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Artist communities thrive along the disappearing Salton Sea

California’s Salton Sea was once hailed as a miracle in the desert. Located about 40 miles south of Palm Springs, it’s the state’s largest inland body of water. But today, the sea is no longer the early 20th century fishing and recreation hotspot it once was -- it’s drying up. Instead, it has become a haven for artists. NewsHour Weekend’s Christopher Booker reports.

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  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The sunset paints the sky in a tie-dyed fire of red and orange.

    But it is the silence on the water that tells the real story.

    Life is leaving the Salton Sea.

    The water is evaporating, fish are dying and the lakeside retreats are shells of what they once were…..California’s largest lake, now a portrait of abandonment.

    But some believe, this emptiness can be filled.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    This piece here it has an interesting history too.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    To hear Brian Sadler tell it, the open air desert museum of East Jesus is a living, breathing, experiment in free-expression. Just off the shore of the salton sea, it’s a commune that allows painters, sculptors and conceptual artists to do battle with the sand, the sun and the wind.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    This is El Brino, the lost dinosaur of the Salton Sea. Okay. Touching part of it because it’s, like, powder, it goes back to powder.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    It disintegrates.

  • Brain Sadler:

    Yeah. Totally disintegrates.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Is that part of what’s going on, disintegration, the idea that things are temporary in this environment?

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    That is the message I’m getting that nothing on this level, on this plane is really worth clinging to ’cause it’s just stuff. It’s all just stuff.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The brain child of late artist Charles Rusell, East Jesus began on the dump site of slab city – a squatters camp on an abandanoned military base, just outside of Niland, California and the location of Leonard Knight’s famed Salvation Mountain.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    As soon as charlie russel heard about– his adventure out here in the desert using trash to build a temple to god, he said he wanted to be a part of that because he was always yearning to make something out of nothing.

    In the years that followed, russell invited more and more artists to East Jesus, to come and build, create, and watch what happens to the work as the desert takes hold.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    This one here?

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    I have to demonstrate it to you because it’s really not about the tin cans in there. It’s all about this. Making sound out of just pebbles and empty cans.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Oh, that’s great.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    It can sound like the rain

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    After russell passed away in 2011, the growing roster of artists in East Jesus formed the tax-exempt chasterus foundation to protect the project.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    His friends rallied around and said, “look, we don’t want this idea to die. We’ve all had such a great time contributing and inspiring one another.” And so they formed– a 5013c– to preserve his memory.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    In 2013, the foundation purchased the 30 acres of land that surround the collection, and three years later, East Jesus became an accredited member of the California Museum Association.

  • BRIAN SADLER:

    Moving right along. This is our tv wall. One of the photo– most photographed and shared pieces, I think, of East Jesus online because people love it. It says so many different things to so many different people.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    But this isn’t the only artists’ haven along the Salton Sea.

    If East Jesus was built on the discarded, the works of Bombay Beach spring from the yet to be hauled away.

    At one time the 1,000 lot community offered access to the water at an affordable price.

    But as the Sea started to die, so to did the town.

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    I fell in love with Bombay Beach from the beginning because of– its so different from the– everything else in– that you see in american life. And– i– I just think it inspires artists.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    For the last three years, Tao Ruspoli and his two partners, have been using the nearly abandoned town as a staging ground for art installations, lectures and performances.

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    Every time I would come here for the last ten years I’d see people– shooting music videos, doing fashion shoots. Like, really kind of– capitalizing on how strange and removed it was. And yet, the town had nothing to show for it.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    In 2015, Ruspoli and his partners started, buying up homes and lots for as little as $5,000 and invited artists from around the world to come to and start creating.

    Two years ago, they launched the Bombay Beach Biennale, a three day gathering billed as celebration of art, music and philosophy. The only agenda saving “the sea.”

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    I think the job of the artist is to– help people see the world through new eyes. And therefore, it’s like a sense of, like, discovering something together, uncovering something, reinterpreting something and so when an artist does that to a place– it– it– it– it brings it to life..

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    The efforts have sparked a renaissance of sorts, there are now 40 different permanent exhibits in Bombay Beach.

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    : So like everything that this place inspires, there’s a bit of– there’s a bit of sadness mixed with a bit of humor mixed with a bit of absurdity.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Perhaps no other installation illustrates this mix better than the Bombay Beach Opera House. Created by British artist James Ostrer, the house is lined with flip-flops collected from the beaches of Nigeria,

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    This door opens on– on– on hydraulic hinges. And suddenly this is transformed into one– into one of the great– performance spaces, I think, on earth. And– and– and James was– doing another installation with the flip flops in New York– a few months ago and someone came up to him and said, “oh, someone’s already done that in Bombay Beach.” So that was the great validation that we have come on to the map.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    While Bombay Beach may have arrived in the art world and East Jesus might have its accreditation, you are never far from the backdrop that allowed this happen.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    It’s hard not to – I have very– kind of apocalyptic feelings about all this. I mean, it’s a frightening portrait of– of change, of an environment changing.

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    Yeah.

  • CHRISTOPHER BOOKER:

    Is that too hyperbolic?

  • TAO RUSPOLI:

    Not at all. It’s like the closest thing that I’ve seen to an environmental catastrophe in my lifetime. And it’s– and it’s so tangible. It’s right now. You can watch the sea going away. You can smell the problem. You can see the dead fish on the shore. Like, it’s just and its all coexists.I think that this place embodies a lot of contradictions. And they’re all there for people to kind of contemplate.

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