Before we hit the dirt roads heading out of Niland towards Slab City, I lost the picture I had in my head of the East Jesus Art Gallery we were heading to see. I’d imagined East Jesus as a quaint little town with perhaps a boutique hotel and lots of wooden-floored gallery spaces where local artists exhibited and sold their work. I’d imagined the main gallery as a high-ceilinged sunlit room, packed to capacity with original work, a piece of which might be coming home with me. I didn’t want to dawdle. I thought the place might close early on Sundays. I’d even hoped to catch evening mass.
But East Jesus isn’t a town, it’s a place. And it’s a place without any religious connection other than the name, and that in itself apparently, is slang for somewhere in the middle of nowhere. The furthest back I can trace it is to a line in the movie Juno:
Billie Joe Armstrong of Green Day enjoyed Bren’s line “You didn’t have to drive out to east Jesus nowhere” so much that on Green Day’s album 21st Century Breakdown he wrote a song called “East Jesus Nowhere”.
But I digress.
There isn’t an art gallery in East Jesus, it’s a sculpture park, a sprawling open-air one that opens at sunrise and closes at sunset and couldn’t possibly have higher ceilings. With 25 or so artists in residence, about 2500 have contributed to the installations since its beginnings in 2007, when IT guy Charlie Russell packed up and shipped out of normalcy into a field in the Sonoran Desert. Fast forward 12 years and the place is now a home to waste of all sorts that has been turned into art. It’s mind-blowingly MadMax-ish. Utterly fascinating. And offers hours of endless surmising. Russell himself was into car art; I wondered briefly if he was related to Charles M Russell, the wild west artist?
This video is a little dated – the place is far more crowded now.
Since Russell’s death in 2011, The Chasterus Foundation, a non-profit, curates the collection and manages its expansion. And they want your junk. Don’t take it to the tip. Load up a truck and take it to East Jesus. Stay at the California Ponderosa, and make it a weekend so you can party at The Range. If you’re an artist and are interested in a residency, check them out. Stay a day, a week, a month. Work, create, and help out about the place. You have a pile of trash to help yourself to and you won’t lack for inspiration. My inner artist is tempted. But before you go, be sure to read the East Jesus Survival Guide.
I’m not quite sure who could have anything against dolphins but did sit for a while in the theatre looking at the homage to TV. Yet this piece is the one I kept coming back to. Haunting stuff.
Remote as it is, East Jesus does not exist in a vacuum but in the crossroads of high concept and low technology, low culture and high art, radicalised self and idealised society. Its smallest parts are a measure of study, reflection, and deliberate and methodical action — the vibrations of the secret knots that bind the world. It is designed to create access to the emergent and the near-extinct, bringing uncertain futures to the fearless present for the boldest of thinkers, schemers, dreamers, and doers. A short boat ride from the desert of the mind to the desert of the real, where the discarded and hidden and not-meant-to-be are unearthed in the light of day and remade into a bright shining zero history.
I couldn’t have put it better myself.
Head across the train tracks out of Niland. Pass Salvation Mountain on your right. Take a left at the T-junction and the road will take you right there. Definitely worth going that extra mile, if you’ve got full insurance on your rental car 🙂 Drive slowly.