The sea is dying, the art lives

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Last week, cabin fever rising, I packed a face mask, disinfectant wipes, sunscreen and lunch into the car for a road trip to see no one.

In mid-May, with all desert temperatures rising, no one visits the Salton Sea. It's not a big draw any time, really, not since its resort heyday in the mid-20th century. California's largest inland body of water, 230-ish feet below sea level, is dying from human neglect and the whims of Mother Nature. It's salty, shrinking and sometimes stinks of hydrogen sulfide gas and dead fish.

My kind of no-human place! Especially on a day blessed with relatively mild weather and not a whiff of death or sulfur. My destination was the east side of the sea, the dusty town of Bombay Beach and a bit farther south, the curious folk-arty hillside tribute to God and love called Salvation Mountain.

Like most places in Southern California, Bombay Beach was closed. Even absent a pandemic, it's hard to tell. The tiny burg (pop. 250 on a good day) has no gas station, but there are two places where you can drink, the Ski Inn (think: dive bar, 1960s) and American Legion Post 801. According to one sometime local, they're like the Hatfields and the McCoys -- if you drink at one, you don't step foot into the other.

When last checked, the sole Bombay Beach listing on Airbnb offered a "kitsch haven" one-bed, one-bath house for $77 a night. It also announced: "DO NOT UNDERESTIMATE THE PECULIARITY OR REMOTENESS OF BOMBAY BEACH."

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Remote, yes, since the sea lost its tourist mojo 50 years ago. But peculiar took over from terminal more recently, thanks to an infusion of artists who found cheap real estate and abundant inspiration in a place inhabited mostly by elderly folks living on the socio-economic edge. Most of the artists whose work proliferates around town don't live here full time, but over the years they have developed an appreciation for those who do.

In 2016, a loose collective of artists and their enablers launched the first Bombay Beach Biennale, an annual semi-subversive event over one weekend usually in March. They don't announce the dates because you're not really invited. By and for locals and artists, the celebration of art, music and woo-woo pops up in gnarly yards, among abandoned trailers, in vacant lots and along the diminishing shoreline.

It's an all-volunteer, anti-commercial shindig that tolerates a limited number of outsiders, if, per the website, you come equipped with:

• An open mind
• Cash - there are no ATM's in town. All local businesses are cash only.
• Your own drinking cup
• Sunscreen
• Water
• Food
• Toilet Paper
• Hand Sanitizer
• Shade

But not:

• Expectations

This year, explained Lauren Brand, one of its producers, the disorganizers opted against a visual/musical art Biennale in favor of a Literary Week. Alas, it was canceled courtesy of the virus. But in my brief drive-by, I was lucky to find a few artifacts from previous years.

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During World War II, the Salton Sea was a practice site for the Army's B-29s. One pilot who dropped dummy bombs into the briny drink was Lt. Col. Paul Tibbets. In 1945, it was he who flew the Enola Gay over Hiroshima, Japan, to drop the first atomic bomb on Aug. 6.

Hanging from the chain link fence adjacent to the yellow "Bomb Bay Shelter," by artist/property owner Joe Regan, is a properly-fonted sign that smirks: "Sotheby's International Reality," and an invitation to visit, which, of course, does not exist, and to #bombaybeachreality, which brings you to depictions of mobile homes in various states of undress. The florid "sales" copy reads:

"Great Investor Owner Occupy Opportunity! ... This home has some of the original characteristics of it era. ... The units feature a grand entrance with a large open living room area with high ceilings and a kitchen/dining combo with natural light. ... Large backyard perfect for gardening and for family/friend gatherings. ... There are two parking spaces and lots of off-street parking. While they are friendly, please do not disturb current owners. Sold! Artists build desirable destinations out of once forgotten places. Through this act of creation, they precipitate their own annihilation."

An array of brightly painted televisions sets -- the old-fashioned boxy kind -- occupy a corner of 5th and H streets. Farther north on H, fancy light standards sprout from the weedy dirt yard of a house with a dubious, tar-paper patched roof and peeling white paint. Cut-glass chandeliers are suspended from the curlicues that once housed light bulbs.

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The art world has described artist Randy Polumbo as a "mad scientist," and he has perfected the out-there formula. He lives in New York City (whose Museum of Sex includes his work in its collection), but he also cultivates his garden at a lot he owns at the north end of H Street. He crafted "Lodestar," according to Brand, from a plane he bought from a private collector and had trucked cross-country to California. The massive sculpture exhibited at Burning Man and Coachella, but its home is here, lovingly maintained by a local.

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"Da Vinci Fish" air-swims in the well-kept yard of a colorfully painted building on 2nd Street. It was constructed by several artists from metal, fiber, wood and ceramics salvaged from the Salton Sea. The sign, Bombay Beach Arts & Culture, appears to be part of the installation, but the venue is real -- it's a nonprofit community center supported by the landowner, who is a friend of lead fish artist, Sean Guerrero.

The Biennale artists aren't the only creative types inspired by the harsh elements here, and they weren't the first. Nearly 20 miles south of Bombay Beach is Niland, another desiccated town with a few more services and no better prospects. Still, it's the provisioning hub for its eastern suburb, Slab City, another evolutionary remnant of the region's martial pedigree.

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A self-described "no-fee recreational vehicle 'squat' destination," Slab City's name derives from the residual concrete foundations of Camp Dunlap, a World War II Marine desert training base abandoned in the 1950s. The Department of Defense handed the 640 acres back to the state of California, which pretty much sat by as an assortment of desert dwellers took root over the years.

It's an interesting population composed, according to a Border Patrol agent at the Niland checkpoint, of "homeless, druggies and your sovereign people." (You know -- your Cliven and Ammon Bundy types.) The border guy said nothing about artists.

But living off the grid -- no running water, no electricity, no GrubHub -- they, too, decorate their desert with roadside attractions. A scrawny dead tree's knobby branches are hung with shoes, many more of which are scattered like fallen leaves around the sandy base. Some of them are new, and, at least until the wind kicks up, sparkly white.

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Another dead-plant construct wears colorful paint cans like Johnny Depp wears bracelets.

I didn't have time to drive into the heart of this community, only as far as its bold entry monument, Salvation Mountain. It, too, was COVID-closed. But it looms large from the road, beckoning all comers to share God's love, if not Leonard Knight's artistic sensibility.

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Starting in 1984, Knight began to blanket the lumpy landscape with adobe, straw and lead-free paint. (Really. It's certified.) The murals and designs invoke Bible verses and prayers, but give equal time to depictions of all manner of flora and fauna, spread across 150 feet and as high as 50. Some observers might find it garish, like the work of an aging hippie who moved here when he got priced out of the Haight.

The Folk Art Society of America would disagree. In 2000, it deemed Salvation Mountain "a folk art site worthy of preservation and protection."

On the road back to Niland, a sunburned, raggedy local carrying an empty plastic water jug was hitching a ride into town. I pondered. He could be an artist. Or a meth head. A sovereign. I didn't like the odds. I drove past.

He smiled and waved.

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Photos: Ellen Alperstein

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