Created by Leonard Knight Born 1931 near Shelbourne Falls, Vermont
An interactive landscape made of adobe, covered in religious slogans and over 100,000 gallons of paint, Salvation Mountain is located outside of Niland, California, near the Salton Sea. From the mountain, the vista is a wide blue ocean, also made by Knight with gallon after gallon of house paint. Enormous raised letters on this broad man-made mountain allow Knight to express his religious sentiments in a big way.
Work on Salvation Mountain began in 1985. Much of the paint has been donated by visitors and Mountain fans. Knight is currently at work on a site museum. Its shape—a grounded hot air balloon —pays homage to one of Knight’s earliest visionary projects. No appointment is necessary.
“I just hope I last another thirty years
because I got things to do..”
In the mid-1980s, Leonard Knight, with the aim of spreading God's word, began building a hot air balloon from bed sheets. In bold letters, he painted “God is Love” on the balloon’s face. He planned to float it high above the earth where all could see its message. Attempts to get the balloon airborne failed, however, and Knight was left in the Southern California desert with a pile of rotting linen. It was this aborted mission that led Knight to his eventual calling, the 20-year construction of Salvation Mountain. Today, Knight’s mountain is a colorful array on a neutral canvas. Built of adobe and covered in over 100,000 gallons of donated paint, Salvation Mountain forms part of the cultural landscape.
Knight lives just a stone’s throw from the mountain he has given shape—and color—to over the years. His house has a gabled roof. A truck bed serves as its foundation. Like everything else within eyesight, Knight’s house-truck is decorated with religious slogans written in bright, bold house paint.
Painting Outside the Lines
The paint has come from visitors. In Knight’s estimate over 100,000 gallons of paint have been used in creating his man-made mountain which is made of adobe and combined with the desert heat, thirstily absorbs the paint. Visitors returning to Salvation Mountain know their gallons will be well received. As the 73-year-old Knight explains, “When people come in with paint, they have a great big smile on their faces because they know I’m gonna be excited about the paint. They know they’re going to get an enthusiastic handshake.”
Salvation Mountain has a devoted following. Tina Fessey and Bob Sims have been regulars to Salvation Mountain for many years. According to Knight, they have donated about 800 gallons of paint to the project. Additionally, Fessey has given her labor and enthusiasm to Knight’s vision. She describes the mountain as a giant coloring book. “He tells me the colors and then I go ahead and do it,” Fessey says. Knight sees his plan as organic and freeform. His patterns tend to come from nature. “He always says that he just slops the paint on, but I don’t think you have to stay in the lines to be an artist.” Larry Yust, another Salvation Mountain devotee, went to photograph the mountain for the first time in 1994. He has been taking pictures of it ever since. For Yust, the experience is interactive, “a work of art that you can walk on and that keeps changing” as you move about it.
Today, Salvation Mountain is seen by many as Knight’s gift to Imperial County. Years back, however, it was viewed as a toxic nightmare. For a time, it looked as if Salvation Mountain would be carted off in trucks and buried in a nuclear waste dump in Nevada. As Knight recalls, “It started when five or six pickup trucks came in, and they were hazardous waste experts, and they dug twelve holes in the mountain. Before the soil was even analyzed, signs were put up designating the area as ‘hazardous.’ …all of a sudden the papers started saying ‘hazardous nightmare’ and I was contaminating the area, and the man has to be stopped, and the mountain’s a mess.” The bad press distressed Knight but it did not daunt him. Knight decided to conduct his own investigation. He took soil samples from the same twelve test pits and drove them to a lab in San Diego. The lab found no dangerous levels of hazardous materials, causing the county to abandon their campaign.
Since then, Knight has been merrily going about his business, adding to the mountain in the morning and greeting visitors and incoming paint supplies in the afternoon. Lately, Knight has been getting more house paint than he knows what to do with. Some visitors have found that a small cash donation is a nice way to thank Knight for the experience. Plus, it allows the artist a way of getting “something better to eat than paint.”
Man-Made Mountain Receives National Acclaim
In 2000, Knight received a plaque from the Folk Art Society of America. The plaque designates Salvation Mountain as a folk site worthy of preservation and protection.
Between 50 to 100 people visit Salvation Mountain each day. Visitors are greeted by Knight himself. Currently Knight is building a site museum of straw bales, fallen desert trees and adobe. It sits beside Salvation Mountain and is shaped like a grounded hot air balloon, a tribute to one of Knight’s first monumental and visionary projects.
No appointment is necessary. Salvation Mountain is located north of I-8, south of I-10, and five miles east of Highway 111 at Niland. Take Main Street east to Salvation Mountain.