Burlington, Vermont, U.S.A.
El Cajon, California, U.S.A.
Summary of Leonard Knight
Very few people in life receive a message loud and clear about what they are supposed to be doing on this planet, but visionary artist Leonard Knight found his. After years of roaming the states in a swirl of odd jobs, mobile living, and going wherever the wind blew him, Knight had a revelation from God. He would later describe the experience as delivering him the message: "There's going to be a worldwide love story coming down, universal. Love's going to come down and it's going to stomp all over hate. Hate is a losing proposition-it's not as big as love. Total love is going to come down, and I see it coming. God! I see it coming!" He also saw himself as a direct tool of God, finding himself in the ripe old age of 50 with a mission. In a stroke of kismet, he settled in the alternative, off-the-grid community of Slab City in the California desert where he would spend the rest of his life living out of his truck and creating the immersive art installation Salvation Mountain alongside smaller, supporting projects. The mountain, blaring messages of love and salvation in a multicolored collage of donated materials would go on to attract visitors from all over the world, becoming one of the greatest art experiments in DIY advertising of one's personal passions and lending international fame to a truly humble and unassuming artist.
- Leonard Knight had no formal artistic training, and even eschewed the label of artist until very late in life. His naïve methods, rudimentary materials, whimsical style of painting and haphazard methods of construction contributed to the traditions of American Folk Art. This, along with his renegade and homeless lifestyle on the fringes, also positioned him as one of our great Outsider artists, illuminating the way for other artists working outside the periphery of the traditional art world.
- Knight's massive and interactive platform for extolling his messages of salvation and repentance also contributed to the Christian art, activist, and countercultural art genres, in which artists created artworks to shine a blaring spotlight on their own personal lifestyles, agendas, and beliefs as central themes. In this respect, Knight became an unassuming prophet of love.
- Salvation Mountain was erected over many years as Knight's perpetual project, but at its inception was considered an important example of the burgeoning Installation artworks that were entering the public lexicon as a viable form of contemporary art. Because of its size and its use of geography and land as materials, it is sometimes mentioned in the conversation of Land Art.
- Salvation Mountain also stands as a prime example of art bringing people together across lines of diverse social, geographic, political, and economic divide in order to appreciate a common message. The site consistently attracted visitors from around the world who came to not only meet Knight but to experience his unique message. The power of art to unite was prevalent in everything Knight touched.
Progression of Art
Leonard Knight's LOVE Balloon is difficult to date, as it was worked and reworked over 15 years. One of his first artistic endeavors, the LOVE Balloon came from a moment of inspiration he had in 1970, when he witnessed the excited engagement that a hot air balloon flying over Vermont inspired in spectators. Leonard felt that portraying God's everlasting love for every individual person was the most important message he wished to portray through his art. He became convinced that a hot-air balloon was the perfect way to spread this message. Innovatively, he was considering the value of visual spectacle to spread a more serious message, a platform that was becoming more common for social and political causes during the 1960s and 70s. After many years of trying and failing to raise donations to buy a balloon, Knight decided that despite having no technical training or background in art, he would make one himself.
His work on the balloon began in earnest in the late 1970s and early 1980s after his van broke down on a trip out west, leaving him stranded in Nebraska. With a second-hand sewing machine donated by a friend, pieces of bed linen, and scraps of fabric bought with money earned through apple picking, cutting cord wood, and other odd jobs, Leonard began to stitch together his LOVE balloon.
An expansive patchwork of bright, luminous color, the LOVE balloon was made up of leafy greens, vibrant reds, warm oranges, and sunny yellows. Reminiscent of fields and rolling hills as seen from above, each patch was decorated with different delicately stitched patterns. Interspersing these sections are embroidered religious words such as "Bible" and "repent" (in reference to the Sinner's prayer). In the center of the balloon, on a creamy background in poppy-red lettering is the word "LOVE."
The patchwork quality of the balloon calls to mind two fields of influence. The American quilting tradition draws on a rich history of untrained, home-spun artists, often working in the fringes or minorities of society, to create a piece with warmth, texture, and both emotional and creative expression. On the other hand, Christian artwork worldwide has been based in mosaic and stained glass styles for hundreds of years. The LOVE balloon perfectly encapsulates Knight's first forays into an artistic career that would embody parts of both of these traditions.
The LOVE balloon was the first example of his extreme levels of dedication and ingenuity. He even tried to build his own special machine to inflate the balloon; however after years of trying, the balloon was simply too large and heavy to operate. The fabric began to rip and rot, and Leonard was forced to abandon the project.
The LOVE Balloon was restored and first exhibited at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore in 1996, and now remains an iconic constant fixture of the museum's First Floor exhibit.
Assorted cloth and linen - Photographed in its restored state at the American Visionary Art Museum, Baltimore
Trucks comprised Leonard Knight's only homes for over 25 years while he lived onsite at Salvation Mountain. They were a recurring theme in his life and work overall. From his early 20s, Knight spent weeks at a time in his various trucks, drifting and driving across the country doing odd jobs. He had previously trained as a vehicle mechanic in the Army. In 1969, Knight's spiritual awakening took place in a truck outside his sister's house. One of the odd jobs he most enjoyed (although was not particularly successful at) was painting cars.
Once Knight converted to Christianity in the late 1960s, he immediately tried to join various churches in Vermont. However, he found their messages overcomplicated and felt they had strayed from the simple messages of Christ, which were to repent, and to love. One of his initial actions was to decorate his current truck at the time, a rusty old 1939 white Chevrolet. He covered it in ornate nature motifs; flowers, polka dots, swooping birds, rolling hills and trees. Even the front bumper and the wheels of the car were decorated. These colorful decorations clearly brought to mind Eastern European Gypsy and folk wagons. Amongst these illustrations were Knight's oft-repeated mantra "God is Love," and the Sinner's prayer was inscribed on both sides, and the front of the roof; the prayer that Leonard felt converted him. He seemed aware of the advertising properties of the truck; he was conscious of the concept of making an eye-catching display, a spectacle, which was essentially a huge billboard for Christ.
Knight drove around the country in this truck while working on his balloon venture, and it later became his constant home in Slab City. When his truck broke down in the California desert, as if by divine planning, he found the site for his mountain and his biggest life's work. For the next 26 years, he lived in this burnt out old Chevrolet fire truck, adding to the decoration as the years went on. The truck functioned simultaneously as an artwork and as a home, something that is specific to Folk Art and Outsider Art traditions.
Trucks and vehicles have long been a symbol of American freedom and nomadism. The significance of trucks in Knight's life and work positions him on the fringes of society; a drifter, a free spirit, and a man free of societal constraints. It is interesting that in this period, Jack Kerouac's On The Road was immensely popular, as was the lasting impact of the 1969 movie Easy Rider. Both of these stories depicted countercultural figures finding freedom and a break from conformity by travelling across America. Knight's life, rooted in the act of travelling in trucks and vans, identified with not only alternative religious believers, but also alternative lifestyles in general.
Positioned just a stone's throw from the mountain base, Knight's truck home was as simply equipped as possible. His close friend Bob Simms wrote, "Leonard's house of 26 years is built on the back of an old 1939 white fire truck decorated as ornately as his mountain. He has no electricity, gas, running water, phone, heating, air conditioning, or any of the other things that so many of us take for granted. He is also one of the happiest men I know."
Inside, surrounding Knight's simple belongings, he painted more decorations in bright multi-colors on every wall, including a cut- out green tree on the door with branches holding bright red fruit labeled as various virtues: "Love," "Joy," "Meek-ness," "Gentleness," "Peace," "Goodness," "Temperance," and "Long-suffering." He also installed dozens of small heart-shaped, hinged windows. The fact that one must physically open up these hearts is clearly symbolic of a philosophy of openness to love.
Knight lived in this truck, with his multiple cats, until he was nearly 80 years old.
Vehicle decorated with house paint and plaster
The First Salvation Mountain
Once Leonard Knight's LOVE Balloon failed to inflate one final time in 1984 in Slab City, he decided to stay for around a week determined to build a successful monument of some kind. He set up camp near Slab City, a few dozen miles from the Salton Sea. Knight recalled, "I walked way down the ridge and I thought - that's too far from the road. And I remember carrying the bag of cement back and I just happened to start right here. And I think I picked a real good place for not knowing what I was doing."
Knight began to build, without a plan, with dirt, cement, and scrap materials scavenged from the local dump. "With a rubber bucket and a shovel... I'd mix the cement in the bucket and I'd pack it in on the mountain. And then the next day I'd go a little bit higher on the mountain." Soon, a week turned into several, which then turned into months and years. Knight continued to build his mountain higher and higher, adding layers of house paint. Soon the mountain was 75 by 50 feet tall, with a huge white banner section on the front proclaiming, "God is Love" in red.
In these early years, Knight worked alone in the desert. The act of building Salvation Mountain has clear parallels to Biblical figures and stories. Most obviously, there are links to the lore of Noah and the Ark (a seemingly ordinary man is called upon by God to build an Ark, he is derided by his neighbors, but continues with his lonely task). As Knight said himself, "Sometimes God picks little people to do things." Additionally, Salvation Mountain draws from Christian motifs of deserts and mountains as spaces for martyrs or prophets to act; specifically, Christ wandering in the desert, his Transfiguration atop a Mountain, and Moses receiving the Ten Commandments on Mount Sinai. Knight's first Salvation Mountain makes a statement about his commitment to God and the Christian folkloric tradition not only in its content but in the act of building it.
However, in 1989, the Mountain began showing signs of instability and slowly began to collapse, the dirt and cement beginning to crack and shift. Knight was forced to watch yet another of his creations fail.
However, Knight had a different approach to the notions of success and failure. Indeed, like many outsider artists, Knight was hesitant to even identify as an artist, saying "when people started calling me an artist for the first time, I scolded them but good. Don't say such a dumb thing as that. I don't like artwork, I don't know nothing about it, that's it." He eventually softened into allowing himself to be described as an artist, but said, "For the most part, God did all the thinking and the planning, and God put me in this place. And I believe that God guided my paintbrush an awful lot. Because, honest, when I started, I could dig with a wheelbarrow and move sod, but that was about the 'it' of my ability to paint."
Indeed, when the mountain fell down, Knight joked, "I believe that everything real good, God did it. And everything that's falling apart, Leonard has got too much involved with it." Because he did not see himself as a struggling artist, Knight was not crushed by the collapse of the Mountain. In Annalise Flynn's thesis Something in the Water: The Sea, the Slabs and Leonard Knight's Salvation Mountain, she examines the way in which Knight re-defined the ideas of success and failure that make up the traditional American dream, and instead leaned into his failures. Flynn writes, "...it was Knight's eagerness to reject the credit for his work and focus rather on just completing the work - the daily ritual of engaging with the physical stuff of the place - that allowed him the perceived freedom to take on his twenty-eight year experiment. Rather than submit to self-censorship or become distracted by feelings of ineptitude - even when the mountain fell down - Knight persevered by concentrating on the task at hand."
Cement and dirt installation/sculpture - Slab City, Niland, California
The Second Salvation Mountain
Immediately after the collapse of Knight's first Salvation Mountain project, he began work on rebuilding it. Despite the fact that Knight was now in his 70s, there never seemed to be a possibility that Knight would abandon the project; only to strive on, to make one bigger, better, and more stable. The second Iteration of Salvation Mountain proved to not only do this, but also become his most extraordinary life's work and legacy.
Knight decided to build his second mountain out of native "adobe"(a type of mudbrick) and straw, tightly packed down and reinforced with palm leaves at points. This material proved to be far more flexible, and so able to withstand layers of weight, and the heat of the desert - even earthquakes. The adobe and straw are then sealed with many layers of house paint, approximately ten layers over everything. It is estimated that over half a million gallons of paint have been used so far, and the mountain requires constant re-painting and reinforcing as layers are worn away by visitors. Patrick Rea, the creator of the documentary The Love Story of Leonard Knight, said, "I think that the mountain is one of the most significant structures in the world, because it was built without blueprints, funding or even a patron, by a man with no engineering, construction, or even artistic background, using found materials."
Knight's second Salvation Mountain featured a huge cherry-red heart on the front face, with the Sinners Prayer written inside. Above, are 3D letters proclaiming "GOD IS LOVE," and on the summit stands a large white cross. Much of the mountain is painted in shades of leafy greens, patchworks of colors like Knight's original LOVE Balloon. Flowers wind around the base of the mountain and up its rolling plains. Waves of blue and white striped intersect the green, and a bright sunny "Yellow Brick Road" path winds its way through the different sections of the mountain to the summit. Unlike the first mountain, the second mountain became a much more all-encompassing, sensory, and participatory art environment. Decoration extends beyond the Mountain itself - more decorated vehicles, a bright blue mailbox, and a large welcome sign make the site a multi-dimensional installation. By the 2000's, visitors could purchase Salvation Mountain posters and puzzles.
In Patrick Rea's 2013 documentary, a visitor is quoted as saying "[the mountain] actually contains a feeling of movement, it is not static at all..." The idea of a living, breathing Art Environment is still innovate and rare, but draws on artistic developments made in the late 60s and 70s counterculture. In Art Historians Elissa Auther and Adam Lerners' book The Counterculture Experiment: Consciousness and Encounters at the Edge of Art they observe that countercultural art is "about active participation, requiring participants to immerse their entire bodies into the art rather than remain spectators. It is about indeterminate processes, not static objects..."
Not only did visitors become more involved in the second Salvation Mountain project, but the local community too. As the popularity and fame of the mountain grew, Slab City residents saw it as a vital part of their community, and many came from further afield to donate paint, straw, or their time and expertise to help Knight. When legal issues began in 1994, the local community rallied round to save the mountain from closure. Salvation Mountain became a project that in many ways was defined by a single man's vision - but in many other ways was a palimpsest of many attempts, threats, contributions and visits.
Adobe, straw, paint, and found material multi-dimensional installation - Slab City, Nilad, California
In 1998, Knight began experimenting with bales of straw and adobe, considering what else he could build on the site once the Mountain itself was completed. He decided to build a Hogan, which was a sort of domed shelter used by the native Navajo tribes. The Navajo made use of the packed mud to create homes that could efficiently insulate the dweller from extreme cold and heat, and Leonard saw the Hogan as providing him shelter from over 115-degree heat of the desert summer. Navajo tribes also traditionally used Hogans for religious and ceremonial practices.
Knight stacked up the adobe and straw bales to form a 10-foot high domed room. However, he never moved into the Hogan, ultimately preferring to stay in his truck, and instead the Hogan began an altar-like space for visitors' prayers and offerings. The mix of Native and Christian purposes and traditions was typically eclectic of Knight.
The Hogan was painted sky blue and white, with four steps leading to the altar ledge that runs around the room. In art historian and curator Annalise Flynn's thesis about Salvation Mountain she writes, "The room is quiet and contemplative like a chapel, and the addition of the personal effects, letters and photos give the private space the feeling of a vernacular shrine or memorial - though it is unclear what or who is the object of remembrance."
While the Hogan clearly serves a religious purpose, it is also a space for non-religious offerings and remembrances from visitors who have been moved by Salvation Mountain. Photographer Grace Hughes says, "The last place I looked in before we left was the place of all the photographs and other things left behind by visitors. I don't know who all those people are, but somehow leaving something behind made me feel like we were all connected-like a little cave of people's positive energy."
Adobe and straw bales with house paint
In the early 2000s, Knight began work on his last work of art. He wished to add one last section to the Salvation Mountain site; a "museum." In a full circle narrative, Knight wished to create the Museum on the exact spot that his balloon had failed for the last time, in a shape that is modeled after the half-inflated structure on its side. The Museum would not necessarily be a museum in a traditional sense - rather, a monument to the history of his artistic ventures and his life's journey up to this point.
The Museum is a partially open semi-dome structure. One side of the structure is made up of a curved wall, painted in a hodge-podge of pastel colors, and installed with car windows that were brought to the site by local residents. This is the side through which visitors enter. Again, Annalise Flynn writes vividly of her experience upon entering The Museum: "With its ribbons of blue, orange, pink, green and yellow and its scattered, layered windows, it is a Dr. Seussian spectacle in itself. Upon entering the structure, you're met with rising tree trunks that create weaving tangles of branches assembled in a way that is seductively chaotic. Hay bales are stacked and stabilized by a surface coat of adobe and paint on top of the jumble of branches to make up the exterior. Areas of daylight and darkness alternate as you wind through the labyrinthine space. The entirety is painted with the same neon, floral fervor as the surface of the mountain - even ascending twenty and thirty feet high into the snarls of limbs."
Knight envisioned that The Museum would eventually hold pictures and artifacts from the mountain project, from the initial collapse and his battles with the county, to its declaration as a National Treasure and his various later additions and adaptations. This is still an ongoing venture; however, the structure itself stands as witness to Knight's lifetime of wondrous artistic expression.
Adobe, straw, car tires, car windows and natural materials - Slab City, Niland, California
Biography of Leonard Knight
In Ben Stoddard and Dave Ehrenreich's 2014 mini documentary The Man Behind the Mountain, Leonard Knight's longtime friend and supporter Bill Ammoms says, "When I see a person that has taken such an isolated course in life, I always wonder, what took you there? That's the mystery about him, you know. What took you there?" Knight's beginnings are difficult to trace, but when pieced together from various interviews and statements they weave a map toward the anti-social, drifter life that Knight embraced in his adult years.
Knight was born November 1, 1931 near Burlington in Vermont. He was the fourth of six children born to parents Oris and Grace. The family lived on 32 acres in Shelburne Falls surrounded by maple trees, vegetable gardens, and huge pastures. These natural surroundings afforded Knight miles of land to roam and explore. However, in reality, the family farm required a large amount of upkeep, including working the land and tending to the cows and pigs. Knight recalled this as being "too much work and not enough play."
Knight hated school, describing himself as shy and somewhat of a loner. He spoke with a stutter as a child, and as a result was teased by the other children at school. He also wasn't very academic, and struggled with schoolwork. He recalled, "I used to skip school all the time. I wouldn't go to school when I was in fifth grade. I just quit. I couldn't seem to." His parents despaired of this behavior; "They'd try to spank me and whip me. And my poor mom would just cry over me, 'We want you to learn something in school Leonard!' I was such a nuisance. But they always put up with me with love." Later, Knight regretted this rebellious behavior in one of many folk songs he penned with the verse, "I overlooked the flowers on my mother's grave/ for thirty years she was my slave/ and I overlooked the flowers on my mothers grave/ and sometimes now I wish I did behave."
Also as a child, Knight preferred spending time alone to read comic books and fantasize about being a super hero. Journalist Paige Pritchard writes, "He would spend time alone in the woods on his family's property and swing from tree to tree, his feet never touching the ground." Later in his life, friends and psychologists who came to know Leonard would theorize that he had some form of Asperger's Syndrome. This would explain his difficulties as a child to communicate with or relate to other children, his feelings of being overwhelmed by his large class at school, his unusual use of language, and his physical "clumsiness." Indeed, a character trait of Asperger's is often highly focused, unusual, and often solitary interests.
In the 10th grade, Knight dropped out of school. For the rest of his teenage years, he worked in the factory where his father was foreman. However, again he struggled with day-to-day life working in a city alongside hundreds of other people. He later recalled, "it seemed to me, in a big city, no matter how good you did, they'd never quite be satisfied, and push you to do a little more.... it seemed to me this circle was endless."
In 1951, at age 20, Knight joined the military. He saw this as an opportunity to escape his unhappy life in Vermont and have the freedom to travel the world. However, he first had to complete the necessary training to become a vehicle mechanic in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and by the time he reached Korea the War would end a mere 10 days later. Knight did well in the military, but later said he was "the lousiest solider in the whole world" as he would never have been able to kill or harm anyone had he been called to do so. He gained some skills as a car mechanic in his spell there, yet did not find the purpose he was seeking.
After five years, in 1956, Leonard left the military with an honorable discharge. Back in Vermont, he drifted around filling a series of odd jobs including car mechanic and guitar teacher. He also began painting cars, but said his customers were often unhappy with his work. During this time, Knight took his first trip out West to southern California with his brother Roy where he became enthralled by the wild deserts. But his father passed away, and the brothers cut their trip short to return to Vermont.
Knight spent the rest of his 20s and early 30s drifting around Vermont continuing to work odd jobs. He was unhappy and unfulfilled, and began to drink heavily. He would disparagingly refer to himself as "disgusting." He has said, "I never loved God one minute of my life. I just hated God, hated church, hated everything."
By 1967, at 35, Knight was still lacking purpose and fulfillment in his life. Yet it was this year that his life would change forever. He took a trip to Lemon Grove in California where his sister Irene was living. Irene was a devout Christian, and insisted that Knight come to church with her one day. To escape her prophesizing, he went outside the house, and sat in his trusty van. It was at this moment that he found himself with tears rolling down his face, crying out the Sinner's prayer over and over again; "Jesus, I am a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart!" He said that at this moment, his "love story" with God began.
In the few years that followed his conversion, Knight attended many different churches in Vermont, but felt distinctly let down by them. To him, the message of Christ was simple; "God is Love." Yet he felt that the big churches had strayed from this message. Patrick Rea, maker of the documentary The Love Story of Leonard Knight, said, "After Knight's conversion he tried to reconcile the various doctrines, and in the process became too Baptist for the Pentecosts, too Pentecostal for the Baptists, and too Leonard for Everyone Else." He began to drive around in his truck that he decorated with religious messages; the so-called "Repent Truck."
Around 1970/1971, Knight saw a hot air balloon floating above Vermont. He noticed that people on the street were fascinated by the balloon, and were straining to see what was written on it. Knight had a second realization at this time that his life's purpose was to create some kind of project that would spread the simple love of God; and a hot air balloon was to be the perfect way. He became obsessed with his balloon project, and canvassed dozens of churches for the funding to buy a hot air balloon. He said, "I prayed for a hot air balloon so many hours that you wouldn't believe it, it must of got God sick of it. I talked to churches that love the Lord and said - Boy, let's build a balloon. To me, that was the most beautiful idea in the world." Yet Knight continued to be let down, and could not obtain any funding for his dream balloon.
In the early 1970s, Knight began making more regular trips out West, like so many other drifters and countercultural figures. On one trip, he broke down in Nebraska. After setting up camp at the Platter River, he received another revelation from God; if he could not receive funding to buy a balloon, he would make his own. Knight ended up staying in Nebraska for several years, and with donated materials began to laboriously sew his own balloon. Over the years, it became bigger and more elaborate, and he would regularly drive between Nebraska, Vermont, and various desert areas in between to attempt to launch his balloon. However, his lack of engineering knowledge and harsh weather conditions continued to prevent success. He would continue to work migrant jobs while he travelled, such as fruit picking. By this point, he was almost 50, but had not yet completed a single successful project.
As a late-blooming artist (although he never considered himself such), all of Knight's successful work came to fruition after the age of 50.
In 1984, while working again as a car mechanic in Quartzite Arizona, he took a trip to Slab City in the California desert. Knight was enamored with the haven for squatters, drifters, hippies, and "snowbirds" (those who came to avoid the cold weather). Slab City was a no-mans land, as no county had agreed to take responsibility for it, populated with many eccentric figures. The local tagline described it as "The last free place in America" and residents coined it an "island of misfit toys." Knight chose Slab City as the location for one final attempt to launch his balloon. It failed, however, when the fabric ripped and rotted. After 15 years of effort, his balloon dream was literally in tatters.
Despite this crushing defeat, Knight decided to stay in Slab City for a week to build a small monument, so that he would be able to complete at least one work in his lifetime in homage to his faith. However, the project proved not to be small at all and Knight remained in this location for the next 27 years.
The first monument he built was a small mountain built into the cliff face of the desert surrounding Slab City. Knight lived in his van, a piece of art in itself, at the base of the mountain. Seven months of the year when it was warm enough, he slept outside under the stars. Every morning, he would rise at 5:30 and continue adding to his monument, all the while living without any electricity or running water. It was in this isolated desert that Knight found his happiness, saying, "If somebody offered me a million dollar mansion, I'd refuse it. I want to be right here, and I'm just happy right here."
Knight's mountain began to crumble, and eventually collapsed. However, he was not deterred. Despite his lack of engineering knowledge, he went to work on a better version. This time, he innovatively combined layers of adobe and paint, amassing a large mountain once again. It was far grander, larger, more expansive, and colorful; its surface covered with words of worship and illustrations worthy of a folk art painting. It would become a beloved land installation in the area providing an immersive art experience akin to visiting a psychedelic wonderland. Knight's wild testament to the love of God would be coined Salvation Mountain, becoming an integral part of the Slab City community, as did the lonesome figure who created it with his bare hands. The mountain attracted visitors and tourists from all over the world. Many camped out onsite to continue their dialogues with the welcoming Knight long into the night. Locals and other supporters consistently donated paint for the perpetual work in progress.
The County and State governments were far less enthusiastic about Salvation Mountain, and Slab City in general. In 1994, the government claimed the mountain used toxic materials and was therefore a "toxic nightmare" that must be torn down. However, a huge locally-spurred campaign saved Salvation Mountain, Knight, and Slab City from destruction by funding an independent test of the so-called toxic materials that proved them safe. Yet again, Knight was strengthened, rather than deterred, in his resolve by this experience. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he continued adding to Salvation Mountain, building two new installations in the area: The Hogan and The Museum. In 2002, Knight received a plaque from Senator Barbara Boxer of California declaring Salvation Mountain a National Treasure in the Congressional record of the United States.
In 2007, Knight and Salvation Mountain were featured in Sean Penn's independent and quite popular film: Into the Wild. Many around the world were introduced to this intriguing figure and his artwork through this film, in which his folksy warmth, faith, passion, and vibrant aesthetic style shone through. Visitors to the site quadrupled after this time. Art lovers, atheists, architects, journalists, preachers, and faithful Christians all came to experience Leonard Knight and his work.
By this time, Knight was in his 70s and still living alone in his makeshift van home. Losing mobility, hearing, and sight, he continued to rise every day to work on the mountain, continually adding and repainting sections. He remained just as humble as ever, maintaining that all the work was really God's creation, and he was simply a humble channel through which it found completion. Around this time, he gained two significant assistants/caretakers in Mike Phippen and Kevin Eubank. It was arguably the agnostic Eubank who encouraged Knight to step away from his Jesus-heavy language and talk more about universal love and religion in his art and preaching (although in his last few years he returned to Jesus-oriented rhetoric).
In 2011, after 27 years at the mountain, Knight was forced to leave in order to deal with the effects of heart failure and dementia that had onset a few years prior. He relocated to a retirement home in Niland and was brought back to the mountain by friends for occasional visits including a vastly attended 80th birthday celebration. Salvation Mountain continued to be maintained by his caretakers and friends. Even after undergoing a leg amputation, Knight was brought to the mountain in his wheelchair.
In 2014 at age 83, Leonard Knight passed away in his care home. Per his request, his ashes were mixed with paint and added onto the Salvation Mountain site by his closest friends, supporters, and visitors. He truly became one with his life's work.
The Legacy of Leonard Knight
Leonard Knight's never-flown hot air balloon, various decorated vehicles, twice-built psychedelic mountain installation, beautiful Hogan and architecturally outstanding Museum structures, as well as his snippets of songs, preachings, and interviews all weave together a unique and longstanding artistic legacy for a man who never considered himself an artist. An intriguing figure and folk hero, Knight has become symbolic for many people of a certain type of religious outlook, way of life, and dedicated creative vision.
The various pieces of art that essentially make up the Salvation Mountain installation in many ways defy traditional perceptions of what constitutes art. Yet, in other ways, they come together to encapsulate an artistic ideal beautifully; a longstanding aesthetic statement of one person's life experience and a devout commitment to one's personal philosophy, that can be enjoyed by the multitudes for many diverse reasons.
The growing popularity of mediums such as sewing, embroidery, pottery, and DIY craft making, even in the High Art world, can be traced back to many artists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. By using his own rudimentary materials in a naïve and untrained way to materialize his creation, Knight contributed to American Folk Art or Outsider Art alongside others such as Maud Lewis and Jessie B Telfair, who, according to the educational website Quartoknows.com comprised: "Everyday people creating extraordinary works of art - this is the basis of folk art. Folk art relies on experience, community, and heritage rather than formal training. It is art that is felt rather than taught. Deeply rooted in tradition, folk art is an artist's feelings, ideas, expressions, and customs brought to life...folk art is truly art of the human spirit. It is continually produced by people of all walks of life and from all over the world. As long as there are people with a need to imagine and create, folk art will always be around." Indeed, this description perfectly describes the deeply personal and passionate work of Leonard Knight.
Today, we can see an embracement of traditional Folk Art techniques by many mainstream artists as the effects of the Folk Art Renaissance that Leonard contributed to are felt to this day. The American Folk Art Museum, established in 1961, continues to highlight the context of Folk Art within modern times.
Leonard Knight's work also brought the Folk Art aesthetic into the burgeoning lexicon of Installation Art, which remains a major form of contemporary artistic expression. Other immersive artistic environments, such as the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia in LA over several decades, or the Margaret's Grocery and Market religious installation created in Mississippi in the 1980s, draw clear lines of lineage to Salvation Mountain in terms of this artistic crossover. Salvation Mountain directly inspired the nearby art installation community "East Jesus" founded by artist Charlie Russell.
Finally, Knight's work can be compared to that of Corita Kent, or the Jesus People Movement, also working in the 1960s and 70s. These artists took elements of the hippie and psychedelic countercultures and applied them to a religious message. They seriously considered the word of God as something that could best be spread through joy, creativity, and art. This impacted the self-representation of religious institutions and religious art into the 20th century.
Knight's work and life have been captured in two recent documentaries; Patrick Rea's 2013 The Love Story of Leonard Knight, and Andrew Blake Doyle's 2015 Leonard Knight; A Man and His Mountain. Legendary National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey immortalized Knight in a series of photographs taken in the mid 2000's, saying "... I tried to make images that transcended the postcard shots I usually see out there. I tried to really show the man and his process...I'd shoot every inch of [the mountain], sometimes with a 50mm lens, walking around, every piece of the surface."
Yet Leonard Knight does not live on mainly through these documentaries, but through the art he left behind. However, Salvation Mountain is endangered. While it remains a very popular site for music videos and photography shoots, the installation vitally needs volunteers, live-in caretakers, and funds to retain the upkeep. In 2012, Knight's friends and helpers set up Salvation Mountain Inc., a non-profit organization. They are working to officially purchase the site from the State of California. President of the charity, Dan Westfall, describes their simple aim as follows; "Keep it standing and keep it painted. Keep it there and keep it visible. Keep it so it still touches people when they arrive."