain appeals to visitors who may not have any religious inclinations?
Its uniqueness and the sheer magnitude of effort that took to build it. That still stuns people today even though Leonard is gone. It was even more astounding when you met this aging, humble man. No one has ever questioned his belief in his effort.

How important do you think it is to have a piece of folk art like Salvation Mountain close to home in the Desert?
I think it’s a tremendous asset to Imperial County, an excellent day trip from LA, San Diego, Las Vegas, or Phoenix. We see, on average, over one thousand visitors a week from all walks of life and parts of the world. It’s a very interesting place to spend a day!

What do you see in the future of Salvation Mountain?
The goal of our non-profit, Salvation Mountain Inc., is simply to preserve Leonard’s life’s work and keep it free and accessible as long as possible. We have no plans to develop the site, but will continue to make people aware of it and hope they visit.

In your opinion, what does Salvation Mountain symbolize as a work of art?
Leonard wouldn’t let us call him an artist. He created the mountain as an attraction and curiosity. He simply wanted to get people to think about God’s love and become curious enough to ask questions. I’ve told many visitors that the mountain is the most obvious labor of love in the world. As important as the mountain is, I think that Leonard himself was the national treasure! He told us he wanted the mountain “to do the talkin’ for me.”

Coachella Valley-based photographer Christina Frary also had the opportunity to meet Leonard Knight and get an inside look at the artist’s perspective.

How would you describe Leonard Knight in one word?
He was charismatic. We arrived in 125-degree heat in the middle of the summer of 2009, and being the only three people out there that day, he spent time with us. He showed us around, spoke to us, told us about his vision, and why he did what he did. I am sure he had given the tour and told the story many, many times, but to us, he spoke as if he was talking about his art for the first time. He was warm, generous, sweet, and inviting.

Why do you think people are so captivated to come visit Salvation Mountain?
Because that mountain is the physical manifestation of someone’s true devotion to himself, his vision, his religion, and his art. He lived in pretty harsh living conditions to be true to his spirit and that vision. And also, it looks really amazing. Superficially speaking, it’s visually stunning.

Do you think Leonard Knight would have ever anticipated Salvation Mountain ever becoming a national treasure?
I think so. He was pretty proud of it, from what I gathered, and he wanted the world to see his mountain!

What do you see in the future of Salvation Mountain in terms of events or developments?
When we met him in 2009, I think not many people were trekking out to see him — not as many as now, at least. We always thought it would remain off the beaten path of tourist destinations, so I am pleasantly surprised now to see so many people visiting it. I just photographed a wedding there! I think it will just become increasingly popular and the preservation of it might become more important than ever as more people begin to go there.

How important do you think it is to have a piece of folk art like Salvation Mountain close to home in the Desert?
I think definitely the location of Salvation Mountain is part of its appeal, and it makes it easier to preserve and manage as opposed to being in a busy city center. There is a real commitment people make when they drive out there to see it—that when you do see it for the first time, it becomes a true experience of its own.

In your opinion, what does Salvation Mountain symbolize as a work of art?
An artist’s devotion to his vision, his belief, his faith, and his art.

Do you feel Salvation Mountain appeals to visitors who may not have any religious inclinations?
I consider myself a spiritual person, but I am not Christian nor do I go to church. So yes! It certainly appealed to me to visit as one doesn’t have to be of the same faith to appreciate beautiful art. It only goes to show that a single idea can spiral into something far greater than words can express. Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain emanates a humbling aura to those who visit, and I myself felt a sense of power travel through the scope of the desert plains while standing amid the mountain. Perhaps it is the idea of a faithful inclination coming into fruition or a self-proposed prophecy coming to pass, but the neon gyres of Knight’s creation mark territory claimed in the name of a higher power found in the heart of all who wish to invite it in: love.

Award-winning photographer Aaron Huey had the opportunity to meet Leonard Knight, documenting the artist in his book, Where the Heaven Flowers Grow, beautifully summarizing the legacy created by a man with a dream.

“Salvation Mountain is a literal man-made mountain 28 years in the making, covered in half a million gallons of latex paint created by a man named Leonard Knight. It sits near the East Coast of the Salton Sea, near Niland, California on the edge of a bombing range and a squatter’s camp known as Slab City.  What started as a small monument made of dirt and painted cement became, over time, a sprawling adobe and hay-bale mountain complex, with peripheral structures made of telephone poles, tires, and car windows, as well as art cars and sculptures, all painted in a patchwork of stripes and color blocks of whatever paint was donated that week.

I met Leonard eight years ago when he could still carry a 40-pound bucket of adobe up a 30-foot ladder, but when he was no longer able to carry an 80-pound bale of hay to the top of his man-made mountain. He was 75 years old.

Leonard Knight was one of those men who was so singular of vision that from a distance some would brush it off as crazy. But it didn’t take much to realize what Leonard was. Just a conversation and you would know — this man was a saint, an American sadhu in the desert of southern California. The mountain was his living daily meditation.

The words he gifted to me in our time together transcended his specific faith and spoke to a universal love that is only understood by the most devout seekers in the world. I have no doubt that what he did was the equivalent to sitting beneath the Bodhi tree or in Muhammad’s cave, because I can tell you from my time with him that he was truly awake. And perfectly without doubt as to his purpose on this earth. As an artist he created something with no parallel or influence. When he died this year we lost one of the greatest folk artists that has ever lived.

I had never met a person so pure and so raw. I’d never met someone who dedicated his entire life to making one thing. Leonard made one thing. Leonard had no belongings and lived in the back of a broken down fire truck covered in scripture. He built, he ate, he gave tours, he bathed, and he slept. Nothing more. For 28 years he lived this way, the simple life of a visionary. Leonard worked beyond our concept of time, slowly and methodically without ever wandering from his path. His sole purpose in this endeavor was to spread the message that “God is Love.” He shared this with everyone who came to the mountain, giving personal tours to every single person who arrived during waking hours. Meeting Leonard made me want to throw away all of my things — my computers, my phone, my career, my ego — and help him build his mountain of mud and paint. Instead, I helped Leonard carry a dozen hay bales up the mountain and promised to come back again. I returned a dozen times over six years to help him build, to photograph his work, and to try to better understand his humble genius.

Photographing Leonard, like all the projects I have done that I care at all about, involved a lot of time not photographing. I think that in any project that seeks to transcend superficial imagery, one has to give more than one takes. So I gave my labor and I promised Leonard I would share his work with as many people as I could. It’s all he really wanted when I left.This collection of artifacts, surfaces, and photographs is just a small part of what was created by the artist and seeker who built Salvation Mountain.

I cannot conclude this statement in the past tense, as the eulogy of a man who was here, because Leonard lives on in his work and in the hearts of those he touched.”


book WHERE THE HEAVEN FLOWERS GROW: the life and art of leonard knight


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