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SPECIAL REPORT: Art & life beyond the reach of city life at East Jesus

SLAB CITY, Calif. (KYMA, KECY) - One man’s trash, another man’s treasure.

East Jesus features various art installations that are artistically rooted in sustainability.

Charles S. Russell or “Charlie” is the founder of East Jesus.

He was inspired by Leonard Knight’s Salvation Mountain and the idea of the Slabs in Niland, California being “the last free place” in America.

In an effort to create his own path, Charlie quit his tech job in 2007 and ventured out to the desert, just one mile past Salvation Mountain to create what is now East Jesus.

But if you think this is just another commune for slackers, think again because you have to roll up your sleeves if you want to stay here long-term!

East Jesus is rather an “evergreen” home for art and individualism.

“His [Charlie] description of East Jesus was that it was an experimental, sustainable, habitable art installation where we invite people to imagine a world without waste and every action is an opportunity for self-expression," said Jenn Nelson, curator of East Jesus.

Charlie passed away in 2011, but his memory and message live on.

Leaving the community of East Jesus with instructions to create a foundation and board of directors.

A non-profit organization, The Chasterus Foundation has preserved every piece of what Charlie left behind.

Curator Nelson is also the president of this foundation and is a former teacher.

She paid many visits to Slab city and befriended Charlie over time.

Her health declined around the time he passed, so she retired from teaching and became the full-time curator. 

“My husband and I started The Chasterus Foundation," said Nelson. "We became a 501c3 and we are the only art museum in Imperial County, we are registered with the California Association of Museums and we invite people from all over the world and all over the local area to come and enjoy their art museum.”

So, not only is it the only art museum in Imperial County, it’s also habitable and the community welcomes people from all walks of life.

Including musicians, writers, scientists, former teachers and survivalists.

When choosing to live at East Jesus, you are also choosing to abide by their rules and ways of living.

Because it’s not just a normal spot to camp out at. It can be dangerous, extremely hot and everyone pulls their own weight in either creating art or helping keep all areas clean.

“The mission of The Chasterus Foundation is to 'preserve, protect and continue the work of Charles S. Russell' the work never stops," said Nelson. "As you walk around, you’ll see we’re constantly building, there are projects everywhere. It never stops.”

Many wonder why Charlie chose the name “East Jesus” being that it’s completely non-religious.

Well, it’s simply a colloquialism for “nowhere”.

It’s located in an area beyond the reach of fast internet and city life. So, no Starbucks or McDonald's on any corner.

“Past the edge of services. Extremely remote. And so, when charlie came out here, it was so far past everything. We’re in a triangle between Yuma and San Diego and Los Angeles and it’s 50 miles to the next supermarket and so that’s what it meant, East Jesus ‘nowhere’.”

Artists are forever invited to bring their creative 3D pieces to East Jesus.

Many are installed with the help of the board due to the nature of their “assemblage art”.

Keep in mind that the board looks for everlasting pieces that are ingrained in eco-friendliness.

Nelson recalls a visitor from Minnesota dropping off a box of her grandmother’s perfume collection asking if there was space for her memory to live on.

“That’s the sort of thing we’re starting to get here. Are these incredible relics of the lives that our elders have lived, but that in our modern time we don’t have a three-bedroom home to put them in.”

Nothing comes free.

In 2016, The Chasterus Foundation was given the opportunity to purchase the land that East Jesus lives on.

In an effort to do so they’ve been raising a total of $90,000 to finish paying and are already more than halfway there.

“We were invited by the state land’s commission to purchase the land East Jesus sits on. We were very fortunate that an angel donor gave us a no-interest loan to finish doing the land purchase," Nelson said. "We’re still paying it off, we’ve to $35,000 to go but we’ve been slowly working on that and making sure that East Jesus can continue to be available for people to experience.”

So. like all museums, East Jesus gracefully accepts any donations but they are in need of some specific items and kindly decline anything plastic.

“Lumber, plywood, those are always highly welcome; any tools. Frequently, the only things we need to buy are cement, glue, nails, screws. So, usually, we put things together and the things are what people bring us.”

The members of East Jesus invite all to experience the work of Charlie and many other artists.

Yes, you’re welcome to camp out, but remember if you’re staying long-term you’ll have to chip in somehow.

So, if you’re thinking about visiting take some time to read through the “East Jesus Survival Guide” before setting trail to this diamond in the rough.

Article Topic Follows: Special Reports
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Jacqueline Aguilar

Jacqueline Aguilar is Yuma native who joined KYMA in January 2022.

Contact her with a story idea at jacqueline.aguilar@kecytv.com.

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