You probably know it from Instagram–the manmade mountain in the middle of the desert, painted in a veritable rainbow of colors. But did you know that Salvation Mountain isn’t just a place for hipsters to stop off at in between music festivals for a few pictures–it’s actually a nationally-designated folk art site?
Began by Leonard Knight in 1980, Salvation Mountain is as much a landmark or destination site as it is art. It’s described as a “visionary environment” spanning a 50 foot height and 150 foot breadth. Knight, who never had any formal artistic training, began working on it after he moved to Niland, California–in between Palm Springs and Imperial, near the Salton Sea and Slab City (of Into the Wild fame). Salvation Mountain began as Knight’s own personal tribute to God, made complete with vivid color sculpture and repeating such messages as “God Is Love.” According to Salvation’s Mountain’s website, it is made completely of local adobe clay, cement, and donated paint.
Knight began the first mountain (in 1980) in order to make a “‘small statement’” about his faith. As his faith grew, so did the mountain. Knight experimented with piling cement and junk–but the first mountain collapsed, leading him to settle on using simply adobe and paint. The mixture worked–adobe thickly coated with paint (we’re talking over 100,000 gallons)–and ensures that it won’t erode with wind and rain. It was declared “a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection” by the Folk Art Society of America in 2000, and Knight maintained it himself until 2011. It is now maintained by a public charity, Salvation Mountain Inc., and many visitors still donate paint and money in order to maintain the site.
Since even before Knight’s death in 2014, the site has gained cult status (thanks to Instagram and Coachella). It’s not uncommon to see photographers and tourists as well as art enthusiasts on any given day there.
Like any good southern Californian millennial, I had wanted to go to Salvation Mountain for awhile–but also because I’ve taken some classes where we actually learned about folk and outsider art. Whether you’re more into folk art or visiting hipster meccas, Salvation Mountain is actually a place where the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Families, young people, and artists alike were among the collection of people I saw there on my visit. In case you’re curious, I’ve taken the time to list some of the thoughts that are sure to go through your mind in the event that you do visit. *
Where are we?
People live here? Well, at least now I know where to go if I ever need to get off the grid.
Wow, is that it? It looks like Whoville.
If Whoville were in the middle of the desert.
I need sunglasses.
Why does everyone here look cooler than me?
This is like Munchkinland mixed with Whoville. In the middle of the desert.
Are we on another planet?
This is made of what??? And you can climb on it??? Is it safe??? *definitely climbs on it*
They’re cool with us climbing on it? Best art ever.
Are you sure this is Earth?
The air so clear out here [as opposed to LA], it’s ridiculous.
“People live here?”–British woman next to me
Wow. The desert is beautiful.
You’re sure this guy didn’t get any training?
How is this even still here? No, but how. Who takes care of it?
“It’s like Mad Max on acid.” –British woman next to me.
Okay, why don’t I have my camera?
Why are you doing a full-on senior photo shoot here?
Why aren’t I doing a full-on photo shoot here?
Wow. All this out of adobe and paint? Amazing.
*I wouldn’t recommend the dead of summer for visiting, though. This is the desert we’re talking about.
Check out more about Salvation Mountain here.
Interested in what we’re about at the Art Docent Program? Learn more here!
Dying for past issues of our blog? Look no further–they’re right here.