Salvation Mountain

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SALVATION MOUNTAIN

SALVATION MOUNTAIN TIMELINE

1931  (November 1) Leonard Knight was born near Burlington, Vermont.

1967  Knight accepted Jesus at age 36.

1980  Knight traveled out West to Nebraska.

1980  Knight began to create the hot air balloon.

1984  Knight traveled to Southern California.

1986  Knight created Salvation Mountain near Slab City, California.

1989  The first mountain collapsed.

1989  Knight began to rebuild the mountain.

1994  Imperial County Supervisors attempted to tear down the mountain.

1998  Knight built a Hogan.

2000  Salvation Mountain was deemed a National Folk Art Site.

2002  Salvation Mountain was named a national treasure in the Congressional Record of the United States.

2007  Salvation Mountain featured in film “Into the Wild”.

2011  Knight was placed in long-term care facility.

2011 (December 13)  Kevin Eubanks, Knight’s assistant, died.

2012  A non-profit organization, Salvation Mountain, Inc., was established to try and preserve Salvation Mountain.

FOUNDER/GROUP HISTORY

Leonard Knight was born on November 1, 1931 near Burlington, Vermont. He has described himself as being a spoiled and
rebellious youngest child. He rebelled against having to do chores on the family farm and recalled that there was “too much work not enough play” (Sims 2004a). His recalcitrance carried over to his frequent absence from school. Knight has explained that he was something of a loner and that his schoolmates often made fun of him for having a stutter. This combination of lack of interest in school and badgering by other students led to his dropping out in tenth grade, although he has stated that he is not proud of his failure to complete high school (Metz 1998:1). Once Knight dropped out of school he had to learn how to survive on his own. As he has looked back on his childhood, he recalled having dreamed about one day moving to California. He has said that his mountain is his childhood dream coming true (Metz 1998:5).

In 1951, at age 20, Knight was drafted into the Army as the Korean War was winding down. Knight was looking forward to seeing the world as he traveled to Kentucky and then to Fort Knox. After he had completed an extended period of training, he was sent to Korea, but the war ended only ten days after he arrived. He then returned home to Vermont after receiving an Honorable Discharge. After his discharge from the Army, Knight supported himself by picking up odd jobs, such as painting cars and giving guitar lessons. He ultimately painted cars for over twenty years and taught countless guitar students. Knight believed in starting at the bottom and moving up in order to learn, but he never experienced great career success (Metz 1998:7).

When Knight was 36, he remembers suddenly experiencing a spiritual awakening. One day while listening to his sister speak of Jesus, he felt troubled and left his sister’s company. He recalls that as he sat alone in his van his passion for God came on suddenly. He began to recite the Sinner’s Prayer, “Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart.” He states that “For twenty minutes I was just saying it over and over again, and it changed my life completely to the good.” This moment began his lifelong, unfaltering dedication to Jesus (Metz 1998:13)

Once Knight’s spiritual passion was unleashed, he went from church to church to share his enthusiasm. Unfortunately, his message of “God is Love” was not kindly received. The churches believed that Knight’s ideas were too simple, even though simplicity was a main part of the message. As he reflected on that period, “I really loved Jesus a lot and I wanted people to know but nobody’d listen to me” (Metz 1998:13).

Taking matters into his own hands, Knight’s developed a new idea; decided to spread his message via hot air balloon. He believed this would be the perfect vehicle to allow the Sinner’s Prayer to reach a broad audience. For the next ten years, Knight prayed for a hot air balloon, but his prayers went unanswered. While he was waiting to receive the balloon, Knight headed West on a road trip in 1980. However, his van broke down in Nebraska. He had planned on staying in Nebraska for a few days, but he ended up staying for five years. Knight remembers those ten years as being the longest of his life, and he soon realized that if he wanted a balloon he would need to get it himself. He began buying fabric and sewing the balloon together by hand. His goal was to build the largest hot air balloon in the world; it would bear the words “God is Love” in large red letters for all to see. The project became much more challenging than Knight imagined as grew to an unmanageable size, wouldn’t properly inflate, and began to rot due to the intense Nebraska heat (Metz 1998:17-25).

Knight left Nebraska for Southern California in 1984. He continued to try and launch his balloon but was unsuccessful. There were over two dozen attempts, but the balloon’s immense size resulted in the balloon simply breaking into pieces. Knight finally gave up on his dream of a hot air balloon, but not the dream of spreading his message. In one last attempt to promote his message, Knight began erecting a small monument in Niland, California, near Slab City. Armed with only a bucket, a shovel, and a bag of cement, Knight began to create what would become Salvation Mountain. As time went on, Knight added more cement, sand, and junk that he collected from the dump. After the cement and debris were added, Knight would then decorate the mountain with painted artwork. The mountain featured his famous “God Is Love” and Sinner’s Prayer messages.

After four years, Knight had added so much sand to the mountain that it collapsed in a huge cloud of dust. Instead of accepting defeat, Knight’s optimism once again prevailed as he took the collapse as a positive message from God. Knight reportedly said, “Thank you, God, for taking the mountain down” (Metz 1998:29). He vowed to begin the monument again, but this time it would be done the “right way” (Metz 1998:25-29). In 1989, Knight began to build his second mountain, this time solely with adobe clay and straw, which made the mountain stronger and completely solid. This second effort resulted in the current Salvation Mountain, which stands approximately three stories high. The decorative folk art is the product of a generous layer of paint, estimated at more than ten coats, that acts as an additional hardener, protecting the mountain from cracking. Knight only accepts donations in the form of paint, and the site probably contains over 100,000 gallons of paint that have been donated by visitors and supporters (Sims 2004b). The mountain is decorated in colorful flowers, waterfalls, birds, and numerous Bible verses and spiritual messages (Metz 1998:41).

Knight has gone on to add other features to Salvation Mountain. In 1998, Knight built a Hogan, a domed-shaped home made of adobe and bales of straw that reflects traditional Navajo architecture, which he then covered in paint and decorated. In addition to the Hogan, he also built “Museum.” This building was modeled after his failed attempt at creating a hot-air balloon. The “Museum” is still in progress and is supported by “trees” made out of paint-covered tires. The “Museum,” like the mountain, is completely painted and decorated. Both the Museum and the Hogan are part of the Mountain and add to the eclectic pieces of the monument (Sims 2004c).

Knight’s ability to continue to build and preserve Salvation Mountain was compromised by declining health. In 2011, he was unable to continue his mission and was placed in a long-term care facility.

DOCTRINES/BELIEFS

Leonard Knight had a message that he wanted to share with the world. His message was Christian but simple and non-denominational: God is love.accept Jesus into your heart, repent your sins, and be saved (Sims 2004a). However, many church leaders believed this message was too simple and that there was much more to understanding God and salvation. Despite this ambivalence to his message, Knight believed his mountain would do the talking for him and spread his message more widely than if he spoke it himself (Metz 1998:15).

Knight has encouraged and invited everyone to take a trip to visit Salvation Mountain. Although many who come to visit are not strictly religious, Knight has expressed hope that his art will touch all of them. “…That thrills me more than anything because maybe these people will say- Jesus, I’m a sinner, please come into my heart – and change”, said Knight about his visitors (Metz 1998:65). Knight also has said that he would rather make something beautiful instead of preaching and hurting someone’s feelings (Metz 1998:71).

Knight has said that he created the mountain because he loves God, loves people, and wants everyone to talk about God’s love. Knight believes that if his message can spread around the whole world, he’d be happy because love is what the world really needs. He has put it this way: “I believe that God is love, and I believe that Jesus is beautiful and pretty, and we should be comfortable talking about God’s love and the prettiness of God” ( Metz 1998:71. Knight has expressed a belief that love is the strongest force on earth and can combat the hate that is so prevalent in today’s world (Metz 1998:63).

ORGANIZATION/LEADERSHIP

Salvation Mountain demands a tremendous amount of upkeep for its preservation, and many people have stepped forward to assist Knight in taking care of the mountain. Among Salvation Mountain supporters, Kevin Eubank has stood out; he has been credited as being Knight’s main assistant. Eubank devoted his time to Knight and Salvation Mountain in order to spread the message and protect the mountain from harm. Eubank’s goal was to continue to protect the mountain after Knight passed away and to have it legally preserved. Unfortunately, Eubank, like Knight, also faced coronary problems. Indeed, a few days after Knight was placed in a care facility, Euband passed away due to heart related issues (Zebulon 2011).

ISSUES/CHALLENGES

Salvation Mountain has faced and continues to face a number of challenges. These include Knight’s declining health, cooptation, and environmental concerns.

Clearly, Knight’s work, as he has envisioned it is unfinished, and, given his stated mission, might never be complete. His declining health has prevented him from continuing both further development of his project and even the ongoing maintenance it requires. In 2011, Knight was moved into a care facility in response to his deteriorating health, which included congestive heart failure, cataracts, and other health issues. Since his admission into the facility, he has returned to his mountain only a few times. He has not expressed any plans to return to the mountain on a permanent basis, and so Salvation Mountain will no longer receive his vigilant care (Perry 2012).

In terms of preservation, Knight has said that he would rather continue to put coats and coats of paint on the mountain rather than add more material to it. This way, he has reasoned, there is a chance the mountain will stay in good condition for longer (Metz 1998:41). As time passes, the harsh desert weather conditions will continue to take a toll on the mountain’s physical appearance. Since keeping the monument in pristine condition is a full time job, many volunteers will be needed to keep Knight’s dream alive. The mountain is currently being cared for by a non-profit group, Salvation Mountain Inc. Volunteers have also begun working intensively to maintain and protect the mountain since Knight is now disabled (Bremner 2012).

While church leaders have not always been supportive of Knight’s message and mission, some church groups have actually attempted to adopt the mountain for their own missionary purposes. Knight has always turned these groups down and has held strong in his mountain, notion, and message that God is Love (Carone 2011).

Environmental concerns have also been raised about Salvation Mountain, specifically the presence of dangerous toxins given the massive amount of paint used in the creation and preservation of the mountain. In 1994, the Imperial County Supervisors labeled the mountain a “toxic nightmare.” County officials claimed that the surrounding soil contained high levels of toxic lead and petitioned to have the mountain torn down (Sims 2004c). It is unclear whether the county’s motives were environmental or political, however (Metz 1998:86). Salvation Mountain is located at the entrance of Slab City, an area that takes its name from a now abandoned World War II Marine barracks. Only the slabs remain. Several thousand campers have used the slabs as bases for their campsites during the winter months. The county wanted to turn the area into a campground in order to collect user fees. Officials then decided that the religious monument on a government owned campground would create potential litigation and sought to eliminate it. When the supporters of the mountain heard about the county’s plans, they launched a petition drive, collecting hundred of signatures in opposition of the county’s initiative. Knight personally collected samples of the soil and submitted them to a lab, proving that the land was indeed non-toxic (Sims 2004c).

Other prestigious institutions have stepped in on the side of Knight and Salvation Mountain. In 2000, Knight received an award from the Folk Art Society of America, stating that Salvation Mountain was a monument worthy of protection (Yust 1999). On May 15, 2002, Salvation Mountain was proclaimed a national treasure in the Congressional Record of the United States (Sims 2004c). The media has taken note of the unique site, with PBS and BBC producing documentaries. Knight and Salvation Mountain were also featured in 2007 film, “Into the Wild.” While the ultimate survival of Salvation remains uncertain, there are thousands of visitors every year and its reputation continues to grow (Carone 2011). In 2012, a non-profit organization, Salvation Mountain, Inc., was established to try and preserve Salvation Mountain amid continuing challenges of environmental deterioration, management, and land ownership (Olson 2012).

REFERENCES:

Bremner, Lynn. “Leonard Knight: The Man Who Built Salavation Mountain.” Accessed from http://www.desertusa.com/mag09/jul09/leonard_knight.html on 25 January 2013.

Carone, Angela. “The Future Of Salvation Mountain Uncertain.” Accessed from http://www.kpbs.org/news/2011/dec/20/future-salvation-mountain-uncertain/ on 25 January 2013.

Metz, Holly. 1998. Salvation Mountain: The Art of Leonard Knight. Los Angeles: New Leaf Press.

Olson, David. 2012. ” Salvation Mountain’s Creator Returns.” The Press-Enterprise, November 4. Accessed from http://www.pe.com/local-news/topics/topics-religion-headlines/20121104-religion-salvation-mountains-creator-returns.ece on 5 May 2013.

Perry, Tony. 2012. “ Salvation Mountain is Missing It’s Guiding Spirit.” Los Angeles Times, February 26. Accessed from http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-salvation-20120226,0,2246706,full.story on 25 January 2013.

Sims, Robert W. 2004a. “ The Man.” Accessed from http://www.salvationmountain.us/bio.html on 25 January 2013.

Sims, Robert W. 2004b.“ The Mountain.” Salvation Mountain. Accessed from http://www.salvationmountain.us/history.html on 25 January 2013.

Sims, Robert W. 2004c. “ Toxic Nightmare.” Salvation Mountain. Accessed from http://www.salvationmountain.us/history2.html on 25 January 2013.

Yust, Larry. 1999. “The Interactive Mountain of Leonard Knight.” Folk Art Society of America. Accessed from http://www.folkart.org/mag/leonard-knight on 25 January 2013.

Zebulon. 2011. “ Leonard Knight Leaves Salvation Mountain.” Adventures in the Zone. Awesome Inc., December 5. Accessed from http://zebulonspleen.blogspot.com/2011/12/leonard-knight-leaves-salvation.html on 25 January 2013.

Authors:
David G. Bromley
Stephanie Urlass

Post Date:
2 February 2013

Most Recent Update:
5 May 2013

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