Can artists save the Salton Sea?

It was the last day of summer as I hurtled down California State Route 111 on my way to the Salton Sea. The region endured a dry and sultry summer, with one notable exception: the visit of Hurricane Kay. It made landfall as a tropical storm in Baja California, moved north and brought heavy rainfall that caused flash flooding throughout Southern California. The storm damaged roads and uprooted trees. However, when I visited two weeks later, there were few, if any, signs of this disaster. The desert is a place that recovers quickly, but the same cannot be said for the Salton Sea.

The “sea”, as many locals call it, has been filled and drained by water over thousands of years. In 1905, after a particularly wet spring, it spilled from the banks of the Colorado River. In the 1950s and 1960s, resorts sprung up and attracted flocks of vacationing families and celebrities. At the center of this tourism boom sat Bombay Beach, an East Coast community now a shadow of its former self. But locals and tourists still flock to the watering hole’s neighborhood, the Ski Inn.

Photo of a mobile home painted to look like the US flag

RV home in Slab City community that is mostly off the grid.

(Simon J. Lau)

When I arrived at the Ski Inn, I was warmly greeted from the bar by Sonia Herbert, a genial woman. A member of this community since 1974, she bought the place in 2018.

Until the 1970s, crowds came on weekends and holidays for boating, fishing and swimming. Others came to enjoy the desert. The sea was also an important stopover for migratory bird species. “We used to have thousands of white pelicans come to us every year,” Herbert said. “When they started showing up, we knew summer was over.

A white single-engine plane lies nose down, left, and a sculpture made from scrap metal.

“Lost Cargo,” left by Phillip Barr and TJ Lewis, and “Helios” by Sean Guerrero are installations at the entrance to East Jesus.

(Simon J. Lau)

But shortly after Herbert arrived, the sea’s fortunes turned, as did those who relied on it. At times, hurricanes, tropical storms, and agricultural runoff flooded the basin, submerging coastal communities. Recently, however, the evaporation of the water has created high concentrations of toxic particles, making the sea unsafe for swimming and killing many fish and migratory birds. This gradual collapse has continued over the past decade. However, the sea has experienced a resurgence, fueled in part by a growing community of artists.

A tree with shoes hanging from the branches.  There are hundreds more shoes on the ground below him.
Shoe Tree in Slab City.

(Simon J. Lau)

The region has been hosting bohemian types for decades. Drive 22 miles southeast of Bombay Beach and you’ll find Slab City, formerly a US Marine Corps training facility during World War II. After it was decommissioned and the buildings demolished in 1956, the remaining concrete slabs inspired its current name. It was first resettled by a small community of nonconformists. As this community grew, so did the diversity of its residents. Artists in particular transformed the landscape, primarily through their art installations.

A small colorful hill decorated with religious phrases and a crucifix attached to its top.
Mountain of Salvation, an artistic expression of God’s love by Leonard Knight.

(Simon J. Lau)

The most famous of these installations is Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, a five-story cairn covered in adobe bulbs, painted with a message of God’s love. This project was created over 28 years, during which it attracted tens of thousands of visitors. In 2002, Mount Salvation was listed on the Congressional Record as a National Treasure. Knight died in 2014, and a non-profit organization, Salvation Mountain Inc., took on the task of preserving the mountain and his work.

A decorated hill with a barrel in the foreground, on which is painted the word, "Jesus"

Hot air balloon burner and hot air balloon outline in background at Salvation Mountain.

(Simon J. Lau)

One of the trustees of Salvation Mountain is Ron, a native of Detroit. He initially volunteered and was assigned basic tasks. As he demonstrated a high level of expertise working with clay and paint, honed over many years in the construction industry, the nonprofit’s directors took notice and directed him toward more challenging assignments. That was years ago and Ron has been devoting his time to maintaining this landmark ever since. He says he’s enjoying it here, spreading the message of love through art in an unforgiving landscape.

A man in a yellow shirt and blue shorts stands in front of a decorated hill with his hands on his hips
Ron, caretaker at Salvation Mountain.

(Simon J. Lau)

Down the street from Salvation Mountain is East Jesus, the brainchild of Charlie Russell. In 2007 Russell quit his job, moved to Slab City and carved out this space for himself and other artists. Located in the heart of East Jesus, the Art Garden originally exhibited art that Russell brought with him or created. It has since expanded to include contributions from community artists such as “The Television Will Not Be Revolutionised”. This installation by Flip Cassidy is a commentary on the influence of mass media, both sacred and profane, on human lives.

A wall of televisions with white screens with messages in red letters in an outdoor setting
“The Television Will Not Be Revolutionised,” by Flip Cassidy, in East Jesus.

(Simon J. Lau)

After Russell died in 2011, the nonprofit Chasterus Foundation was established to continue his mission of providing “sanctuary for artists, musicians, survivalists, writers, scientists, laypeople, and other wandering geniuses.”

Other art enclaves, still very new, have sprung up elsewhere around the Salton Sea. Some have established local art events, including the annual Bombay Beach Biennale. Exhibits such as “Bombay Beach Drive-In,” created by Stefan Ashkenazy and Sean Dale Taylor for the 2018 Biennale, have become permanent installations.

A sign that reads "Bombay Beach Drive-In" looms over dilapidated cars in the lot.

“Bombay Beach Drive-In”, created by Stefan Ashkenazy and Sean Dale Taylor for the 2018 Biennale, is now a permanent installation.

(Simon J. Lau)

Herbert says that what he appreciates most about the sea is “the calmness, the openness. There is such a rush of people, traffic and noise in the city. Here you can decompress.” For artists, this place offers space for love, art and introspection.

An empty picnic table, left, with a view of the sea and mountains in the distance
The Salton Sea from Salt Creek Beach.

(Simon J. Lau)

Simon J. Lau, a writer and photographer, is the creator of Formerly Print, a publication dedicated to sharing portraits of people and their stories.

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