In the California desert, you can be tricked into seeing many mirages. A 15-foot-tall Christ is not one of them. The statue is just one of 55 religious figures strewn about the...
In the California desert, you can be tricked into seeing many mirages. A 15-foot-tall Christ is not one of them.
The statue is just one of 55 religious figures strewn about the 3-1/2-acre Desert Christ Park, a Yucca Valley, Calif., sculpture garden less than 30 miles northeast of Palm Springs. The park is a blip on a scruffy hill tucked behind the town’s main strip (I use that word generously). No big signs point the way but you’ll know when you’ve arrived.
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Visitors are immediately greeted by such larger-than-life Sunday-school figures as the 12 apostles, Martha and Mary, angels and, of course, Christ himself. And while the attraction is heavy on religious themes, the message is nondenominational and universal: peace, love and all the wondrous things you can do with a chisel and some concrete blocks.
“It is run as a religious park, but it also has historical and cultural significance,” says Michael Gillum, president of the nonprofit Desert Christ Foundation, which maintains the attraction. “Historically, it’s 52 years old, which makes it a historical site, and culturally, it’s unique artwork made of concrete. That’s a really hard material to work with.”
The park’s sculptor and creator, Antone Martin, was a former aircraft worker who had the skill of da Vinci and the zeal of an acolyte. The craftsman, who died in 1961 at 74, started sculpting the figures during the height of the A-bomb scare in the mid-1940s, hoping to construct pieces that would inspire a global hug and that could also withstand a nuclear bomb (hence the steel-reinforced concrete and white cement-plaster finish).
His first sculpture, reminiscent of Rio de Janeiro’s hilltop Christ the Redeemer, stands on a mound of barren, crumbly land, its arms raised high over the valley’s cookie-cutter houses, piddly strip malls, looming Little San Bernardino Mountains, then vast brown nothingness.
The 3-ton Christ was built in 1947 on Martin’s driveway, near the Los Angeles airport, and after failed attempts to have it installed at the Grand Canyon, it was finally trucked out to Yucca Valley. The Southern California spot was chosen partly for its arid landscape, which mirrors the Holy Land’s with its olive trees, parched earth and prickly, quick-to-burn bushes. Martin then moved on the site, where he sculpted until his death.
The park, planned as an oasis of peace and calm, has been anything but. In 1988, the American Civil Liberties Union sued San Bernardino County, which had been caring for the attraction since 1961, for blurring the state and church divide. During the legal tussle, the park was neglected, and though Martin’s materials could withstand the Big Kaboom, they were no match for vandals and a 1992 earthquake.
In 1996, a nonprofit foundation took over, with plans to repair the 15 damaged sculptures; add signage, lights and a botanical garden; and fix the bathrooms (currently, there is no working toilet), among other renovations.
Today, some of the trails that connect the sculptures, which are scattered around with little thought to landscape design, are rough and barely groomed.
A little church shaped like a jester’s cap is in need of cushions; concrete pews with metal-pole backrests are tough on the spine.
The sculptures look as if they were attacked by a mad anvil. In one scene, some of the children encircling Christ are headless; others are like stick figures with metal poles for feet and hands. In another display, Jesus is missing an arm and has a shattered chin.
But the 20-foot-high, 30-foot-long bas-relief of the Last Supper is unscathed.
According to a guestbook in Gillum’s care, park visitors have come from all over, especially Germany, England and Canada, during the winter Palm Springs migration. On a recent visit, a California family of three was scrambling among the ghost-white sculptures, taking photos of themselves and Jesus as if they were at Disneyland posing with Mickey. A young man named Michael Kahler was also touring the park, stopping at each display to explain its meaning to a pair of antsy teenagers.
“This tells the story of when Jesus met a woman who was sleeping around and told her to wash away her sins in the well,” said Kahler, who brings inner-city kids from Orange County, Calif., here on religious camping retreats.
“What does sleeping around mean?” asked one of the teens.
“She liked to be with a lot of men,” Kahler replied, adding, “OK, we don’t touch the sculptures.”
His charge quickly backed away from the sculpted harlot.
The park currently lacks informational placards (Year 3 in the five-year improvement plan), so a lot of the scenes are guesswork. (“I have no idea what this is,” admitted Kahler, rushing past two heads perched on a wall, one bearded, the other chubby-cheeked.)
A gift shop is to come, but you can still take home a makeshift memento: Climb the hill behind the Last Supper, poke your face in the space beside Jesus and say “cheese” to a camera-toting pal.