On the dry border of Mexico, near Slab City, California, stands the massive mound of color that is Salvation Mountain. Painted biblical messages cover its rocky facade. The largest, in red capital letters under a white cross, reads “GOD IS LOVE.”
The mountain itself is now considered a masterpiece of outsider art. But not much is known about the man who spent three decades of his life painting it, living out of a truck in the desert with no electricity or running water. The Man Behind the Mountain,a new five-minute film directed by Ben Stoddard and David Ehrenreich of Don’t Sleep Productions, offers a stunning portrait of Leonard Knight, the hermetic folk artist who passed away in February.
Leonard was a quietly man, and his story reads like a mythical modern day tale. From 1984 to 2014, Leonard used an estimated 500,000 gallons of paint to decorate the mountain and its labyrinthine caves. “If somebody gave me $100,000 a week to move somewhere and live in a mansion and be a big shot, I’d refuse it,” he told the Los Angeles Times in 1993. “I want to be right here. It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
Plenty dismissed Leonard as a religious nut, but directors Stoddard and Ehrenreich consider such judgments harsh. “I prefer to think of Leonard as a ‘simple’ man,” Stoddard tells Co.Design. “The majority of that was a conscious decision for him. A long time ago, he decided to devote himself to God and his message in his own way. This became his ‘normal.'”
Leonard’s motives for living in isolation off the grid remain mysterious, and the directors think it’s better that way. “The unknown will preserve the mystique around Leonard and his mountain forever,” Stoddard says. These days, people are keen on diagnosing the slightest odd behavior, but in another time, perhaps Leonard would have been considered a hermetic mystic, even a “holy fool,” as such characters were called in medieval Russia.
Stoddard more or less stumbled upon this surreal character during a crossroads in his own life. “I had recently turned 30, left my job as a producer at a video game company, and broke up with my girlfriend of six years,” Stoddard says. He decided to take a photo mission, driving south from Vancouver to the border of Mexico. Salvation Mountain was on his list of spots to visit.
“After meeting Leonard for the first time, I felt a strange connection with him. I knew I had to return and do something with him,” Stoddard said. At nights, Stoddard found himself thinking about Leonard sleeping alone in his truck. “The darkness out there isn’t the same as city darkness,” he says. “It is almost scary dark.” Soon, Stoddard contacted Ehrenreich, with whom he’d collaborated on music videos and short documentaries, and the pair decided to lug a Panasonic HPX series with a lens adapter and a 16-foot dolly track in a tiny Nissan down to Salvation Mountain, from Canada, to shoot a portrait of Leonard himself. While there had been video projects about the site before, the majority focused on religion or the mountain itself. “We were more interested on Leonard as artist and a man,” Stoddard says.
“Most video you see portrays Leonard as a religious geriatric, but most people that meet him leave with an incredible respect,” Ehrenreich says. “I’m not religious. It’s not about that. It’s about humility and acceptance.”
Leonard’s health started to fail, and he was hospitalized, shortly after the pair spent time with him. “We decided that what we captured on film was special and that we would hold onto it as a tribute to Leonard,” Stoddard says. Leonard passed away this February after reluctantly leaving his mountain for the hospital. He had told visitors that his last hope was for his creation to be preserved as a message for future generations. “There’s Mt. Rushmore, and then there’s Salvation Mountain,” he said.