Out in the Sonoran Desert in Imperial County, California, is an experimental, sustainable and educational art installation called East Jesus. Here, artists from all walks of life have built upon the original vision of Charlie Russell, who changed a trash-strewn patch of desert into a space for contemporary art.
In 2007, Charlie Russell quit his tech job and headed to the off-grid snowbird community of Slab City in the Sonoran Desert. His initial goal was to work on Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain, a famous painted mound near the entrance to Slab City.
But Russell became involved in his own project less than a mile from Salvation Mountain, where he had begun to turn a trash-strewn area into a colorful and quirky art installation. He called it East Jesus, after a colloquialism meaning “the middle of nowhere” (there’s no direct religious connotation).
With his shipping container of belongings and two art carts, Russell settled in Slab City and began to turn East Jesus into a reflection of his world vision: a world without waste, where trash could be repurposed into art. He invited artists to contribute, and East Jesus soon grew into a habitable art installation that attracted free-roaming characters from all walks of life, including artists, musicians, scientists and builders.
Russell died of a heart attack in 2011, but East Jesus had already taken on a life of its own. And today it’s a habitable cooperative compound with an open-air kitchen, living room, library, music room and vegetable gardens.
But the real draw for curious visitors is the sculpture garden, a constantly evolving art space that thousands of artists have contributed to over the years. The sculptures are all made from discarded material, and include some pieces salvaged from Burning Man.
To give you just a small idea of what you can see at East Jesus, sculptures include a mammoth made from blown-out tires, a mutant albino whale made out of 4,000 plastic bags, a house that looks like it’s sinking into the sand, and a wall of cynical TVs.
Know Before You Go
East Jesus is located a short walk northwest of Slab City. Slab City is in the Sonoran Desert in Imperial County, California, about four miles northeast of Niland and 156 miles northeast of San Diego. The Art Garden at East Jesus is open 365 days a year “from sun up to sundown.” If you want to camp at East Jesus, you’ll have to ask first as the residents like to meet in person before granting permission. Otherwise you’ll have to camp outside the East Jesus borders.