Paint a mountain, plant a poppy - it's for our salvation

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The Independent Online
I Spent the weekend in Baltimore, Maryland with a man who painted a mountain. Leonard Knight is a 66-year-old Korean war veteran who became involved with small churches all over America through his work as a long- distance trucker. In looking for ways to spread his message "God is Love", he first tried fabricating a hot-air balloon in the town of Shelton, New England. Five years and one borrowed sewing machine later, he had made a 300ft-high monstrosity that never achieved lift-off. So Leonard's search for a medium for his message went on. In 1985, he pitched up in Niland, California, a small desert community. General Patton once had his Desert Training Centre just outside town in an installation called Slab City, and it was there that Leonard decided to paint his message, on a 50ft sandbar. Sand isn't the soundest medium - after nearly five years of hard work, the thing collapsed. So he set to work again, this time building the decorations out of hand-mixed adobe made with dirt and water from a nearby stream. Baked by the sun, sealed by many coats of paint, Salvation Mountain now has the strength to withstand anything nature throws its way. A primary- coloured riot of waterfalls, flowers and Biblical lore, it has inevitably become a cause celebre. People drop by to give Leonard more paint. Even the state of California, which owns the land, donated gallons of the yellow normally used for painting lines on roads. Of course local authorities had to stick in their oar by declaring Salvation Mountain a toxic dump. They were busy laying plans to bulldoze it, and they'd already put up their "DANGER: HAZARDOUS WASTE" signs when Leonard's independently analysed gravel samples came back clean. So the authorities backed off, which didn't hurt his burgeoning reputation as a folk hero. Salvation Mountain's Web site invites one and all to "The Slabs" and hundreds have heeded the call. Some settle permanently in their camper vans, others are "Snowbirds", dropping by on their way south with the sun. Museums, art critics, sociologists and film-makers have also come to see one of America's most extraordinary outcrops of visionary art. Obsessive though his project may seem, Leonard is no wild-eyed cultist. He calls himself "a desert hobo bum". Sweet, sharp and funny, he lets his mountain speak for his faith. Meanwhile, his house is about to go on show at the American Visionary Arts Museum in Baltimore. Like something out of Beverly Hillbillies, it's a deliriously painted, gable-roofed construction on the flatbed of an old truck. Leonard insists he wouldn't trade this prototypical mobile home for a million-dollar mansion.

LEONARD was introduced to me by Rebecca Hoffberger, AVAM's director. She is currently preparing an exhibition called "The End is Near" which will explore concepts of the apocalypse as reflected through the work of visionary artists. Of course Heaven's Gate is on everyone's minds. The minute the bodies were discovered in San Diego, a newspaper called Rebecca to find out if comets featured much in apocalyptic thought. "Where do you want to start?" she answered. Watching Hale-Bopp in the clear skies over California, I find it incongruous that a sight so beautiful should be so often held as a harbinger of evil. Still, there is surely enough chaos in the world to justify the doomiest prophecies. Never mind apocalypsists, if you are in the business of creating opportunities for positive change, it can get pretty depressing when you're depth-charged by the collective id. What does it say about us that nuclear power sites the world over are constructed on fault lines (so Rebecca Hoffberger tells me)?

Closer to home, the monitoring group Human Rights Watch has announced that the situation vis-a-vis human rights and the multinationals is drastically deteriorating. One of Gandhi's six sins of the world was commerce without morality, in which case the garment industry has been one of the biggest sinners in the business community. Bill Clinton and leaders of that industry have just announced a code of conduct to combat sweatshops world-wide. A listed criterion of the code's success is how much consumers should be told about violations. The tentative tone of this commitment to transparency is understandable, given the efficacy of consumer boycotts in the past. But I can't believe a signatory such as Nike, with its well-documented worker abuse in Vietnam, has any option. It is, of course, a supreme irony that the business of fashion, a "woman's" business, is largely built on the exploitation of female labour. But fashion thrives on irony. Last week in New York, it was difficult to escape coverage of next autumn's collections, and the big news was the return of power-dressing. Power- dressing is the consummate fashion illusion, all style, no substance, a bone thrown by the fashion world to the relatively powerless woman in the street.

ELECTIONS are marathons. Of course candidates tire. So what is so wrong with letting that show? Surely a vulnerable human being is more appealing than an enamel-grinned superman. But when I applaud Tony Blair for being human enough to let himself look tired, I'm suddenly Labour's loose cannon. At times like this I crave the sanctuary of my garden, where I can say what I like and the flora and fauna get the point. In the midst of all the talk of voter apathy, a number of signals suggest many people, young and old, are engaging more rather than less with the world around them. It just isn't happening in a way that exit pollsters can deal with. Take the foodie boom. An interest in exotic cuisines could reasonably be viewed as an antidote to the culture-crunching fascism of the fast- food chains. And what about gardening? What else is it but a benign form of environmental activism? After all, gardens have personalities. Mine is a woman in her forties, ripe and abundant, blooming and drooping like the poppies I planted this year.

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