Can artists save the Salton Sea?

It was the last day of summer as I raced down California State Route 111 toward the Salton Sea. The area had withstood a dry, scorching summer, with one notable exception: the visitation of Hurricane Kay. It made landfall as a tropical storm in Baja California, moved north and brought heavy rain, triggering flash flooding across southern California. The storm damaged roads and uprooted trees. However, at the time of my visit two weeks later, there were little to no 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 depleted with water for thousands of years. In 1905, after a particularly wet spring, it overflowed the banks of the Colorado River. In the 1950s and 1960s, resorts emerged and attracted crowds of vacationing families and celebrities. At the center of this tourist boom was Bombay Beach, a community on the eastern shore, now a shadow of its former self. But locals and tourists still congregate at the neighborhood watering hole, the Ski Inn.

An RV home in the mostly off-grid community of Slab City.

(Simon J. Lau)

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

Until the 1970s, crowds came on weekends and holidays to boat, fish and swim. 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 coming every year,” Herbert said. “When they started showing up, we knew summer was over.”

A white single-engine airplane sits nose down, left, and a sculpture made of 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 soon after Herbert’s arrival, the fortunes of the sea were reversed, and so were the fortunes of those who depended on it. At times, hurricanes, tropical storms and agricultural runoff have inundated the basin, overwhelming seaside communities. But, more recently, water evaporation has created high concentrations of toxic particles, making the sea unsafe bathing and killing many fish and migrating birds. This gradual collapse has continued over the past decade. Yet the sea has seen something of a revival, thanks in part to the growth of artist communities.

A tree with shoes hanging from its branches.  Hundreds of other shoes are on the floor below.
The shoe tree of Slab City.

(Simon J. Lau)

The area has been home to bohemian types for decades. Drive 35 km southeast of Bombay Beach and you will find Slab City, formerly a US Marine Corps training center during World War II. After its decommissioning and demolition of the buildings in 1956, the remaining concrete slabs inspired its current name. It was first resettled by a small community of Mavericks. As this community grew, so did the diversity of its residents. Artists in particular have reshaped the landscape, especially through their art installations.

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

(Simon J. Lau)

The best known of these installations is that of Leonard Knight Salvation Mountain, a five-story adobe-covered mound painted with messages of God’s love. This project lasted 28 years, during which it attracted tens of thousands of visitors. In 2002, Salvation Mountain was entered into the Congressional Record like a national treasure. Knight died in 2014, and a nonprofit organization, Salvation Mountain Inc., took on the task of preserving the mountain and his work.

A decorated hill with a barrel in the foreground that has been painted with the word,

A hot air balloon burner and the outline of a hot air balloon in the background at Salvation Mountain.

(Simon J. Lau)

A Salvation Mountain keeper is Ron, a Detroit native. Initially, he volunteered and was given basic duties. When he demonstrated a high level of skill in working with clay and paint, honed by his many years in construction, the trustees of the nonprofit took notice and directed him to more difficult missions. That was years ago, and Ron has since devoted his time to maintaining this monument. He says he loves it here, spreading the message of love through art in an unforgiving landscape.

A man in a yellow shirt and blue shorts with his hands on his hips stands in front of a decorated hill
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 that space for himself and other artists. Art Garden sits in the heart of East Jesus, originally displaying works of art that Russell brought with him or that he created. It has since expanded to include contributions from artists in the community, such as “Television Shall Not Be Revolutionized”. This installation by Flip Cassidy is a commentary on the impact of mass media, both sacred and secular, on human lives.

A wall of televisions, with white screens bearing messages in red letters, in an outdoor setting
“Television will not be revolutionized”, by Flip Cassidy, in East Jesus.

(Simon J. Lau)

After Russell’s death in 2011, the Chasterus Foundation, a non-profit organization, was established to continue its mission of providing “refuge for artists, musicians, survivors, writers, scientists, laypeople, and other wandering geniuses”.

Other artist enclaves, still very recent, have formed elsewhere around the Salton Sea. Some have set up local arts events, including the Bombay Beach Biennial. Exhibits such as the “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”, created by Stefan Ashkenazy and Sean Dale Taylor for the 2018 Biennale, is now a permanent installation.

(Simon J. Lau)

Herbert says what she appreciates most about the sea is “the serenity, the openness. There are so many people, traffic and noise in the city. Here you can unpack. For artists, this place offers a space of love, art and introspection.

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

(Simon J. Lau)

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

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