Remembering Salvation Mountain's Leonard Knight

The man behind the beloved folk artwork passes away at 82.

By Alysia Gray Painter
|  Wednesday, Feb 19, 2014  |  Updated 7:52 AM PDT
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Leonard Knight sits before Salvation Mountain, the mammoth folk artwork he spent years creating and tending to near the Salton Sea. Mr. Knight passed away last week at the age of 82. (Photo by David McNew/Getty Images)

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For those who have visited Salvation Mountain, which is located not too far east of the Salton Sea, it can be difficult to describe the singular experience, an experience based on the appreciation of a visual wonder as much as the one man who created it.

"Colorful" and "remote" and "moving" and "paint" and "joyful" and "folk art" are frequently mentioned, as are documentaries and films it has appeared in (like "Into the Wild"). But, more than anything, fans of the painted mountain summon a single name, again and again: Leonard Knight, the man with the big vision and welcoming spirit.

Fans of the folk art destination are mourning Mr. Knight, who passed away on Feb. 10 at the age of 82.

He was no longer living at his mountain by the inland sea, but rather had moved to El Cajon for a series of surgeries and care. But even though he didn't call Niland his home, Mr. Knight did get to return a few times to see his hueful happy creation, a large-scale work that is regularly ranked as one of the most important examples of outsider art to be found anywhere.

Various protectors and champions, from Barbara Boxer to folk art societies, have called for continued attentions and protections of the out-in-the-open mega-sized artwork, an artwork that includes straw and mud in addition to paint.

Mega-sized? It's a small mountain, covered in tributes to love and God and spirit and hope.

The Salvation Mountain Facebook page advised the artwork's fans that a celebration of life is in the works for the mountain's creator, so if you're interested in joining and sharing your memories, keep a watch.

We're sure that the many supporters who visited Leonard at his mountain, a place he'd called his calling since the 1980s, will be present at the celebration. They might even look to the hillside for the color of paint they brought him long ago (visitors have long showed with cans of paint when calling upon Niland).

All of that donated paint, up on the mountain, is indeed a lasting legacy of the man and his fans, one that, people hope, will weather the weather of the desert and time. But bet that supporters will stick by Salvation Mountain for many years to come.

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