I arrived home one day recently to find a magical box on the table. Tony (my husband) had been sent a book for review, but “book” is entirely too simple a word for this object. Photographer Aaron Huey is the creative force behind Where the Heaven Flowers Grow, a layered work that requires a piecemeal approach. I sat mesmerized for an hour as I took apart the relic, feeling as if I alone had discovered something that was meant to be mysteriously found at precisely the right time. Tony asked his good friend, author, actor, and pastor Russell Rathbun, to review the book since Russell has spent time personally with the subject of this 3-D documentary poem of images and words. Please read on for his review, and do try to spend some time holding this unique work.
Where the Heaven Flowers Grow: The Life & Art of Leonard Knight by Aaron Huey (Outsider Books, Seattle WA, 2015).
Review by Russell Rathbun
Opening Aaron Huey’s remarkable unbound book was like taking the lid of an old shoebox full of papers, photos, and mementos chronicling a life. The experience is different than a book, turning each page in a prescribed narrative. With Where the Heaven Flowers Grow open on the table, I can pick up what ever catches my eye, sifting through the folio pages, reading the inserted slips of paper, unfolding a hand written letter to have snap shots fall out, paging through a staff paper note book of original songs and poring over the more than 80 images of Leonard Knight and his Salvation Mountain. As a result I felt like I shared an intimacy with Leonard, facilitated by Huey, and I wished I would have known him better.
In 1984 Leonard Knight, a wanderer and a prophet stopped in the desert, like Abraham and Jacob before him, to build a monument to the Lord. On the bank of a dry riverbed near the Salton Sea, he mixed cement and paint and began his simple marker to proclaim that “God Loves You” to the world. Abraham set up his monument and continued on to Egypt. Leonard stayed and kept building.
Thirty years later Leonard had build a mountain 50 feet tall and 150 feet across, using over 300,000 gallons of paint. Leonard had built not just a mountain but so much good will that all his paint, straw bales, all his materials were gifts. People just showed up with them, making an offering at the altar to Love. Some looked around for a while and said thank you, some stuck around and helped.
Photographer Aaron Huey was one who stuck around and helped. He worked with Leonard on the mountain for five years, documenting its growth and changes and capturing the spirit of this spiritual pilgrim turned internationally known outsider artist.
Salvation Mountain, once declared an environmental disaster, is now a registered National Treasure, by an act of Congress. It has been the subject of many national newspaper and TV pieces. Leonard and Salvation Mountain were not only featured in Into the Wild, staring Leonardo Di Capria, but also Grand Theft Auto V.
Leonard died in February of 2014, but a group of volunteers continue to maintain Salvation Mountain and carry on Leonard Knight’s calling to be a voice shouting in the wilderness, with bright colored paint on a man-made mountain, that “God is Love,” and that love flows Aaron Huey’s beautiful and moving book.
Russell writes about Leonard Knight and Salvation Mountian in his up coming book, The Great Wall of China and the Salton Sea, Eerdmans Publishing, Spring 2016. Read an excerpt.