This week America lost one of its greatest living folk artists, a man who I had photographed many times, a man who had become my friend. His name was Leonard Knight, and he was the artist who built the monumental work known as Salvation Mountain.
Salvation Mountain is a literal man-made mountain 28 years in the making, covered in half a million gallons of latex paint. What started as a small monument made of dirt and painted cement became, over time, a sprawling adobe and hay-bale mountain complex, with peripheral structures made of telephone poles, tires, and car windows, as well as art cars and sculptures, all painted in a patchwork of stripes and color blocks of whatever paint was donated that week.
I met Leonard seven years ago when he could still carry a 40-pound bucket of adobe up a 30-foot ladder, but when he was no longer able to carry an 80-pound bale of hay to the top of his man-made mountain. He was 75 years old.
Leonard Knight was one of those men who was so singular of vision that from a distance some would brush it off as crazy. But it didn’t take much to realize what Leonard was. Just a conversation and you would know—this man was a saint, an American sadhu in the desert of southern California. The mountain was his living daily meditation.
The words he gifted to me in our time together transcended his specific faith and spoke to a universal love that is only understood by the most devout seekers in the world. I have no doubt that what he did was the equivalent to sitting beneath the Bodhi tree or in Muhammad’s cave, because I can tell you from my time with him that he was truly awake. And perfectly without doubt as to his purpose on this earth. As an artist he created something with no parallel or influence.
I had never met a person so pure and so raw. I’d never met somebody who dedicated his entire life to making one thing. Leonard made one thing. Leonard had no belongings and lived in the back of a broken down fire truck covered in scripture. He built, he ate, he gave tours, he bathed, and he slept. Nothing more. For 28 years he lived this way, the simple life of a visionary. Leonard worked beyond our concept of time, slowly and methodically without ever wandering from his path. His sole purpose in this endeavor was to spread the message that “God is Love.” He shared this with everyone who came to the mountain, giving personal tours to every single person who arrived during waking hours.
Meeting Leonard made me want to throw away all of my things—my computers, my phone, my career, my ego—and help him build his mountain of mud and paint. Instead I helped Leonard carry a dozen hay bales up the mountain and promised to come back again. I returned a dozen times over six years to help him build, to photograph his work, and to try to better understand his humble genius.
Photographing Leonard, like all the projects I have done that I care at all about, involved a lot of time not photographing. I think that in any project that seeks to transcend superficial imagery, one has to give more than one takes. So I gave my labor and I promised Leonard I would share his work with as many people as I could. It’s all he really wanted when I left.
I cannot conclude this post in the past tense as the eulogy of a man who was here, because Leonard lives on in his work and in the hearts of those he touched.
Journey well brother, your message lives on.
Despite the fact that Salvation Mountain is in the Congressional Record as a site “worthy of preservation,” its future is uncertain. To help preserve this American monument visit www.salvationmountain.org. You can see Huey’s full photo essay on Leonard and Salvation Mountain here.