The Interactive Mountain of Leonard Knight
by Larry Yust
in’ter-act’, v.i. to act upon another.
"One time a 91-year-old lady come up with three or four generations of her family, and there’s probably 17 people here, and they’re all going up the mountain, but she was down here, and they said that she was too old. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll help you up that mountain if you want to go up there.’ So her and I just went up that mountain, and she was all grins and talking and looking at everything up there. And when we came down she was the head of the conversation. All her family was listening to her. ‘Did you see the Salton Sea up there? Did you see the waterfalls? Did you see the flowers?’ She was the center of that conversation for at least 10 minutes, and it really thrilled her heart that she went up there, and it thrilled my heart, too.”
That’s Leonard Knight talking. He speaks with a faint New England twang, and his eyes sparkle with life. He’s 67 years old, but he looks 10 years younger and has the energy of a young man and the enthusiasm of a boy.
“A young girl was in Las Vegas driving an old man around,” Knight continues, “and she was having fun in Las Vegas, and she didn’t want to come to the mountain. But the old man wanted to come here, and he was paying her money to drive him, so she had to drive him here, and she was on the grumpy side. And all of a sudden the mountain just grabbed her. She loved the mountain. She ran up and down the mountain two or three times, and she was smiling at the old man and saying, ‘Thank you for coming here! That mountain is gorgeous! Can I go up there again?’ And he was happy, and she was happy, and I was grinning all over. To me, these are the things that thrill me a lot.”
Leonard Knight has spent 14 years sculpting and painting Salvation Mountain in the California desert near Niland, in Imperial County, east of the Salton Sea, 200 miles from Los Angeles. The mountain is about as tall as a three-story building and as wide as a football field. It is covered with adobe and layer after layer of paint. County supervisors once labeled Salvation Mountain a “toxic nightmare” and tried to bulldoze it down. But supporters of the site rallied by sending letters and petitions. Knight himself had a set of soil tests made proving that no dangerous levels of hazardous materials were to be found there, and the supervisors dropped their campaign to get rid of Salvation Mountain and its creator.
Knight calls himself a loner, but he doesn’t act like one. “I love to greet people,” he says. “No matter what I’m doing, if people come in, I’m gonna stop, and I’m gonna say hi to them and give them a welcome.”
A car drives up and turns off the blacktop, bumps over the packed desert earth and stops a polite distance away from the truck with a house built on the back, where Knight lives with his cat. A man and a woman climb out of the car, and Knight hurries to greet them. They explain that they’ve come from Pennsylvania to see the mountain.
“I’ve got some yellow steps that go all the way to the top,” Knight tells them. “We’ll go up there if you want to.”
“I’m surprised that we’re allowed to walk on it,” says the man.
“What I’m working on now is the flowers,” Knight explains. “The more coats of paint I put on them, the more they shine.”
“Yeah,” the man says. “They look so good, it almost makes you want to eat them.”
Knight laughs. “I never heard that before, but it sounds good.”
Knight and the couple reach the top and gaze at the painted mountain sloping away from them, down to the painted sea that surrounds it.
“There’s so much to look at,” the woman says. “You can’t look at it all at once.” A soft breeze comes up, cooling under the hot sun. “It’s nice up here,” she says.
Knight nods in agreement. “It is nice. I like my backyard.”
“It must have been a lot of work,” the man says.
Knight nods again. “It’s always been fun though. I always feel like working on it just because I feel like working on it. I don’t have to, but I just feel like doing it.”
Before the visitors leave, Knight gives them postcards of the mountain. He refuses money and gives them extras to pass on to their friends. He says he’s handed out more than 100,000 postcards, and “They’ve ended up all over the world.”
Knight watches his visitors drive off. It’s been more than an hour since they came. “Lots of times people come in, and they end up wanting to stay longer than they thought they wanted to. I’ve had people come in, and they wouldn’t shut their car off at first because they’re in a hurry, and two hours later they’d still be here. ‘Gosh, I like to visit here,’ they say. And I say, ‘Well, good. That’s what I built the thing for.’ ”
Tina Fessey and Bob Sims arrive in Sims’ ‘80s-vintage Toyota pickup. The bed of the truck is tightly packed with five-gallon and one-gallon cans of paint. Bob Sims is in his early forties, quiet and thoughtful, long hair loose in back.
“We drive up, and it’s like, ‘Hi, Leonard,’ and he’s already on his way to the back of the truck to look at the paint we’ve brought,” Sims says.
“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,” Knight says.
Tina Fessey is tall and slender, full of life and left-handed, like Knight. “I first saw Leonard on TV, and I just knew I wanted to come here,” she says. “Bob drove me out in his truck, and Leonard showed us around, and we sat for awhile, and Bob said something about me being an artist and always painting something. Leonard asked if I was really good at it, and I said I didn’t know and that I wasn’t really an artist, and Leonard said, ‘Do you want to try something?’ And he had me paint some flowers and some leaves. And he watched me and said, ‘Do you want to finish it?’ And it was like a vine of flowers. And I finished it, and I told him that I’d come back with some more paint for him. And he said I could paint anytime I wanted, and that’s how it started.”
“That first time we came, we brought him two gallons of paint – it was green – and as soon as I got back home I started calling every paint company I could. Because I knew I was coming back. I couldn’t afford to buy paint for him for $18 a gallon and bring out what Leonard needed, so I just called and asked if they ever donated paint.”
Sims adds, “They have to pay to get rid of paint they can’t sell because it’s classified as hazardous. They can’t just pop it in a trash bin anymore, at least not legally."
“It seems to be such a simple thing,” Knight says. “People give me paint, and I’m happy to get it, and they’re happy to give it to me and get rid of it, and everybody’s happy. Gosh, how can anything be so beautiful, and it’s such a simple thing?”
"Each time I come out here, I ask Leonard what he needs done, and I do it,” Fessey says. “I don’t choose the colors. He tells me what colors, and then I go ahead and do it. Leonard has his own mind, and he’ll do what he wants. 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.”
“Tina and Bob have been the biggest blessing, God knows,” Knight says. “They’ve brought in about 800 gallons of paint, and they do everything so right that it’s embarrassing for me. They’ve got all the education, and they really are smart, and here I am, a dropout from high school, so people don’t pay any attention to me. If I want to do it my way, [most people] know better, and they really do know better. I’m not saying my way is right. I’ve made so many mistakes on this mountain that it’s positively pitiful. But I just can’t have 10 people in here doing it their way. I would almost rather make a big mistake on my own than listen to somebody else and do it right. Maybe I can learn something by the mistakes and make the mountain better. I don’t know. It takes wisdom, I think, to listen to the right people and do the right thing. But Tina says, ‘Leonard, I want to do it exactly your way. You tell me what to do. It’s your mountain.’ ”
“The first time I saw the mountain, it was like in the middle of all this brown, there was this rainbow,” Fessey says. “I couldn’t wait to get out of the truck ‘cause it was like this giant rainbow, this giant coloring book. And he’s out there painting it. And it’s like freedom.”
“I think Leonard’s primary thing, what’s motivated him to do everything he’s done, is [that] he’d just like to expose his message to as many people as possible,” Sims says. “And that message is ‘God is love,’ and that’s what he wants everybody to see. There isn’t a time when a car comes in that Leonard doesn’t go out and say, ‘Hi, how are you? Make yourself at home.’ And I think that catches people by surprise. Because, even if they know a little bit about the mountain when they come out here, no one expects to have the artist come up to your car door. Even when a busload of people comes through – 60, 70 people – he goes out and greets them all and gives them all a postcard and tries to make them feel at home. And almost everybody is pretty impressed with what they see, and I don’t think they ever forget it afterwards.”
“I’m thrilled about people’s beautiful attitude,” Knight says, “because people really seem to like the mountain a lot. Maybe they’re just saying it to make me feel good, I don’t know. But if that’s why they’re saying it, it’s working.” He laughs. “And I want to thank ‘em for making me feel good.”
Salvation Mountain is the Interactive Mountain – an interactive work of art – a work of art that you can walk on and that keeps changing with your moving point of view. It’s a work of art with the artist in residence and still working, constantly making changes and additions, but always taking the time to welcome visitors and show them around, talking with them and listening to their comments. It’s people giving paint and getting beauty in return. It’s people giving love and getting love back in equal measure. It’s apprentices sharing the work as well as the fun. And finally, Salvation Mountain is a work of art that is constantly interacting with nature, mirroring the changing skies, reflecting the shifting lights and shadows cast by the desert sun.
“Millions and millions of people are just plain beautiful,” Knight says. “If somebody gives me paint, they want to do it because they want to do it. They say, ‘We want to be part of the mountain.’ So people are doing it with their hearts. They’re helping me with respect I shouldn’t have. They give me compliments I don’t deserve. And, God knows, if people love me, I want to love them back.
. . . Man, the older I get, the more happy I get. It seems to me that good is getting better. I think that there’s something about being happy and enthused that makes a person young. At least it’s working that way with me. I just hope I last another 30 years because I got things to do.” Leonard Knight laughs and happiness dances in his eyes.
In 2000, LEONARD KNIGHT’s Salvation Mountain in Niland, Calif., received a plaque from the Folk Art Society of America designating it as a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection.
Directions from Los Angeles to Salvation Mountain: (200 miles), East on Interstate 5 past Palm Springs and Indio, south on 86S Expressway, Route 111 to Niland, east on Main Street to Salvation Mountain.
Directions from San Diego: (150 miles), East on Interstate 8 to El Centro, Route 111 to Niland, east on Main Street to the mountain.
Leonard Knight's mailing address: P.O. Box 298, Niland, CA 92257. He likes to get mail.
LARRY YUST is a filmmaker and photographer living in Los Angeles. The photographs for the Salvation Mountain article were taken recently and have never before been published. “The mountain constantly changes, and I can’t stop taking pictures of it,” Yust says.
As seen in:
[#47] Vol. 12, No. 3, Summer 1999$15.00 ppd