A few days ago, I woke up early at my home in the Coronado Cays to see if I was going to witness another one of those dramatic colorful sunrises. Instead, I was greeted by something bright and shimmering across the bay at Grand Caribe. The glittering arch on the beach reminded me of the many local road trips I took with my friend Shelley and our teens to see off-beat, eccentric art during the COVID pandemic.
In Joshua Tree we saw the “Instagram famous” toilet edifice at Noah Purifoy’s 10-acre gallery and 40+ biblical statues at Desert Christ Park. We drove through Anza Borrego hunting for over 130 giant iron sculptures by Ricardo Breceda in Galletta Meadows Estate. We weren’t successful in finding all of them, but we sure enjoyed taking photos of the ones we found.
My personal favorite is the sea serpent. Its 350 feet long body looks like it’s swimming across the road in the middle of a desert. The kids had fun creating hilarious photos with the 20-foot-tall and 45-foot-long metallic dinosaurs.
Not too far away, in Niland, we channeled our inner hipsters and spent about half an hour looking around Salvation Mountain, a religious monument created by Leonard Knight that became a man-made mountain over 28 years of piling cement and decorating it with thousands of gallons of paint and discarded materials like tires, windows, and bales of straw. The colorful neon phrase, “God is Love,” is the focal point of this artwork.
Down the road from Salvation Mountain is Slab City, an abandoned Navy base that can only be described as a modern day wild wild west. The city prides itself on being the ‘last free place.’ It started out as a cheap alternative temporary residence for snowbirds, but soon became a permanent home for lonely drifters and social outcasts. Being there gave me a similar feeling to when my dad used to take me to his cousins’ house years ago in East LA, where we told ourselves we were safe so long as we didn’t stay there for too long. While Salvation Mountain reminded me of a 1960s vibe, the artistic pieces you find all over Slab City built by various residents made me think of the post-apocalyptic world of Mad Max with its lack of law enforcement, running water, sanitation services or electricity. We felt it was quite an interesting dichotomy.
Bombay Beach sits on Salton Sea, about half an hour north of Slab City. It was once a popular destination during the Frank Sinatra era drawing Hollywood celebrities to luxury resorts along its coastline. Salton Sea, the state’s largest man-made lake, has slowly eroded and in the 1980s became a toxic disaster thanks to the chemical runoffs from nearby farms. Bombay Beach feels like a ‘wealthier’ version of Slab City. The art has a cleaner and more sophisticated appearance – even though the artists use similar types of recycled tires, metals, wood, and plastic. Oddly, this desolate ghost town is experiencing a revival, attracting big name artists and brimming with exciting pieces to see. Maybe social media like Instagram has a lot to do with its newfound notoriety; or maybe it’s the unexplainably magical feeling of weird one gets when driving around the colorful streets and walking on crunchy sand at sunset with the sight of decaying fish on Bombay Beach. The beach scene is like stepping into one of Salvador Dali’s famously bizarre paintings that defy logic and convention.
I was once lucky enough to get there at sunset when the colors in the sky turned the sea red with fire. On another visit, the clouds were big, dreamy, and bold. Both times, they made for dramatic photos with the famous alliterative swing set in the shallows of the Salton Sea that draws many Instagrammers to the area. I love the sign that says, ‘The Only Other Thing is Nothing.’ On land, my favorite sight is a ‘crashed’ plane called ‘Lodestar’ by Randy Polumbo. Lodestar is a well-known sculpture that even traveled to England to be part of an exhibit. The entire area, including the beach itself, is like an outdoor museum. One can spend a whole day or two just looking at the various works it boasts.
I harkened back to these places when I saw the bright shiny arch reflecting on the water across from my window. I was intrigued enough to walk to the park and take a closer look. The person who installed the arch just happened to be there and he calls himself the ‘Master Refractor’ of light. His medium is old movie DVDs or discs created by 3D printer. He uses the natural light from the sun to create the colors to paint the water. At first, I didn’t fully appreciate the concept until I thought about all the non-traditional mediums I’d seen in the desert. I’m sure when Leonard Knight first started creating his artwork, people had odd thoughts about him and what he was doing. Years later, many journey long distances just to take photos of Salvation Mountain. Who knows, maybe this man from northern California, visiting his folks in the Cays, might be on to something.