Although clearly an anomaly on I-80 in the Nevada High Desert, Thunder Mountain Monument is not appreciable through the window of a speeding car. Upon examination, the ecletic assemblage of the late Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain reveals a residence a la stream of consciousness and bears testament to the struggle between the human and the holy, with a frenziedness that alludes to a fear of succumbing to angst or chaos or both.
My husband and I visited Thunder Mountain Monument recently during a brief trip to northern Nevada. The village of Imlay, Nevada–where Thunder Mountain Monument is located–is comprised of a general store, a Baptist Church, a post office and an elementary school. Most of Imlay’s structures are small stick buildings or mobile homes or mixed marriages thereof. Thunder Mountain Monument is the exception, theatrical in its imagery.
A giant asymmetrical cement rind pocked with stones forms the exterior walls of the building which once served as the living quarters for Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain and his family. Numerous sculptures and an overarching network of material resembling bones derived from an O’Keefe canvas render the house whimsical and haunting. The identity of its chief (pun intended) architect and builder, Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain, also known as Frank Van Zant, is as organic as the debris from which he built his Pershing County home, now declared a historic site by the State of Nevada. Van Zant was a World War II vet who, upon returning from the War, spent more than a year studying theology with the intention of becoming a Methodist Minister, a goal he abandoned after discerning what he perceived as an untenable hypocrisy within the Church.
Subsequently Van Zant pursued a career in law enforcement. He served as deputy sheriff for two decades in Yuba City, California and eventually became a private investigator, a profession he retained until retiring, when he moved with his third wife to Imlay, where he assumed the identity of Chief Rolling Thunder Mountain.
Chief Rolling Thunder became a self-taught artist and sculptor. It is easy to imagine that the same characteristics which made him a successful detective–tireless searching, deep reflection and perhaps a touch of obsession–were readily transferable to his art.
Chief Rolling Thunder was born of Creek Indian heritage. His artistic creations are an intriguing conglomerate of wood, cement, glass, stone, copper agate, quartz and other materials. Those components cohere under a steady eye to reveal part naturalist zeal, part communion with Great Spirt and part political commentary, namely protesting the unfair treatment of Native Americans.
Chief Rolling Thunder yearned for–and devoted himself to creating–a unique home that transcended functionality to become folk art. He was named Artist of the Year by the State of Nevada in 1983.