Leonard Knight - Biography and Legacy
Burlington, Vermont, U.S.A.
El Cajon, California, U.S.A.
Biography of Leonard Knight
In Ben Stoddard and Dave Ehrenreich's 2014 mini documentary The Man Behind the Mountain, Leonard Knight's longtime friend and supporter Bill Ammoms says, "When I see a person that has taken such an isolated course in life, I always wonder, what took you there? That's the mystery about him, you know. What took you there?" Knight's beginnings are difficult to trace, but when pieced together from various interviews and statements they weave a map toward the anti-social, drifter life that Knight embraced in his adult years.
Knight was born November 1, 1931 near Burlington in Vermont. He was the fourth of six children born to parents Oris and Grace. The family lived on 32 acres in Shelburne Falls surrounded by maple trees, vegetable gardens, and huge pastures. These natural surroundings afforded Knight miles of land to roam and explore. However, in reality, the family farm required a large amount of upkeep, including working the land and tending to the cows and pigs. Knight recalled this as being "too much work and not enough play."
Knight hated school, describing himself as shy and somewhat of a loner. He spoke with a stutter as a child, and as a result was teased by the other children at school. He also wasn't very academic, and struggled with schoolwork. He recalled, "I used to skip school all the time. I wouldn't go to school when I was in fifth grade. I just quit. I couldn't seem to." His parents despaired of this behavior; "They'd try to spank me and whip me. And my poor mom would just cry over me, 'We want you to learn something in school Leonard!' I was such a nuisance. But they always put up with me with love." Later, Knight regretted this rebellious behavior in one of many folk songs he penned with the verse, "I overlooked the flowers on my mother's grave/ for thirty years she was my slave/ and I overlooked the flowers on my mothers grave/ and sometimes now I wish I did behave."
Also as a child, Knight preferred spending time alone to read comic books and fantasize about being a super hero. Journalist Paige Pritchard writes, "He would spend time alone in the woods on his family's property and swing from tree to tree, his feet never touching the ground." Later in his life, friends and psychologists who came to know Leonard would theorize that he had some form of Asperger's Syndrome. This would explain his difficulties as a child to communicate with or relate to other children, his feelings of being overwhelmed by his large class at school, his unusual use of language, and his physical "clumsiness." Indeed, a character trait of Asperger's is often highly focused, unusual, and often solitary interests.
In the 10th grade, Knight dropped out of school. For the rest of his teenage years, he worked in the factory where his father was foreman. However, again he struggled with day-to-day life working in a city alongside hundreds of other people. He later recalled, "it seemed to me, in a big city, no matter how good you did, they'd never quite be satisfied, and push you to do a little more.... it seemed to me this circle was endless."
In 1951, at age 20, Knight joined the military. He saw this as an opportunity to escape his unhappy life in Vermont and have the freedom to travel the world. However, he first had to complete the necessary training to become a vehicle mechanic in Fort Knox, Kentucky, and by the time he reached Korea the War would end a mere 10 days later. Knight did well in the military, but later said he was "the lousiest solider in the whole world" as he would never have been able to kill or harm anyone had he been called to do so. He gained some skills as a car mechanic in his spell there, yet did not find the purpose he was seeking.
After five years, in 1956, Leonard left the military with an honorable discharge. Back in Vermont, he drifted around filling a series of odd jobs including car mechanic and guitar teacher. He also began painting cars, but said his customers were often unhappy with his work. During this time, Knight took his first trip out West to southern California with his brother Roy where he became enthralled by the wild deserts. But his father passed away, and the brothers cut their trip short to return to Vermont.
Knight spent the rest of his 20s and early 30s drifting around Vermont continuing to work odd jobs. He was unhappy and unfulfilled, and began to drink heavily. He would disparagingly refer to himself as "disgusting." He has said, "I never loved God one minute of my life. I just hated God, hated church, hated everything."
By 1967, at 35, Knight was still lacking purpose and fulfillment in his life. Yet it was this year that his life would change forever. He took a trip to Lemon Grove in California where his sister Irene was living. Irene was a devout Christian, and insisted that Knight come to church with her one day. To escape her prophesizing, he went outside the house, and sat in his trusty van. It was at this moment that he found himself with tears rolling down his face, crying out the Sinner's prayer over and over again; "Jesus, I am a sinner, please come upon my body and into my heart!" He said that at this moment, his "love story" with God began.
In the few years that followed his conversion, Knight attended many different churches in Vermont, but felt distinctly let down by them. To him, the message of Christ was simple; "God is Love." Yet he felt that the big churches had strayed from this message. Patrick Rea, maker of the documentary The Love Story of Leonard Knight, said, "After Knight's conversion he tried to reconcile the various doctrines, and in the process became too Baptist for the Pentecosts, too Pentecostal for the Baptists, and too Leonard for Everyone Else." He began to drive around in his truck that he decorated with religious messages; the so-called "Repent Truck."
Around 1970/1971, Knight saw a hot air balloon floating above Vermont. He noticed that people on the street were fascinated by the balloon, and were straining to see what was written on it. Knight had a second realization at this time that his life's purpose was to create some kind of project that would spread the simple love of God; and a hot air balloon was to be the perfect way. He became obsessed with his balloon project, and canvassed dozens of churches for the funding to buy a hot air balloon. He said, "I prayed for a hot air balloon so many hours that you wouldn't believe it, it must of got God sick of it. I talked to churches that love the Lord and said - Boy, let's build a balloon. To me, that was the most beautiful idea in the world." Yet Knight continued to be let down, and could not obtain any funding for his dream balloon.
In the early 1970s, Knight began making more regular trips out West, like so many other drifters and countercultural figures. On one trip, he broke down in Nebraska. After setting up camp at the Platter River, he received another revelation from God; if he could not receive funding to buy a balloon, he would make his own. Knight ended up staying in Nebraska for several years, and with donated materials began to laboriously sew his own balloon. Over the years, it became bigger and more elaborate, and he would regularly drive between Nebraska, Vermont, and various desert areas in between to attempt to launch his balloon. However, his lack of engineering knowledge and harsh weather conditions continued to prevent success. He would continue to work migrant jobs while he travelled, such as fruit picking. By this point, he was almost 50, but had not yet completed a single successful project.
As a late-blooming artist (although he never considered himself such), all of Knight's successful work came to fruition after the age of 50.
In 1984, while working again as a car mechanic in Quartzite Arizona, he took a trip to Slab City in the California desert. Knight was enamored with the haven for squatters, drifters, hippies, and "snowbirds" (those who came to avoid the cold weather). Slab City was a no-mans land, as no county had agreed to take responsibility for it, populated with many eccentric figures. The local tagline described it as "The last free place in America" and residents coined it an "island of misfit toys." Knight chose Slab City as the location for one final attempt to launch his balloon. It failed, however, when the fabric ripped and rotted. After 15 years of effort, his balloon dream was literally in tatters.
Despite this crushing defeat, Knight decided to stay in Slab City for a week to build a small monument, so that he would be able to complete at least one work in his lifetime in homage to his faith. However, the project proved not to be small at all and Knight remained in this location for the next 27 years.
The first monument he built was a small mountain built into the cliff face of the desert surrounding Slab City. Knight lived in his van, a piece of art in itself, at the base of the mountain. Seven months of the year when it was warm enough, he slept outside under the stars. Every morning, he would rise at 5:30 and continue adding to his monument, all the while living without any electricity or running water. It was in this isolated desert that Knight found his happiness, saying, "If somebody offered me a million dollar mansion, I'd refuse it. I want to be right here, and I'm just happy right here."
Knight's mountain began to crumble, and eventually collapsed. However, he was not deterred. Despite his lack of engineering knowledge, he went to work on a better version. This time, he innovatively combined layers of adobe and paint, amassing a large mountain once again. It was far grander, larger, more expansive, and colorful; its surface covered with words of worship and illustrations worthy of a folk art painting. It would become a beloved land installation in the area providing an immersive art experience akin to visiting a psychedelic wonderland. Knight's wild testament to the love of God would be coined Salvation Mountain, becoming an integral part of the Slab City community, as did the lonesome figure who created it with his bare hands. The mountain attracted visitors and tourists from all over the world. Many camped out onsite to continue their dialogues with the welcoming Knight long into the night. Locals and other supporters consistently donated paint for the perpetual work in progress.
The County and State governments were far less enthusiastic about Salvation Mountain, and Slab City in general. In 1994, the government claimed the mountain used toxic materials and was therefore a "toxic nightmare" that must be torn down. However, a huge locally-spurred campaign saved Salvation Mountain, Knight, and Slab City from destruction by funding an independent test of the so-called toxic materials that proved them safe. Yet again, Knight was strengthened, rather than deterred, in his resolve by this experience. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, he continued adding to Salvation Mountain, building two new installations in the area: The Hogan and The Museum. In 2002, Knight received a plaque from Senator Barbara Boxer of California declaring Salvation Mountain a National Treasure in the Congressional record of the United States.
In 2007, Knight and Salvation Mountain were featured in Sean Penn's independent and quite popular film: Into the Wild. Many around the world were introduced to this intriguing figure and his artwork through this film, in which his folksy warmth, faith, passion, and vibrant aesthetic style shone through. Visitors to the site quadrupled after this time. Art lovers, atheists, architects, journalists, preachers, and faithful Christians all came to experience Leonard Knight and his work.
By this time, Knight was in his 70s and still living alone in his makeshift van home. Losing mobility, hearing, and sight, he continued to rise every day to work on the mountain, continually adding and repainting sections. He remained just as humble as ever, maintaining that all the work was really God's creation, and he was simply a humble channel through which it found completion. Around this time, he gained two significant assistants/caretakers in Mike Phippen and Kevin Eubank. It was arguably the agnostic Eubank who encouraged Knight to step away from his Jesus-heavy language and talk more about universal love and religion in his art and preaching (although in his last few years he returned to Jesus-oriented rhetoric).
In 2011, after 27 years at the mountain, Knight was forced to leave in order to deal with the effects of heart failure and dementia that had onset a few years prior. He relocated to a retirement home in Niland and was brought back to the mountain by friends for occasional visits including a vastly attended 80th birthday celebration. Salvation Mountain continued to be maintained by his caretakers and friends. Even after undergoing a leg amputation, Knight was brought to the mountain in his wheelchair.
In 2014 at age 83, Leonard Knight passed away in his care home. Per his request, his ashes were mixed with paint and added onto the Salvation Mountain site by his closest friends, supporters, and visitors. He truly became one with his life's work.
The Legacy of Leonard Knight
Leonard Knight's never-flown hot air balloon, various decorated vehicles, twice-built psychedelic mountain installation, beautiful Hogan and architecturally outstanding Museum structures, as well as his snippets of songs, preachings, and interviews all weave together a unique and longstanding artistic legacy for a man who never considered himself an artist. An intriguing figure and folk hero, Knight has become symbolic for many people of a certain type of religious outlook, way of life, and dedicated creative vision.
The various pieces of art that essentially make up the Salvation Mountain installation in many ways defy traditional perceptions of what constitutes art. Yet, in other ways, they come together to encapsulate an artistic ideal beautifully; a longstanding aesthetic statement of one person's life experience and a devout commitment to one's personal philosophy, that can be enjoyed by the multitudes for many diverse reasons.
The growing popularity of mediums such as sewing, embroidery, pottery, and DIY craft making, even in the High Art world, can be traced back to many artists in the 60s, 70s, and 80s. By using his own rudimentary materials in a naïve and untrained way to materialize his creation, Knight contributed to American Folk Art or Outsider Art alongside others such as Maud Lewis and Jessie B Telfair, who, according to the educational website Quartoknows.com comprised: "Everyday people creating extraordinary works of art - this is the basis of folk art. Folk art relies on experience, community, and heritage rather than formal training. It is art that is felt rather than taught. Deeply rooted in tradition, folk art is an artist's feelings, ideas, expressions, and customs brought to life...folk art is truly art of the human spirit. It is continually produced by people of all walks of life and from all over the world. As long as there are people with a need to imagine and create, folk art will always be around." Indeed, this description perfectly describes the deeply personal and passionate work of Leonard Knight.
Today, we can see an embracement of traditional Folk Art techniques by many mainstream artists as the effects of the Folk Art Renaissance that Leonard contributed to are felt to this day. The American Folk Art Museum, established in 1961, continues to highlight the context of Folk Art within modern times.
Leonard Knight's work also brought the Folk Art aesthetic into the burgeoning lexicon of Installation Art, which remains a major form of contemporary artistic expression. Other immersive artistic environments, such as the Watts Towers constructed by Simon Rodia in LA over several decades, or the Margaret's Grocery and Market religious installation created in Mississippi in the 1980s, draw clear lines of lineage to Salvation Mountain in terms of this artistic crossover. Salvation Mountain directly inspired the nearby art installation community "East Jesus" founded by artist Charlie Russell.
Finally, Knight's work can be compared to that of Corita Kent, or the Jesus People Movement, also working in the 1960s and 70s. These artists took elements of the hippie and psychedelic countercultures and applied them to a religious message. They seriously considered the word of God as something that could best be spread through joy, creativity, and art. This impacted the self-representation of religious institutions and religious art into the 20th century.
Knight's work and life have been captured in two recent documentaries; Patrick Rea's 2013 The Love Story of Leonard Knight, and Andrew Blake Doyle's 2015 Leonard Knight; A Man and His Mountain. Legendary National Geographic photographer Aaron Huey immortalized Knight in a series of photographs taken in the mid 2000's, saying "... I tried to make images that transcended the postcard shots I usually see out there. I tried to really show the man and his process...I'd shoot every inch of [the mountain], sometimes with a 50mm lens, walking around, every piece of the surface."
Yet Leonard Knight does not live on mainly through these documentaries, but through the art he left behind. However, Salvation Mountain is endangered. While it remains a very popular site for music videos and photography shoots, the installation vitally needs volunteers, live-in caretakers, and funds to retain the upkeep. In 2012, Knight's friends and helpers set up Salvation Mountain Inc., a non-profit organization. They are working to officially purchase the site from the State of California. President of the charity, Dan Westfall, describes their simple aim as follows; "Keep it standing and keep it painted. Keep it there and keep it visible. Keep it so it still touches people when they arrive."