Situated in the desert by the Salton Sea in Niland, California, Leonard Knight’s man-made mountain of hay and desert clay provides a three-dimensional canvas for Knight to paint his messages of life, love, God and Jesus. Salvation Mountain is an oasis of biblical scriptures come to life in a monumental folk art creation that, since 1967, has been attracting visitors from far and wide.
In the late 60s, Knight, a then unbeliever, prayed for Jesus to enter his life. One day he began to utter “Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come into my heart” and after praying for enlightenment, it finally came and changed him. Knight decided to spread his new-found message in a hot air balloon with “God is Love” emblazoned on the side.
Unfortunately, the hot air balloon crashed in the desert, but Knight, seeing this as an act of God, decided to transfer the same message from his balloon to the desert itself. Forty-one years on, his message has evolved into an expanding Eden-like world, celebrating life, love and worship. He brings waterfalls, flowers, trees, bluebirds and colour to what would otherwise be a barren and bleak land; a colorful swatch on the map.
In a sense, what Knight has created is a kind of interactive Mountain, a piece of artwork that you can touch and walk on, that changes depending on perspective. Knight is the founder, resident, artist and tour guide, happy to show people around, only accepting paint as a donation to help him continue building his empire.
He has left his world open for people to observe and participate – “I like to give postcards, and I don’t want to insult anybody,” he says. “If I insult anybody, it’s when I’m shaving in the morning!” For Knight, the ethos of giving is the driving force behind the project.
“It’s amazing that one man created this mountain in the middle of the bleak desert; it seems like the work of many,” writes Rosa Weber, who recently visited Knight’s temple. “The mountain is the only reason why one would go to Niland and he gets hundreds of visitors every week. He’s the nicest guy, greeting us with hands covered in paint.”
Knight says that despite the fallout from the Iraq war still rippling through the US and the country’s economic problems, he feels free and liberated, embracing the United States as a wonderful nation. “I have no rules whatsoever, and they’re lettin’ me do my thing. Beautiful! Freedom! And in the United States of America we can do that. God, I love the United States!”
However, on the flipside of Knight’s unflinching optimism lie the county supervisors that once labeled Salvation Mountain a “toxic nightmare” and tried to bulldoze it down. They were met with opposition from supporters of the site and, indeed, Knight himself who had a series of soil tests made to prove that the mountain posed no danger to the environment or the people. The supervisors were forced to drop their campaign to demolish Salvation Mountain and remove Leonard Knight – to this day the project continues to grow and this remote part of the desert has become a thriving attraction to curious visitors, entranced by Knight’s colourful world.