• February 14, 2014

Remembering a Folk Art Visionary

Aaron Huey

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.

Leonard Knight

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.

There are 35 Comments. Add Yours.

  1. melissa mejia
    March 20, 2014

    He is inspiring via his PURE devotion and faithfulness. His art is like a church for God and God’s followers.

  2. Teresa
    February 25, 2014

    I am disturbed that a person would cover God’s gift with Latex, a man-made chemical that is deadly to the life beneath it. The life that God made. I understand he was driven, that he wanted to make a grand gesture, but it may have been more authentic to help his fellow man with all that energy and money.

  3. Jose Aguiar
    February 24, 2014

    When I first met Leonard I was not sure if he was crazy or if he was a prophet. Over time I came to understand that he was a man with a clear vision of what his calling in life was. Everybody that found themselves at Salvation Mountain was there for a reason and Leonard was the reason many like myself kept coming back to see his work. His sincerity was infectious and his message about love touched you wether you were religious or not. Come to Salvation Mountain and see and experience it for yourself.

  4. hilerca
    February 24, 2014

    leonard, when, whatever it had
    endow to humman, hardly must done. But still man of the war. May his soul rest in peace.

  5. Alexander Jablanczy
    February 23, 2014

    As the article states this is worth preserving as an example of American folk art which of course is the only authentic art the US contributed to the world. The official art is of course dreck but in the hands of folk it acquires meaning and significance. A bit of Basquiat some Pompidou Centre and a lot of St Phalle and a hell of a lot of Jackson Pollock. Abstract expressionism is only a half art all structure and form and O meaning and significance but in the hands of the folk it acquires meaning which that badly lacks.
    He was a great artist because what he did wasn’t meaningless poster colours on surfaces of nihil.
    One doesn’t have to agree with his undoubted faith as who cares if you agree with Dante or Giotto they meant what they wrote or painted.
    One could wish an earthquake demolish that obscenity the presidents mtn. but preserve this Salvation Mountain. That is kitch this is art.

  6. Tommie Marsters
    February 23, 2014

    We were taken to visit Leonard and Salvation Mountain about five years ago. We were awestruck by his passion and dedication to this project–his mission. So many people–like this author/photographer–assisted him by donating much of the material to his cause. Blessings all around.

  7. Sharron Henry
    February 23, 2014

    I went there a couple of times. Boon docked in my little R.V. very close by. When I first heard about it, I thought, hmmm, how strange!. But when I walked around, met and talked with him, I realized how much of his love and soul went into making Salvation Mountain. He will be missed by thousands and hopefully someone will carry it on.

  8. Anderson Pilgrim
    February 23, 2014

    Simply amazing…thanks for sharing this with the world!

  9. Karen Domitrovjch
    February 18, 2014

    A singular, uncomplicated way of living, a beautiful man who will be missed. R.I.P. You taught us well.

  10. Andrew Holmes
    February 18, 2014

    A giant! A great man!

  11. Laurie
    February 17, 2014

    We visited Leonard several times and you have captured the essence of Leonard and his beloved mountain perfectly–thank you.

  12. khanittha
    February 17, 2014

    it’s beatifully.

  13. clarke palmer
    February 16, 2014

    Very difficult to put into words how leonard has touched so many people.

  14. Carol Ann
    February 16, 2014

    Been there. Took my kids there. I was one of the many fortunate ones who met the wonderful Leonard. Beautiful piece on an inspirational man. Rest in great peace, Leonard.

  15. Kristin
    February 16, 2014

    Leonard was compelled by his love for Christ and wanted everyone to love the way he believed that Christ did. It seems silly to me that the person who wrote this article makes mention of Muhammad and Buddha and leaves out Jesus Christ WHO THE MOUNTAIN SCREAMS ITS LOVE TO. I think Leonard’s art speaks as loudly as the zeal that propelled his creation in the first place. To trivialize his devotion seems to detract from his intention. He more than a tremendous artist!

  16. Jim S.
    February 16, 2014

    Aaron, thank you for your article. You beautifully captured Leonard’s spirit and character which was every bit as powerful, in a quiet humble way, as his message painted on the “mountain”. May his message live on in the lives of those he touched.

  17. wendy
    February 16, 2014

    RIP Leonard this is the best description I have ever read about you “I had never met a person so pure and so raw” Love<3

  18. Mark
    February 16, 2014

    Я Такой же! Живу также! Умру как он, потому что я не один такой и этому есть самый яркий пример! Красок тебе, Мастер – Мечтатель!!! УРА! УРА! УРА! Есть с кого брать пример и вдохновение! УРА! УРА! УРА!

  19. James
    February 16, 2014

    praise the lord! it’s hard to see the love of god sometimes in this world, but I’m so glad that god has worked through this man to bring more of his love to us here on here on earth. jesus is always better. god bless you all!

  20. Andrea Hinojosa
    February 16, 2014

    I had the pleasure of meeting Leonard about ten years ago, when I first visited Salvation Mountain. I returned many times and always found the peace and I sought in troubled times. Being there, you can’t NOT feel the love for what he did and the pride in his work. He showed me how me made his famous flowers…truly an honor. Fly in peace, Leonard

  21. Ann Jepson
    February 15, 2014

    Always been fascinated by the Salton Sea history and the unique characters that surround it. I doubt I would have ever met him, but am saddened by his death. May he rest in peace. I hope his mountain is still thriving when I finally get there.

  22. Tessa Garoutte
    February 15, 2014

    His dedication and devotion to the ideal he upheld while living is amazing. R.I.P ,sir, you are truly amazing.

  23. Bonita Nevins
    February 15, 2014

    prints available? wonderful stuff.

  24. Ella
    February 15, 2014

    Was this man featured in Into the Wild? His work is truly magnificent and it is difficult not to admire him for his dedication, loyalty, and unwavering love for his mission.

  25. Sherrie Haenny
    February 15, 2014

    We have been going out there since he started his art work and through the years we have watched it grow. We haven’t been there for years but we went there this last week and took friends and family to see his interesting art. They sure enjoyed it. Iam so glad I got to take the last pictures of his work.

  26. Rocìo Gonzàlez Pineda
    February 15, 2014

    That is amazing, thank you, so beautiful

  27. K.
    February 15, 2014

    Wow–an amazing life’s work. Thank you for memorializing. I had not heard of this before. Wow.

  28. Sunil Raheja
    February 15, 2014

    Awesome. Leonard looks like he is part of the painting. Calm with bliss all around.

  29. Shakila
    February 15, 2014

    I love Leonard and solute his passion and way to spread massage “”GOD IS LOVE””how humble he is? Fantastic job.

  30. Kevin Keefer
    February 15, 2014

    Aaron, thank you for sharing your experience and shedding some insight on this curious place and inspiring man.

  31. Gloria
    February 15, 2014

    Thank you Aaron for your photographic words. It’s true. Whether you are writing or painting or photographing someone, the time you spend in the connecting, the relating the being alongside, is more important and what gives the work of art you create life. I think what makes a great photographer or painter or writer, is a genuine interest in getting to know their subject and how much you come back changed by your study of them. I like to learn about the photographer as much as I do the subject. Because the spirit of you allows the spirit of the subject to shine.

  32. Alvaro Terren luna
    February 14, 2014

    I enjoy this article very much, the pics help to understand much better, thanks and good work !

  33. Valerie Frandsen Goates
    February 14, 2014

    Gorgeous story of love for Valentine’s Day. Thank you.

  34. Deborah Kunzie
    February 14, 2014

    What an incredible story and inspiring person. From a photographers point of view this to me is what its all about, documenting life whether human or animal, that will encourage and inspire others.

    From just a person’s point of view reading the story, it’s nice to discover those people that actually get what life is all about.

    Thank you for sharing it.

  35. Beth Wallace
    February 14, 2014

    Thank you Aaron for the beautiful liturgy. God bless.

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