He started from scratch, building a structure out of hand-mixed adobe made with dirt and water from a nearby stream. Salvation Mountain has been growing ever since. Baked by the sun, sealed by many coats of paint (he says 30,000 to 60,000 gallons so far, because the adobe soaks up so much), it is now virtually invulnerable. A primary-colored riot of waterfalls, flowers and Biblical lore, it has inevitably become a cause celebre. It is also, quite legitimately, a remarkable piece of American folk art, a fact not lost on the American Visionary Art Museum, which featured his work in 1998 and 1999, or the Folk Art Society of America, which declared Salvation Mountain an official National Folk Art Site.
I learn from people who live outside the lines and Leonard Knight is one of those people. Some people think he's crazy; the local authorities in the Southern Californian desert near Leonard's home call him a nuisance. I think he's an inspiration.
Leonard lives just outside the small community of Niland near an old military installation, in an ad hoc community of mobile homes called Slab City. He landed here quite by accident; his truck broke down here about 15 years ago, and he just never left.
Leonard is a handsome, leather-faced 70-year-old Korean war veteran who has spent the last decade his life to spreading his message -- specifically, that "God is Love." But there are plenty of self-appointed preachers to be found; what makes Leonard special is his method. Leonard, you see, is building -- and painting -- an entire mountain. I visited him there just last summer and was awestruck by his passion.
The local authorities declared it a toxic dump -- some of the paint he used, they contended, contained lead -- and threatened to bulldoze it. But they backed off when Leonard's independently analyzed gravel samples tested well within allowable lead levels.
Now people drop by from all over the world to see the mountain, and to give Leonard more paint. Even the State of California, which owns the land, donated gallons of the yellow normally used for painting lines on roads. Museums, art critics, sociologists and filmmakers have also come to see one of American's most extraordinary expressions of outsider visionary art.
But, however, obsessive the project may seem, Leonard himself is no wide-eyed cultist. He calls himself "a desert hobo bum." Sweet, sharp and funny, he lets his mountain speak for his faith.
Interested in visiting Leonard? Locals in Niland will give you directions ("Turn left at the grocery store and drive out into the desert"). You can also write to Leonard at this address:
P. O. Box 298
Niland, CA 92257
There are also several places on the Web where you can see more of Salvation Mountain and learn more about Leonard Knight:
Leonard's official site
A quirky interview with Leonard
Salon.com visits Salvation Mountain
More photos from photographer J.R. Dunster's site and from Roadside America
Photos by Peter Szymanski