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Salvation Mountain Artist Has Blessings Bestowed on His Work

Landmark: Labor of love in the desert is deemed a national folk art shrine.

April 11, 2002|TONY PERRY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

NILAND, Calif. — Fame has found Leonard Knight, the religiously inspired artist who has spent 16 years in the desert of Imperial County painting "God Is Love" and other inspirational messages on a mound of baked earth that he calls Salvation Mountain.

After years of happy obscurity, the 70-year-old Knight and his multicolored creation have caught the notice of art scholars.

The Folk Art Society of America has declared his site a national folk art shrine.

What Knight calls a mountain is actually a sloping, terraced hill about three stories high and 100 feet wide.

The land is controlled by the state of California, which views Knight as a trespasser but does nothing to evict him.

With an estimated 100,000 gallons of donated paint, Knight has created a mosaic of waterfalls, free-form designs and biblical quotations.

He has erected a cross that can be seen for miles.

Folk art devotees and journalists from around the world have traveled to this desert hamlet (population 1,143) east of the Salton Sea to marvel at his work.

The BBC, a Japanese magazine and a German film crew have made the trek, among others.

A museum in Baltimore took one of his two trucks--complete with painted tires and decorated in much the same fashion as the mountain--across the country to put it on display.

A documentary video and several books have featured Knight and his work. Museums in Palm Springs and Santa Barbara have had photo exhibitions in his honor.

And one of the nation's leading folk arts scholars now is petitioning Congress to recognize Salvation Mountain as a national treasure, one that should be protected even after Knight's demise (which Knight says will not be any time soon).

"Leonard's mountain is the largest monument ever created to send a universal message of unconditional love, at no expense to taxpayers and with great good heart," said Rebecca Alban Hoffberger, director and founder of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. "It should be honored."

Knight's neighbors have paid tribute in their own way, giving him a permanent place of honor in the annual Tomato Festival parade in Niland and the Cattle Call parade in nearby Brawley.

Fans have created a Web site for him. It is a link from a site run by "snowbirds" who spend the winter rent-free in their recreational vehicles and tents at an unofficial, unregulated camp called Slab City.

All of this for a man who once was branded a public nuisance and threatened with eviction by county officials who wanted his mountain ripped down as an eyesore and alleged environmental hazard.

The threat of eviction fizzled when neither the state nor the county had money for the removal project and soil tests failed to confirm the suspicions that toxic residue from the paint posed a health hazard.

Knight is taking his celebrity in stride, getting by on Social Security checks and sleeping in the back of his 1951 truck, even when the summer heat soars to 120 degrees.

A pet cat is his only companion.

"God has blessed me ever since I've been at Salvation Mountain," he said in his thin, reedy voice, still redolent of his native Vermont.

"Sometimes I think I'm living half in this world, half in heaven already."

Knight was floating by in his hot air balloon in 1986 when the balloon--also emblazoned with "God Is Love"--crash-landed, never to fly again.

Knight, employed in San Diego at the time, decided that the ballon landing, hard though it was, was a kind of sign from above.

After decades of working as a truck driver, welder, handyman, guitar teacher, painter and automotive body-and-fender man, he decided to devote himself full time to his art and become a "desert hobo bum."

Knight opted to stay put right where the balloon had come down, in a gravelly, weed-strewn patch of ground on the outskirts of a World War II desert training base used by Gen. George Patton's tank corps.

The property is controlled by the State Lands Commission.

Salvation Mountain serves as the gateway to Slab City, whose residents provide Knight with buckets of paint lugged from their summer homes.

"There isn't anybody who doesn't love Leonard," said Slab City resident Phil Sullivan, a retiree from Minnesota.

"He's the only truly gentle and kind man I've ever met. He's eccentric but he's wonderful."

Seven years ago, the Imperial County government considered assuming control of the Slab City site from the state and turning it into a desert park.

Under that plan, Salvation Mountain was to have been razed and Knight evicted.

The park plan is being considered anew but, this time, Knight's fame has made him and his work untouchable.

"I don't see us doing anything to Leonard or his mountain," said Supervisor Gary Wyatt, who is sponsoring the park idea.

"It's become too much of a worldwide phenomenon. Leonard has done an incredible job of getting his message out."

With his recent acclaim has come a new burst of artistic energy.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks also helped convince Knight that the world needs his inspirational messages more than ever.

Recently he has branched out, painting an adjacent hill and fashioning two huts from bales of hay. For subject matter, he still prefers John 3:16, the Lord's Prayer, American flags, and scenes of green valleys and flowing streams.

His technique depends on spontaneity. He never makes preliminary sketches.

"I just make a lot of mistakes and correct them," Knight said.

"I just keep working and praying. It's the best thing I can do."

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