Folk artist Leonard Knight, creator of Salvation Mountain, died on Monday afternoon in San Diego. He was 82.
It took Knight about three decades to paint and personalize the famed art installation in the desert of Niland, Calif., near the Salton Sea. Knight used adobe, straw and thousands of gallons of paint to personalize it with religious murals and technicolor Bible verses.
The site, which draws thousands of spectators every year, was Knight’s life project. Volunteers have been working to protect and maintain it since he was placed in a long-term care facility in late 2011.
Seattle-based photographer Aaron Huey met Knight seven years ago and returned to Salvation Mountain several times since then. He remembers the artist:
Leonard’s single mission in life was to spread the message that “God is Love” and though it references the Abrahamic “God,” his mountain truly transcended any individual faiths. He brought countless people together to marvel at both the mountain and his message. Living at the mountain full-time in the back of an old painted firetruck with no belongings beyond his clothes and a few coolers, he could be found surrounded by visitors every day of the week spreading his message of “Universal Love.” Though Leonard shrugged off the title of “artist,” his work—his single masterpiece—will surely be counted among the greatest pieces of folk art ever created.
I met Leonard seven years ago and his impact on my life has been immense. Leonard made me want to throw away all of my things. My computers, my phone, my career, my ego—and to help him build his mountain of mud and paint. Instead, I helped him carry a dozen hay bales up the mountain and promised to come back again. I returned a dozen times over six years to help him build, to photograph his work, and to try to better understand his humble genius. I had never met a man of such singular, unflinching vision and to this day I can say he is one of the most incredible people I have ever met in all the world.
Your message lives on, Leonard. Travel well my friend.