Jim Rouse Visionary Center, 1st Floor
Artist Leonard Knight had a vision of creating the world's largest hot air balloon, with the words "God Is Love" painted on the side. He spent ten years building the 200-foot tall balloon, then packed it into a trailer and left for California, possessed with the idea of displaying a religious message that could be seen for miles. Knight arrived at an abandoned military base on the edge of a naval bombing range near Niland, California with 5,000 temporary settlers who spent each winter living rent free in tents and recreational vehicles, in what they fondly called "Slab City." Slab Citizens welcomed Leonard as one of their own, allowing him to put the finishing touches on his balloon. When the day came for the first flight, he discovered that it was not only too large and heavy to inflate, but that the bright desert sun had began to rot the nylon material.
"I'll never forget Leonard's visit to our American Visionary Art Museum," reminisces Rebecca Hoffberger, museum founder and director, "resulting in his giant silken LOVE Balloon remaining a part of the museum to echo his simple message of divine love—a message shouted from his masterwork, Salvation Mountain, and in his conduct with all whom he met. Leonard Knight's art was grand-scale loving kindness infused into a mountain of color, a scriptural hot air balloon, and adobe flower-encrusted trucks turned living quarters. All these Leonard served up with warm welcome and the gospel of unconditional love that drew hundreds of thousands of visitors and film crews from the world over. Knight's LOVE Balloon remains tethered at our museum in Baltimore, in lasting testimony to his unforgettable 1996 visit with us, and his personal genius in loving and delighting others as family. His art and life were Grace."
Leonard Knight's painted truck and original LOVE Balloon were first exhibited at AVAM in Wind In My Hair (1996–97). Today, the LOVE Balloon remains a fixture of AVAM's 1st floor Jim Rouse Visionary Center, and an icon of the museum.