Issue 27 Mountains Fall 2007

Salvation Mountain

Joel Sternfeld

Leonard Knight’s religious awakening occurred in 1967, when he was thirty-five years old. “One day by myself I started saying, ‘Jesus, I’m a sinner. Please come into my heart.’”

Sometime afterward, Knight began to work on a hot-air balloon made from bed sheets, on which he planned to write “God is Love,” as well as the prayer that had facilitated his conversion. This plan failed when the balloon could not get off the ground.
 Not one to be discouraged in his quest to spread his newfound faith, Knight began creating Salvation Mountain from adobe and hay bales on the site of his balloon efforts. Visitors have donated some of the funds necessary to purchase the estimated one hundred thousand gallons of paint used to color the structure over the years; California paint stores have contributed the rest.

In 1994, local government authorities declared the mountain a “toxic nightmare” and drew up plans to have it carted off and buried in a nuclear waste dump in Nevada. Rallies by Knight’s supporters, as well as his own tests proving that the site was non-hazardous, led the government to back down and allow him to continue building his shrine. He does so daily, except when graciously showing visitors around and giving them postcards inscribed with the Sinner’s Prayer.
 Because Knight considers it an obligation to personally greet each of the fifty to one hundred visitors who come each day, construction now depends on the help of volunteers. His latest project is a museum to house his own work and that of other artists. 

Joel Sternfeld is an artist based in New York. He is represented by Luhring Augustine Gallery, New York.

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