desert-christ-park

The Unwanted Christ

In Yucca Valley, a half-mile past the turnoff for Pioneertown Road, nearly 50 biblical statues rise from the rocky sandscape.

Emily Chavous Attractions

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An Easter service in the 1950s at Desert Christ Park in Yucca Valley.
PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DESERT CHRIST PARK FOUNDATION

It’s magic hour in Desert Christ Park.

Long shadows creep along the terrain, across the statues’ crackly, solemn faces — some missing noses, a chunk of cheekbone, an arm. But not all are in disrepair. Helmed by the nonprofit Desert Christ Park Foundation, a restoration of the 3.5-acre park is underway. In addition, nearly 40 birdhouses have been installed throughout the grounds, along with native flora, to attract and support area wildlife.

“It’s amazing that the work has withstood the elements as well as it has,” says foundation president Roxanne Miller, who joined the all-volunteer board in 2011. “It was hand-done; they’re not marble, they’re just steel-reinforced concrete. It’s art that was significant in the ’50s that people weren’t afraid of. They weren’t looking down on it. I value the historical position it holds in Yucca Valley.”

The destination, open and free to the public from sunrise to set, was the vision of the Rev. Eddie Garver and sculptor Antone Martin; the nearly 50 statues depict biblical scenes, such as the Last Supper and the Resurrection.

Garver moved with his family in 1946 to start a church in the dusty, unincorporated town of Yucca Valley, the same year a handful of Old Hollywood filmmakers established Pioneertown as a Wild West motion-picture set. Garver angled to create a Christian-themed park, a “place of light” amid the bleak desert, open to all walks of life.

Martin, a poet who worked in a bomber plant, was living in Inglewood, California, at that time. He felt a call to produce a 10-foot, 5-ton statue of Christ, which he hoped to install at the rim of the Grand Canyon. When the National Park Service turned him down, Garver offered “the unwanted Christ” a home.

Life magazine reported in 1951 on the statue’s transit by truck from Los Angeles and its installation in the High Desert. Martin moved into a trailer on-site and continued to sculpt.

Following a disagreement with Garver, allegedly over property ownership, the artist relocated most of the statues — those he was able to move — to an adjacent plot of land, and Garver moved out of state.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY EMILY CHAVOUS

At a high point in the park, this statue is one of three in a Garden of Gethsemane scene.

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PHOTOGRAPH BY EMILY CHAVOUS

The view from the top.

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DESERT CHRIST PARK FOUNDATION

Antone Martin in front of his in-progress Last Supper façade, circa the 1950s.

Upon his death in 1961, Martin willed his work to San Bernardino County. In the ’90s, the American Civil Liberties Union filed a church-and-state-related lawsuit that ascended to the U.S. Supreme Court and mandated county divestment. The Hi-Desert Nature Museum oversaw the area prior to the Desert Christ Park Foundation’s formation in 1995.

Restoration began in 2016, an effort by volunteer Kate Kenney, who frequented the park as a child. “The first statue was installed two weeks before I was born,” she says. Through a trial-and-error process — she has no training in sculpture or concrete work — Kenney has completed restoration of about seven statues.

“I’ve appreciated the humor the sculptor had,” she says. “There’s a boy with his diaper falling off, a girl who is mad because her father is covering her eyes and she can’t see Jesus … There’s a lot more going on that you don’t see unless you really spend some time with the statues.”

The foundation hosts its annual Easter Egg Hunt on April 1. An annual community event observing the National Day of Prayer is set for May 3.

desertchristpark.org

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PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY DESERT CHRIST PARK FOUNDATION

A 1951 photograph 
of Christ’s Ascension, aka “The Unwanted Christ,” looking out upon a yet undeveloped High Desert landscape.

“I feel Oh, so tiny when out here alone, / 
The sand and the brush, and the barren, grey stone
 / The vast rugged hills, so unmindful of time,
 / In silence attuned to a grand cosmic rhyme.”Antone Martin, “A Desert Reverie”