Finding second life in East Jesus

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“The Wizard”, who is also known as Mopa, holds a staff as he talks about artists residing at East Jesus, Slab City in Niland on Monday. Behind him is a pop art wind vane made up of an electric fan, a rusty turbine pointer, a tail painted with the name East Jesus, and a pipe tube tower supported at the a base by a sand-filled metal container.
JOSELITO N. VILLERO PHOTO 
Monday, January 30, 2017

SLAB CITY — Following the winding dirt roads north of Niland, a curious traveler can find a community of artists and survivalists inhabiting an area of Slab City coined “East Jesus” that many speculate about, but few truly know the details.

A sandy mecca for artists and their work, East Jesus is a member of the California Museum Association and can be considered a refuge for those who want to live freely and peacefully away from modern society. The guiding philosophy for members is “do as thou wilt” and “do no harm.”

Sidewinder Road leads to the East Jesus Art Garden where a handful of sculptures, stills, and whirligigs, composed of discarded items — everything from toy doll arms to old scrap metal — add artsy character to the barren desert landscape. The messages conveyed through the art pieces by the creators are strongly evident in some, and not so clear in others.

“Personally, what inspires the art for me is the art that is already here,” said fair-skinned Coco, the East Jesus resident cook.

Often using nicknames and fake names, East Jesus residents pick their monikers based on the various levels of personal information each member decides to disclose.

Coco went on explaining the art. “The dedication that people have had to their projects and the amazing things that they’ve done… Even if I don’t get what they are trying to say with their art, I look at it and say ‘you know what, somebody sat there for hours and hours and glued little things on there to have it be stuck up on the ceiling where almost no one ever sees it.’ There is a density of creativity here in one place, and the work ethic around here is contagious; everybody just busts their tails all the time, whether they are cleaning the kitchen, cooking, or making an art project,” he said.

“The Wizard”, who is also known as Mopa, walks on a pathway between sculptures, made of recycled materials, at East Jesus, Slab City in Niland on Monday.
JOSELITO N. VILLERO PHOTO 
Monday, January 30, 2017

A theatre-style concept outlined by rolling barbwire was displayed along the garden trail where chairs were situated in front a stack of 70 old television sets painted with messages on the screens, such as conform, slave, and blah.

“East Jesus was started ten years ago by a man named Charles Stephen Russell,” said Wizard, the group’s self-proclaimed, resident spiritual leader. He paused to take a drag off his long-stemmed tobacco pipe before continuing. “He had the idea of attracting good people and not telling them what to do. If you attract good people, they’re going to do good things.”

“Another factor is to attract people who are going to give more than they take from a project,” Wizard said. “And whatever we do here, work, we do. Whatever we can contribute, either labor, materials, and stuff, it all stays here when we go, because none of us can stay here forever. We have other things we have to do in the world to make it a better place mostly,” he said while tugging at his long blond beard.

“The past 15 years I’ve been a traveler,” Wizard said. “Before here I spent most of my time up in Wisconsin. Made my first trip here seven years ago, and it’s drawing me back every year. I have two roles here at East Jesus; I’m a spiritual guide and resident wizard,” he added, clutching a wooden staff with his coarse, calloused hands.

To join, one must contact East Jesus and then go through a long vetting process. Once someone is in, it then becomes very difficult to ostracize a member. Many members only come seasonally for the winters and leave before the summer heat.

“I’ve only been here a total of one month,” said Coco, the fresh-faced newcomer. “I’m a gypsy from the east coast who came through here and just fell in love. I went back home, saved up enough money, got a car, and got back out here as soon as I could.”

“It’s an amazing place to be,” Coco said. “You get to hide in the desert and play with incredible junk all the time. When I came back, I didn’t have a plan, I was just going to try to figure it out. But the longer I’m here, the longer I want to stay — so I’ll definitely be here until it’s ridiculously hot and maybe stay longer,” he added with a youthful gaze under the shadow of his straw hat. “I try and be as productive as possible and keep myself happy with art projects. Right now, my mission is to keep people fed and have fun.”

“This whole Slab City area is a power vortex or a place of power,” Wizard said. “If you look anywhere in the slabs, there is art everywhere. You may not see it if you’re driving by in your car, because we make it a point to leave our front yard really trashy just to keep people from settling there.”

Adjacent to the entrance of East Jesus lies a pink 1960s Volkswagen van adorned with wine corks, spent turquoise shotgun shells, and bony skulls of animals. Over 2,000 artists have contributed to the artwork over the last 10 years.

“We have discussed this phenomena of East Jesus before, and it only works on a small scale,” explained Wizard. “It does not work on a large scale. At 14-15, we start to reach critical mass, too many people, things start to break down, it gets too large. Small groups of 10 to 15 people can accomplish a lot.”