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California Desert Road Trip to Salvation Mountain & Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum

I am trying to vary the types of arts the kids and I see…It’s good for the eyes and it helps keeping it all real: too much of the sleek stuff and you get into a snobbish rut.

Checking out a few artist communities in the Joshua Tree desert got our eyes on many different forms of assemblage sculptures. Along the way, we talked about recycling materials, living life as an artist, found objects and the loose definition of Art…

Salvation Mountain

About 28 years ago, Leonard Knight built his own version of a Holy Mountain.

He started by piling up bales of straw, adding plaster, emulating adobe construction until he resorted to reinforce his work with latex and finally cover his labor of love with layers upon layers of bright colorful paints.

Leonard lived on sight in a car marked “Repent”. He decorated it with motifs that brought me straight back to India and its colorful trucks usually on a mission to prove that all aboard will get reincarnated no matter the obstacles they face at God’s speed!

The kids simply could not believe somebody could live in a car while building and decorating a small mountain in such a hot part of California.

As we explored Leonard’s Forest (the Museum), we discovered how he created his own little adobe oasis, a rainbow colored mesh of trunks and branches.

Walking from nooks to crannies, peeking through makeshift windows, this enchanting world spoke louder than all the religious references gently scattered all over Salvation Mountain.

The words which came to the agnostic that I am were for kids to spread their branches, spread them wide and high and don’t forget to connect the trees of your childhood worlds. I am amazed the kids did not shut me up saying “Mum, that’s exactly what we do on Minecraft!”. ​

​They were impressed an adult had concocted one of the best dens they’d seen.

The agnostic that I am was a little concerned not to be able to “get” what Salvation Mountain was all about.

Yet I don’t need to know the Bible to feel how welcoming the place was. Actually, let me rephrase this because as we arrived, Ronnie the caretaker, wearing paint splattered jeans and shoes like a reincarnated Jackson Pollock, was basically shooing off a group of Japanese people who had disregarded his “Wet Paint” signs to get a better selfie from his fresh coat of lavender paint.

Let just say that despite not sharing a religion, it was clear the kids and I were respectful of his work and more than ready to step in and honor Leonard’s colorful whimsical world. So Ronnie lifted some signs, showed us around and told us some tales.
The kids and I never felt we had to read or understand the Bible quotes.

Colors do the preaching on Salvation Mountain…

East Jesus

Next stop was East Jesus, an artist community adjacent to Salvation Mountain where time seems to have run to a standstill in the desert heat. “Do people really live here?”, asked the kids.
Theygot a bit uneasy with some of the assemblage sculptures there, especially since a particular affection for dismembered dummies was clear.
A lot of creativity still went into assembling piles of recycled and found objects, showing that whoever lived here had a message, albeit a shouting one.

These artist communities are clearly making the most of very limited funds and materials. Life is tough so it’s definitely harder to have faith in love saving us all, like on Salvation Mountain. Funny how these two worlds are so physically close yet miles away in their expressions of life.

Finding someone to blame, critiquing media power comes more naturally. East Jesus is much less conceptual but still echoed an homage to Nam June Paik who, as Father of Video Art foresaw the impact of media and technology on our society and of whom I wrote here.

I found the scene of tiny kids chairs, all coming with their glued up remotes, neatly lined up in front of a wall of screens “shouting” red messages, all quite chilling…

Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum

When the kids asked me for toilet stop, obviously I could not resist delivering an arty one!
Noah Purifoy Outdoor Museum is a Dada treat…Just as during the interwar Kurt Schwitters would rely on chance, using cardboards and paper to produce hauntingly beautiful collages (called merz in his case), Noah Purifoy (1917-2004) piled found objects of all sorts into assemblage sculptures of striking silhouettes against the California desert light.

Each turn brought new surprises as found materials such as trays were assembled into  a twisted slide.

Some sculptures looked like a giant Newton’s Cradle.

All were harnessing light to create beautiful shadow plays.

Throughout his life as a gifted artist, Noah Purifoy created empowering art projects such as the Artist-in-Communities, -Schools and -Prisons programs.

“I hope my work provides inspiration for a person to do today what they could not do yesterday, no matter what it is. That’s art. That’s the fundamental creative process.”

Frequent use of toilets obviously delighted my 8-year-old boy but many recurring mentions from the kids also went to all the old computers, fax machines, monitors recycled as sculptural edifices and structures. I asked the kids how long they thought before somebody mimic Noah Purifoy and make a sculpture out of a pile of iPods (who still use those?), iPhone4s, iPad 2.0 etc…They don’t see it coming…So maybe we will have to check back in a few years.

Despite how easy it can be to describe this site as “junk” art from a material point of view, it is far from that from a conceptual point of view.

That’s the whole debate Duchamp started with his Fountain (1917) and to which Noah Purifoy added many times over.

The art is in the decision, the idea, the choice and the empowerment. Artists feel this as a constant need and there is now plenty more space for more of this art: artist Ed Ruscha purchased and donated another 7.5 acres to sustain the work of Noah Purifoy to help artist communities express through art what life can make difficult.

Directions to Salvation Mountain can be found here.

Directions to Noah Purifoy Outdoor Desert Museum can be found here.

© 2017 Ingrid Westlake

All pictures by Ingrid Westlake, unless otherwise stated.

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