Friday, February 08, 2008

Desert Christ Park

Back in early November, I visited the family cabin in 29 Palms with the tribe. Before leaving, I mentioned the trip to my pal, Heidi.

"Oh, you have to visit Desert Christ Park!" she said. She then described a bizarre place that features bigger than life-size statues of Jesus, Mary and The Gang all placed eerily amongst the Joshua Trees. "You'll get some great photos!" she said. She was right.
"Dedicated to 'Peace on Earth and the Brotherhood of Man,' Desert Christ Park overlooks the high desert town of Yucca Valley in southern California. Here the visitor may find more than forty snow-white statues and images portraying scenes of Christ's life and teachings."

When I mentioned Desert Christ Park to my mother, she rolled her eyes at me. "You don't remember?" she said. "Your grandfather loved that place. You've been there many, many times, though mostly as a child." Evidently, I blocked it out and after my recent visit, I can see why. The place is overwhelmingly creepy. Oh, its heart is definitely in the right place but vandalism and years of weather abuse have left a sad mark on this unique place.

Here's the story: Desert Christ Park is the creation of Frank Antone Martin, who was born near Cincinnati, Ohio in 1887 and orphaned at an early age. Though he lived with a series of foster parents, he ran away at the age of 12 and basically raised himself. While Frank did have any formal education (as in, zero) he managed to educate himself in matters of the mind, the hands and, clearly, the heart.

Audience members of the Sermon on the Mount.

Frank was known as "an author and poet, talented public speaker on the scriptures" and had an "insatiable thirst for knowledge." Though he was a slight man and stricken with numerous ailments, Frank dedicated the last 10 years of his life to creating Desert Christ Park. A humble yellow pamphlet we found on-site described Frank's devotion:

"He became exhausted and worn by his toils with the many hundreds of tons of concrete that he personally prepared and carried. His devotion to this final project, combine with his frailties, resulted in his illness and subsequent death on December 23, 1961 at the age of 74."

So, the place basically killed Frank, which what I get from that. Still, I was impressed. Not with the statues themselves (the 'children' had freaky oversized adult heads) but with the man's inspiration, his undaunted faith and his vision, not to mention the grit and commitment to see it through. We should all be so moved.

The pamphlet says that the park is operated and maintained by an all-volunteer staff through the Desert Christ Park, a non-profit foundation. It was created as a "World Peace Shrine" and considering everything that Frank went through in his life, I think that it's pretty damn remarkable.

"All of the statuary is made of steel-reinforced concrete, hand-finished with a white paint/plaster mixture. The individual figures weigh anywhere from three to sixteen tons each."

You may not be able to see it, but in the hand to the right - the hand of Jesus in the 'Children Come to Me' sculpture - someone has placed a can of pork and beans. This is not necessarily vandalism - seems more like commentary to me. Christ offering food for the soul? Jesus was a man who enjoyed campfire cuisine? Little kids are drawn to franks-and-beans? I like to think it's all of the above.

To me, this was the saddest photo of all - the mutilated hands of Jesus as he offers a 'Blessing to Mankind.' There's an unsavory statement in there but I try instead to think about Frank, who was bursting with so much faith and love that he just HAD to share. Frank reminds me of another friend who had the same spiritual love. I'm sure not a religious gal but folks like these should not be forgotten in their efforts to lift up all of us. We need it.

For more of my photos from Desert Christ Park, go here.

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