East Jesus, California: a Short, Strange Trip

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No stupid people allowed at East Jesus. Or maybe just no people?

Here's the thing about the desert: it really wasn't meant for people to live in. That's why the few people who do live there do so by their own determination.

This determination takes two forms. The first one is to live apart from other people, or to live with only like-minded people, who also want to live apart from other people.

The second is similar to the first, except it's perhaps even more pure. The desert is for people who already are apart, in the way they think, from other people. The hostile location is more a manifestation of that solitude, rather than the other way around. It's not that you can't create this sort of desert in your own head, mind you. But if you could, it wouldn't look too different from this.

At least, that's the explanation I came up with after driving around the Southern California desert for a few days, especially after visiting the area around the Salton Sea. Because there you'll see some pretty startling departures from what you think of as the same Southern California of Los Angeles and San Diego.

Here, you'll see the almost aggressive poverty of the town of Bombay Beach, where there's no sense of welcome at all. After that, there's Slab City, an old Marine base that's been squatted on by everyone from unconverted hippies to downright ornery and dangerous loners who warn you off their space with signs promising your imminent death by large caliber weapon if you should approach them.

And, at the end of the road, is East Jesus, which seems to make you sort of welcome–if you're not staying long.

East Jesus is a museum. It's even an officially sanctioned museum, according to its tax status and some paperwork filed with the state of California. But, it's unlike any museum you've seen before. It's more of what most people think of as an art installation, an art oasis, or a performance space. East Jesus itself calls its exhibit space an “Art Garden.”

It's definitely art, very interesting and accomplished art, made, it seems, almost exclusively from detritus scavenged from the society it's set itself so far from. Artists who live off the grid use the raw materials of the very grid as their canvas.

But, in a larger sense, it's a museum of a way of life that is set apart from society. If you've ever admired the paintings of daily life by Vermeer, Steen, and de Hooch in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum, you should admit that the sculptures of East Jesus are the modern equivalent of those artists' comment on our interaction with our items of quotidian existence–with the overarching sense that said existence is based on non stop information bombardment, perpetual production of perishable hardware that delivers that information, and the sense that the perceived connection via those machines is, at best, fleeting, or, at worst, utterly illusory.

Is that cynical? I don't think so. After meeting Greg, who kindly showed me around the “backstage” area of the site, and doing some reading of the excellent web site, I have come to the conclusion that the artists who live here, or drop in occasionally to work here, are dead serious about creating an enduring body of work that makes eloquent comment on the life that they choose. And the life they choose to leave behind.

If anything, that's why the desert provides a solar powered backdrop for this sort of art, a backdrop that's better than any other landscape–and certainly better than any stately building. The harsh environment requires a resolute clarity of anyone who wants to come here. And, the relentless sun just brings that clarity into higher relief. That's what you'll see at East Jesus.

It's worth the long, dry, drive.

If you go, be sure to also stop in to Salvation Mountain, only a little over a mile away. It's no accident that the so-called great Western religions grew out of the desert. Because the desert affects the brain. If you're out there too long, you begin to see things. And believe things. Things that come out of the nothingness of the desert and become real. Or at least real enough to make someone like Leonard Knight want to make something like Salvation Mountain.

A lot more info on East Jesus can be had from its website. As I learn more, I hope to add a bit more to this post about the artists who work here and the few full time and part time inhabitants of East Jesus. In the meantime, please read the website about the founder Charlie Stephen Russell and the Chasterus Foundation, which actually runs the place now. For amusement and information, I highly recommend reading the “Survival Guide” before you consider a visit. In the meantime, enjoy some photos I made of the art.

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Greg graciously showed me around the living and working quarters of the community, and told me of its history and philosophy. And also kindly stood for a photo.
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It's a long long walk from East Jesus to any church that I saw.
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The local take on one of those Star Wars dune buggies. Does this qualify as an art car?
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The whole idea of quality control takes on a large dose of irony here.
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Ducks! Not much else to say.
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Nothing ever happens isn't exactly true about East Jesus. Don't forget to donate to Imperial County's only art museum.
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Slouching man, slouching house.
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I love a good anti-television statement.
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Bombs and barbed wire, crucified on a computer keyboard. Love it.
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The dolls kind of make this one, no?
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More duck parts.

Here's another post about why I loved driving around the California desert, and another about why I love photographing there, especially the sunsets.

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In the inhospitable desert of Southern California, the town of East Jesus is part art installation, part historic site.In the inhospitable desert of Southern California, the town of East Jesus is part art installation, part historic site.In the inhospitable desert of Southern California, the town of East Jesus is part art installation, part historic site.

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12 thoughts on “East Jesus, California: a Short, Strange Trip”

  1. Whoa!!!!!! The art at East Jesus reminds me a tiny, tiny bit of the Magic Garden in Philly except it’s way more off the grid, edgier and there is a group of unrepentant hippies instead of one unrepentant hippie, Your road trip sounds like a blast in an arid sort of way. This is also one of the more erudite travel blog posts I’ve read. I can’t remember the last time anything I read used the words “quotidian existence”.

    Reply
  2. This place is right up my alley. All those hundreds of up cycled pieces…I hope the dome with all the duck heads had a light in the center-it would make a great chandelier and some funk farm to table restaurant-ha! Seriously, did you feel safe in the area. It sounds kind of sketchy and maybe not a good road trip for two women-or am I wrong about that. Hope so, I’ve loved following along, but would love to see it in person.

    Reply
    • I would absolutely not be worried about going to East Jesus, or through Slab City to get there. But, there are some sketchy areas. Just avoid them, or don’t stop. And, I wouldn’t go at night. In fact, according to their web site, if you show up at East Jesus after dark, they won’t react well. Think of the whole area as the wild west. You’re on your own. Be smart, and don’t piss anyone off.

      Reply
  3. This is great — reminds me of a museum I came across east of Ljubljana, Slovenia (where I live), cleverly entitled The Museum of Too Modern Art. Perhaps a candidate for Too East Jesus.

    And yes, the part about dolphin farts. True dat. :)

    Reply
  4. I love how you eloquently describe people who choose to live in deserts. This post grabbed me from the outset because of your strong intro…as someone who prefers my own company (mostly), it intrigued me. Now I know I prefer my own company in the middle of a city!
    But I’d love to visit this place whenever I make it back Stateside. The most fascinating ‘equivalent’ I’ve experienced so far was what I term as the ‘plane graveyard’ in the Californian desert (NM border I think). It was a long time since I was there, so I could be wrong about its location…but it really fascinated me.

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