A Trip to the Far-out World of California Desert Art

Earlier this week I flew from the Southern California desert to the Polar Vortex of the upper Midwest. The difference in temperature was 100 degrees from the time I left to when I landed. Being in the desert was as if I was on another planet.

We were visiting the Palm Springs-area with trips to Joshua Tree National Park and areas around Slab City. In Joshua Tree we saw the mythical tree known to only grow in a few places on Earth and live for hundreds of years.

We were visiting the Palm Springs-area with trips to Joshua Tree National Park and areas around Slab City. In Joshua Tree we saw the mythical tree known to only grow in a few places on Earth and live for hundreds of years.

Slab City was once used to train Marines but is now an encampment in the desert where campers, artists, snowbirds, and others live without running water, electricity, sewers, taxation, or government.

All of these areas had a feeling of intensity, whether it was the splashy mid-century modern architecture of residences that had once housed Hollywood’s stars, or the ramshackle huts of Slab City. But we also saw something we weren’t expecting. Art in the desert.

Salvation Mountain

In Slab City we also saw Salvation Mountain, the brainchild of Leonard Knight. If you saw Into the Wild about Chris McCandless, you remember the scene where the real Leonard Knight shows the actor playing Chris, staying at Slab City, his mountain.

Knight worked on Salvation Mountain for 30 years with no running water or electricity. He wanted to share the message that “God is Love” but did not belong to a particular religion. He passed away in 2014.

The structure is a massive colorful beacon in the desert. You can walk through a section of grottoes and passages and climb to the top of the 50-foot mountain and take in the vista. The structure is made of adobe, straw, tree trunks, telephone poles, and layers of paint. Volunteers carry on Knight’s vision and the day we were there were making touch-ups on the bottom portion of the mountain.

Leonard Knight
A photo of Chris McCandless sits on the shelf

East Jesus

East Jesus, a community of artists who have created works of art from discarded items. The art here was funny and impressive featuring a number of fully decked-out cars, aliens and a huge mastodon.

East Jesus was the vision of Charles Stephen Russell. He left his tech job in 2007 and packed his belongings in a shipping container and set out to Slab City. Russell planned to work on Salvation Mountain, but began working on sculptures that would become the first East Jesus works. He built a complex for the site including hospitality, administrative and performance space.

Russell worked on East Jesus for five years before passing away in 2011 of a heart condition at the age of 46. A board of directors now leads East Jesus which founded The Chasterus Foundation in his honor. They are trying to raise money to lease the land so that the state of California does not buy it.

East Jesus is powered by solar panels and has cell and wifi, but no running water.

This says “You Will Die Alone”

Noah Purifoy’s Outdoor Desert Museum

This outdoor museum was located near Joshua Tree National Park. Unlike the other two men, Purifoy was a trained artist.

Purifoy created a traveling exhibition with six other black artists after the Watts Rebellion in 1965. His work is featured in the Whitney Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, and many others. He moved from Los Angeles to Joshua Tree in his later life and worked there from 1989 until his death in 2004.

Many of the exhibits are big enough to walk in and through. It reminded me a bit of Dr. Evermor’s Forevertron in that you could look at the larger piece and then when you looked closer you started to see what the individual bits and pieces were made of — toilets, half barrels, bowling balls, or whatever. As with East Jesus, since all the material was discarded it made me think about all the waste in our daily life.

As expected based on his background, Purifoy’s work was more political and made statements. There was a whites and colored-only water fountain piece where the colored water fountain was made of a toilet. There were shelters that seemed to have been lived in by the very poor and three crosses.

The complex was massive, covering 10 acres of land. It was at the end of a dusty road, with the desert beyond and houses that were weather worn across the street. It wasn’t exactly what we were expecting to find, but seemed to fit perfectly just like the other art in the desert.

Originally published at catherinelanser.com on February 1, 2019.

Narrative nonfiction and memoir. Querying my memoir about my family, told through the lens of brain tumor and father’s stroke. www.catherinelanser.com

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store