Sunday, October 11, 2009
There’s no shortage of material on the web about Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountain. There’s even an anti- Salvation Mountain website by one of Leonard’s disgruntled Slab City neighbors. Leonard makes himself very accessible to any photographers or media people that approach him, whether they’re amateur or professional- he’s probably one of the most photographed artists in history.I photographed and “interviewed” Leonard nearly two years ago, but have been lazy about doing anything with the work. For the most part there’s nothing here that cannot be found elsewhere, either in print or on the web. Leonard is nothing if not consistent- it may seem like parts of this have been lifted from other articles you’ve seen, but they’re not- it’s a verbatim transcription of the conversation I taped. I’m putting up a website now because, for one thing, I’ve never done one before and I want to see how difficult it is; but also because I told Leonard I would.You’ll never meet a nicer, gentler soul than Leonard- there’s nothing wild-eyed or scary about him. There’s no bohemian artifice or artistic temperament. He’s very sincere about getting his message of God’s love out to the world, and that’s what Salvation Mountain is all about. Whatever one may think of his religious beliefs, his accomplishment is undeniably remarkable.Here’s a web page that links you to all the other web pages about Leonard’s work:http://www.salvationmountain.us/links.html
M.J. Stevens, 1/28/06
MJS- (Showing Leonard photos of Queen Califia’s Magic Circle by Niki de Saint Phalle) …she was from San Diego…
Leonard Knight- She must’ve spent a lot of time and effort.
MJS- She used a lot of mirrored things on there so they’d reflect light… another thing she has out there is a fountain that shoots out water, but everything is powered with a solar panel… see it right there?
LK- How long has she been working on it, do you know?
MJS- It’s unfortunate because she passed away about a year ago. But she had other people working on it with her… she was like part of the art thing, you know…
LK- Like I’m trying to get into that…art…
MJS- Yeah… she started out as a fashion model, and somehow she started making paintings, like around in the 50’s…
LK- Boy, she should be really famous.
MJS- See, she used these mirrors, so you look in the mirrors and you get different views of the sculptures.
LK- You know I’ve often wondered- I’m trying to get a gold plaque from the senate- did you know that?
MJS- Yeah, you gave me the photocopy last time…
LK- Wouldn’t that be a beautiful way to preserve this?
MJS- Yes it would.
LK- And I’m just talking to you about that because if you get a website I’d like to have you mention it, along with over 1,400 kids that are emailing Washington.
MJS- Wow, how about that?
LK- Yep; and Barbara Boxer wrote in to the President Bush, I’m getting people on the website; you’re probably on that, you could put a picture of it and add to it.
MJS- Is there like a form letter or something you’re having people send in?
LK- Yeah, I’ve got a gold plaque from Barbara Boxer, and they’re taking pictures of it, and I’ve got over 1400 duplicates of it, and I’m giving them a duplicate, but they’re taking pictures of the gold plaque. Last week they were going to put it in the Sacramento paper, me holding that plaque. I’m sneaky on this, but I’ve been told… how can I really keep this up 80 years from now? It’s almost impossible. But they tell me if it would go through the next congress of the senate it would be protected beyond any…who’s going to fight congress? They say it’s impossible, but I’ve got different countries coming down on it hard. ‘Cause they like what I’m doing a lot.
LK- That’s a General Sherman tree base. The largest tree base in the world. Its 171/2 feet through. Anyway, if you want to ask some questions right now, why don’t we do it.
MJS- One thing I was curious about is before you started working on this (Salvation Mountain), what kind of art work did you do?
LK- Hardly any. I was not interested in art at all. I tried to paint cars 30 years ago and never could paint a good one. That’s about the ability of it. The first time somebody called me an artist I scolded them for five minutes. I don’t like artwork, I have no interest in it whatsoever; don’t say such a silly thing. And all of a sudden it’s turning into a worldwide thing. Except I’m happy when they call me an artist now.
MJS- Ah. When you didn’t think of this as art, what did you think of it as?
LK- I made a hot air balloon in Nebraska that had God Is Love on it- that was my main theme for over 40 years. To put God Is Love to the world. And when it rotted out here, in 1984, and it never got up very good, I told God “I’m going to stay here one week and make a little 8 foot one”- twenty years ago. And twenty years later I’m still here. That was my only plan. I kept going. Just kept going.
MJS- What kind of life did you leave behind to do this?
LK- I was running away from my sister in 1967, and she wanted me to go to church and I didn’t want to get in touch with God or Jesus or anything. I was running away from her. And I remember the spot, by myself, I started saying “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come in to my heart.” And I said that about six or seven times, and I noticed tears were coming down my eyes. And I said “What in the world…? I’m going to say it for maybe a half-hour.” And, God, I started crying like a baby. And, man, I got filled with the Holy Ghost instantly. And one scripture I’ll give you ‘till you ask for more: Acts 2:38- the Bible says: “Repent to Jesus Christ and get saved.” Period. Simple. I’m trying to tell the whole world that God loves them, I’ve got the sinner’s prayer on my truck and everything. And I’m telling everybody that God loves everybody. Isn’t that simple? God just loves you. And I keep it simple. And then people try to get me into complicated things, I’ll say “No, it’s too simple. Just God loves you.” And you know there was a lady Marine that came from a year’s service fighting in Baghdad or Kuwait, and I think it was 20/20 TV that put God Is Love over there. I’m getting God Is Love to the whole world, and that thrills me a lot.
MJS- So, you didn’t conceive of this as a work of art, but a Holy Ghost expression.
LK- Expression- I want to put “God Is Love” to the world. And I want to do it in a nice way. I’ll be honest with you, and this is the truth: everything really good God is doing, and everything that’s falling apart I’m doing. I’m being really honest with you. Like when I (came) down here it was in the summertime, probably about 116 outside, and I was kind of grumbling, telling God “I don’t even want to stay here one week”. But the adobe is here, the sunshine is here, this is the best place in the world to build this monument, and thank God for putting up with me for 20 years.
MJS- When you started building this did you have a picture in your mind of what kind of result you wanted, or do you make it up as you go along?
LK- Yes, in 1971 I saw a hot air balloon fly over Burlington Vermont, 32 or 3 years ago. I don’t know what it said on it, but it wasn’t “God Is Love”. Kids were pulling their parents out by the 100’s- “Daddy, what’s that balloon say? Mama, what’s that balloon say?” And I looked up at God 32 years ago more or less and says “God, I want a balloon that says that you love everybody, and it’ll say “Jesus, I’m a sinner please come onto my heart” on it. And that’s what was on the balloon. And it took me 10 years praying for it, 4 years to make it in Nebraska- I made it 10 stories high, 200 feet, and it was too big, and too clumsy, and it never worked, so when it broke down here in 1984, that’s when I told God “I’ll stay here one week and…”
MJS- Wait a minute- when did you start praying for it?
LK- It was in…jeez…it was in 1971. I started praying, really, I prayed the longest years of my life were 10 years- from 1971 to 1980, see?
MJS- That’s almost 35 years…
LK-That was 10 years, from ’71 to ’81…
MJS –‘Till now…
LK- Anyway, I started praying for it for 10 years in the 70’s, and every day I‘d keep praying “God I want a hot air balloon” and nobody would help me. And I broke down in Nebraska in 1980, and a man that didn’t know God, I guess, at the time, he just said “Leonard, all you want to talk about is a hot air balloon. You’re my friend so I’ll help you build one. I remember huggin’ him- “Oh thank you, we’ll build it, we’ll build it!”, ‘cause the churches wouldn’t help me, nobody would help me, I wasn’t capable of doing it. And, uh, I stayed there 4 years and built balloon 10 stories high. I sewed it every day on a sewing machine. I had “God Is Love” on it, and had the Sinner’s Prayer on it- like my mountain. And then it rotted out here. And I said “God, I’ve got 14 years in a hot air balloon, and it’s rotted out on me, so I’ll stay here one week and make a little (unintelligible) . 20 years later I’m here and God Is Love Mountain is up there- now I’m making a duplicate of the hot air balloon from bales of hay, from 1000 bales of hay. The only plan I got is to put “God Is Love” to the world, especially the Sinner’s Prayer. I can’t believe that anything is so simple that all we have to do is get all by our self, and repent to Jesus Christ and say “Jesus, please come in to my heart, Jesus, I’ve sinned, I’m sorry, and then you’re saved. Man! Jesus paid the price, and I’m trying to tell the church leaders that, and man, they’re as stubborn as I am! And I’m stubborn. But when it comes to the Bible, boy, God’s got me collected into the Bible from cover to cover. I don’t argue with the Bible. I’ll tell God “I don’t understand it, and I’m sorry, but you wrote it, and you’re the boss, and I love you. And He must love my attitude on it because I’m 72 years old and I’ve been putting bales up there by myself… and, uh, I do some of the dumbest things there ever was and God just keeps on loving’ me and hugging’ me and cuddling me… such as I had 40 bales fall in on me- three years ago. And I jumped back- this is kind of a joke, but it’s how it really happened, somewhat” “God, I don’t know what I’m doing!” I think God says:”I know that, Leonard”. I get a kick out of saying that because that’s about what happened. Now, I’m looking for three telephone poles, 30 feet high, and put limbs all out by the hundreds, and every bale of hay will have a limb to it, so this whole thing’s going to be domed over as a museum. So it’s getting popular now overseas, I just think it’s going so good.
MJS- So instead of having timber rafters you’re going to have limbs from trees?
LK- Well, I’ve got limbs I find out in the desert now, that I make car tire trees to hold it up- you know that, I guess…
MJS- I didn’t know that these… these are made out of tires?
LK- I’d like to show you, OK? Then you’ll get a better idea of what I’m taking about. It’ll only take 10 seconds to show you… this here’s a car tire tree!
MJS- AHA! I never knew these were made from car tires!
LK- They’re out in the desert by the hundreds- tires. So if I get 14 more flat-tire trees and 3000 bales of hay I can dome this whole thing over as a museum. And I should have started it probably when I was 8 years old. But this is what started this whole thing off, over here... and, God, let me explain this the way it is. This is the inside of that hot air balloon that rotted out on me. There’s over 1000 bales of hay in it. And it started to crack on me here and there and yonder, and I made this tree with a wheelbarrow. With tractor tires and wet, sloppy adobe, six truck tires and adobe, 15 or 18 car tires… and then I started poking sticks into it to hold it up.God, it excites me, but about four years ago I checked my mail and in Germany magazine they had a picture of my car tire handmade tree- and it’s gone popular. And that’s got me into making trees into museums. People like that all over the world. I get inspired, enthused, puffed up, and happy (laughs) - I’m just trying to be real honest with you. And if I gab too much you can always cut it out of your stuff anyways.That balloon that I made was 10 stories high- 200 feet. And this is going to be a duplicate of it- I’m going to have Jesus 100 foot wide over that mountain.
MJS- How many hours a day are you working on this.
LK- Only about 2 or 3 now. Because in the morning, about 6 to 8- and then there’s a lot of visitors. And to me, the important thing- no matter what I’m doing if people come in I want to treat ‘em nice. I want to give them a tour- “hey, welcome…”, and that’s my same etiquette, and have 9 million people from 17 more countries photographing it…
MJS- What do you think about when you’re working on the thing- do you just have your mind on your work, or…
LK- No, I have my mind on Jesus. I love Jesus head on. I’m trying to tell the churches that…Jesus, I love you according to the Bible, Father I love you and I’m looking at you the best I can. I love you. And I’m getting personal with Jesus. I don’t have to dress up and go to church and listen to a man once a week. God, I do that when I’m painting. For some reason the church won’t grasp this yet. I’m totally lost. They say “where do you go to church?” … I know one thing- the Bible says that Jesus is within the heart of people. Everybody he ever made- that’s where the church is, in the heart. It’s in your heart, my heart, everybody’s heart. So I tell everybody that God loves everybody he ever made. For some reason I’ve got to… my goodness, if I go 20 minutes without thinking of Jesus Christ I feel bad. “God, what am I thinkin’ about? I’m sorry, God, I love you”, and I’m getting personal with Jesus. Otherwise how could God pick somebody who quit school in the 10th grade, I was shy- never liked a group of over 20 people. Was never capable of doing anything. All of a sudden, God Is Love Mountain, without the church world, is (being seen) all over the world because I’ve got a revelation to love Jesus Christ head on. I hope you remember that. And one thing you could do that would really thrill me is to look into the Bible, and to look into Acts 2:38, and see that it’s in there.I’ve got some more people. I’ll be right back.
LK- 10 years ago when they were going to bulldoze me down the artists of the world, and the Earth Art Raw Vision artists, folk art, all of ‘em- got on my side. The artists really backed me up worldwide on this. And the Los Angeles Times said “The laws of God and the laws of man are going to collide in Niland, California.” And everybody that read the LA times, (every art museum), was on my side- “are you scrapin’ the chapel off overseas (the Sistine Chapel)?” or something like that. So, I thank God for the United States- 10 years later… back then I was a toxic nightmare (endangering the health of) the people- now I’d like to show you a gold plaque from the Senate of the United States.
MJS- Do you still play guitar?
LK- (opens a book to lyrics of a protest song he wrote when local officials were trying to have the Mountain declared an Environmental hazard in the mid-90’s)
MJS- I’d like to hear that song sometime.
LK- Sheesh…How about right now?
MJS- Let’s hear it.
LK- I don’t need my guitar… I had about 80 guitar students a week 50 years ago.
LK- But then I gave up on it…
All I wanted to do was be an artist
Lord, I gave them my very best.
California’s going to bulldoze me tomorrow
And put my little paintbrush to rest.
Oh, I’ve got a story to tell you
You’ll never listen to one word
Nobody ever listens
To a little hobo bird
I used to hang my head up high
Now I hang my head and blush
I contaminated California
With a handmade paintbrush
I contaminated the bombin’ range
Killed most of the fish in the Salton Sea
So California’s bulldozing
This paintbrush from me
MJS- Wow. That’s great. Thanks.
I notice in different places around the Mountain there’s plants growing out of it.
MJS- Do you do that on purpose, or do they just grow?
LK- No, they just grow. I let ‘em grow.
MJS- Do you consider them to be part of the Mountain, or…
LK- Well… until they get too big. (Laughs) I had some really big ones up there, and I took them down. But it’s interesting…I’m glad you brought that subject up, because I could probably get some kind of nice little tree planted in their place... but did you notice that one big tree up there, kinda? Up between the “O” and the”N”?
MJS- Yes, I took a picture of that.
LK- If you took a picture of that root over there- that root is big. Because I trimmed it down 4 times in 8 years. And the root is getting bigger and deeper, and someone told me in a hundred years it’ll take the Mountain down, And I said: “No, in a hundred years the roots will hold it up.” So who knows?
MJS – (laughs) We won’t be around in a hundred years.
But I’ll tell you- I’m pressuring the Senate of the United States more than I should, I mean, I’ve got foreign countries just pushin’, and… I know there’s over 14,000 kids emailin’ the Senate- they like it. And I think there’s enough people in the country that they’re going to have to just buckle. People like you who are on the internet and taking pictures help an awful lot.
MJS- I hope so…
I better get going before it gets too dark… find my way back.
LK- Anyway, how soon do you think you’ll be back? I’d like to give you some post cards if you want to give ‘em out to somebody... Come back anytime…
MJS- OK, thanks as usual for your hospitality, we’ll see you soon.