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Desert Christ Park, Yucca Valley

Here on a sweltering, rocky hillside in the high desert, Jesus is missing his hands, and some of His disciples are missing their heads. The tragedy at this monument to one man’s artistic and spiritual vision is the result of earthly spite and neglect, and at least one act of God, or Gaia, as the case may be.

Desert Christ Park was the realized dream of artist and former aircraft company employee Frank Antoine Martin. Born in 1887, Martin was orphaned and ran away from his foster parents at the age of twelve. After life on the road, where he

met his wife and married her in an Arizona mining camp, Martin finally settled in Los Angeles, finding work at the Douglas Aircraft Company during WWII.

Upon retirement in 1951, Martin fashioned a three-ton concrete statue of Our Savior in his Inglewood driveway. He was using his home as a staging area: the gargantua with outstretched arms was set to be installed at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Permit and permission problems ensued, so he dropped some of his expectations, packed up his family, and settled a mere 100 miles away in Yucca Valley. If the great state of Arizona and the National Park Service wouldn’t listen to him, Martin would create something even they didn’t have: the New Testament in concrete. On Easter Sunday of 1951, the twelve-foot Jesus was installed on a hill overlooking the town, and a ten-year labor was begun.

Martin started working on his didactic project in earnest, mixing and hauling the concrete by himself. Even though he was told repeatedly that sculpting in concrete was impossible, he built armatures of steel rebar to support the statues, finishing them off with a mixture of plaster and white paint. Before he was finished, the owner of the land where Martin was working, announced that he wanted to charge admission to the attraction. Martin didn’t. In a fit of pique, he roamed through the park smashing noses off of the Apostles, Mary, and the Almighty Himself. This wasn’t a blind rage; Martin left Judas untouched as a comment on the injustice he was suffering. The appendages were replaced, apparently when property’s owner backed off.

The back-and heartbreaking work took its toll, but Martin was able to realize his dream by the time he died two days shy of Christmas in 1961, at the age of 74. His legacy remains in ten biblical scenes scattered over three acres, between stands of Joshua trees and creosote bushes, and ever-widening rivulets carved into the sandy soil by infrequent rains.

The largest group of statues depicts the “Sermon on the Mount.” The care with which Martin invested his creations is evident in the emotions sculpted into the figures—some are obviously moved, while others wear doubting or even hostile expressions. Closer inspection reveals the detail that the artist put into his work: hands are creased, waves of hair and cloth are sculpted to an astonishing degree.
But Martin’s masterpiece may well be the massive bas-relief of The Last Supper. Located near the rear of the park, the monolith stands twenty feet tall and thirty feet wide and weighs in at some 250,000 pounds. Like countless self-taught artists through the ages, Martin seems to have followed the lead of Leonardo Da Vinci—the window over the Lord’s head stands in for a halo and is open to the sky, or rather the rocky hill behind it. Tourists can peek through and get their picture taken while hovering over Jesus’ cranium.

The 1992, Landers earthquake was violent enough to destroy the west wall on the nearby Yucca Valley bowling alley and severely damage some of the statues at the Park. Vandals had been at work on the place for almost thirty years, and combined with the harsh environment, Desert Christ Park was in danger of closing for good. In a stunning case of pettiness, the ACLU brought suit in 1987 against San Bernardino county’s use of public funds to maintain a religious landmark, which it had managed to do to the tune of a paltry $4,000 a year since Martin’s death. Concerned citizens formed the Desert Christ Foundation to look after the statues, but lacking significant contributions, Martin’s legacy will, for the present, be left in a state of arrested decay.

From Interstate 10 take Highway 62 east to Yucca Valley. In Yucca Valley, turn left on Mohawk Trail, and then right on Sunnyslope Drive. The park is on the left.

Palin’ Around with the Apostles and My Buddy Jesus at Desert Christ Park

It’s hard to tell if Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley (opening date Easter Sunday, 1951) was intended to be a place of religious reflection, or campy Jesus kitsch.

Every piece of evidence seemed to suggest that sculptor Antone Martin planned on constructing a place dedicated to (as the brochure reads) peace, tolerance, and love, but there’s an eerie “Charlton Heston has just found out he’s been on Earth all the time” feel about the park that even the most reverential could not deny.

The creepiness may have to do in part with the fact that a 7.3 earthquake rattled the valley in 1992, causing a good bit of devastation. Heads and hands were violently shaken off the biblical figurines, exposing the rebar and steel skeletal remains.

The reinforced cement statues themselves are larger than lifesize, (I’m taking a liberty here, because there is no historical evidence that suggests that Christ was taller then ten feet) and weigh between 3 to 16 tons a piece.

A few of the depictions of the New Testament that are represented here are Jesus with outstretched arms, teaching the disciples, during His Sermon on the Mount. The praying, pensive Jesus, in The Garden of Gethsemene is particularly striking, (complete with sleeping apostles statues a few feet away) but the piece de resistance in this whole place is no doubt the Last Supper.

One hundred and twenty five tons of concrete bas-relief, 20 feet tall and 30 feet wide, it’s an interactive replica of DaVinci’s Last Supper, with a square window cut out above the dinner table for the sole purpose of posing with the giant alabaster Christ.

It seems incredibly blasphemous at first, but it’s impossible to resist the temptation to sling your arm around the Savior’s shoulder and feel like the 13th apostle. Perhaps you’ll playfully give Him the devil horns behind His head with your forefinger and pinky. Offer to pick up the check… don’t worry, the waiter never appears, and it’s a generous gesture. That kind of stuff builds up heaven points.
Your best bet to a spot inside the Pearly Gates might be tipping Jesus off to Judas’ plans. “There he is Lord…There’s the guy who ratted You out to the Romans.”

If you feel the slightest bit guilty or sacrilegious after spending your time in Desert Christ Park doing any of these things, don’t worry…He’ll forgive you. It’s what He does. –Joe O.

Weird California

 

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