A few weeks ago my friend, the eccentric folk artist Leonard Knight, was declared an Official National Treasure before the United States Congress. Not bad for a man who has quite literally built and painted a mountain in the remotest Californian desert at the behest of God. Leonard Knight may not always be understood, but he is finally being recognized for the brilliant maverick genius he is.
I have written of Leonard before, but I continue to follow his story, thanks largely to the diligence of the American Visionary Art Museum's Rebecca Hoffberger. Hoffberger lobbied Senator Barbara Boxer of California for two solid years to take action to recognize Leonard's contribution to the United States' (and the world's) folk art legacy.
It's important that Salvation Mountain be recognized -- not only for what it is, but for what it is not. Some people believe Leonard to be a crackpot whose incessant application of various paints (much of it leftover house and industrial paint donated by locals) poses a danger to the environment. Although all tests of groundwater and soil around Slavation Mountain have failed to show pollution, there are still those who would like to see Leonard kicked off the land (which belongs to the state) and his mountain pulverized. Official recognition is one way to prevent that.
Earlier this year, the Folk Art Society of America designated Salvation Mountain a folk-art shrine. Art enthusiasts in Los Angeles are now trying hard to have Salvation Mountain placed on the US's National Register of Historic Places, which would provide perhaps the best protection of all.
According to Rebecca, Leonard will receive a framed copy of the National Treasure declaration, and a beautiful gold-fringed American flag, complete with a flagpole topped by a golden bald eagle. Rebecca says Leonard will be thrilled: "He's very patriotic," she says.
Here's the text of the Declaration which Senator Boxer read into the permanent Congressional Record in May:
Mr. President, there are areas of the California desert near the Salton Sea that can best be described as dry, desolate and forlorn.
Indeed, there are those who describe the area around Niland off Highway 111 as godforsaken. But rising out of this sere, super-heated desert is the multi-colored and textured Salvation Mountain -- a unique and visionary sculpture encompassing five acres. Salvation Mountain is Leonard Knight's personal statement on the love and the glory of god.
Leonard Knight, a one-time snow shoveler from Vermont, came to Salvation Mountain from the sky. His hot-air balloon crashed into the site and he decided to stay, believing the experience to be a sign from God. Here he produces his unique creation, using adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of paint to color and reshape the desert landscape. Seen from afar, Salvation Mountain is an unlikely mass of technicolor shapes and textures. Up close, it is an iridescent fusion of doves, clouds, flags, flowers, hearts, streams, biblical messages and countless other images.
In the last 16 years, Knight's creation has been visited by thousands of people from all over the world -- artists and art lovers, journalists, students on field trips, retirees, newlyweds and just plain curious people come by the mountain each day. The Folk Art Society of America has declared Salvation Mountain a national folk art shrine. The American Visionary Art Museum has embraced Leonard Knight and his mountain monument.
Salvation Mountain is the product of the vision and non-stop labor of one dedicated man. Leonard lives alone at the base of the mountain, sleeping in a converted school bus that is as colorful as his desert creation. He uses pain constantly supplied by visitors, local residents and others willing to be a part of this stunning work-in-progress. He figures that he has used close to 60,000 gallons of donated paint over the years.
Mr. President, American folk art is found in all corners of our nation. Perhaps one of the least likely locations would be the desert where Salvation Mountain is found. Leonard Knight's artwork is a national treasure, a singular sculpture wrought from the desert by a modest, single-minded man. It is a scuplute for the ages -- profoundly strange and beautifully accessible -- and worthy of the international acclaim it receives.