The Rock: Kent’s Self-Portrait


Photo courtesy of Heather White

Cameron Gorman

The Rock standing on the lawn of front campus has been compared to many things: a mood ring, a multicolored boulder, even a canvas. The seasons around it may change, but the rock itself remains the same.

Passed by so frequently, in fact, that perhaps people may start to forget that it’s even there.

The rock itself is more massive in the mind than in real life. Standing next to it, you might even feel a little underwhelmed. Maybe that’s because of the way it’s spoken about, in the hushed tones of a myth or legend.

The rock remains a staple of Kent State’s main campus and stands as a landmark for the university. Largely looking the same and surrounded by the changing decades and seasons, it remains static, save for its layer of paint. 

Its long standing presence on campus means the interest in it began long before today.

In 1979, The Kent Stater ran a short article about what the rock was, geologically speaking, alongside advertisements for guitar club nights and free disco lessons. It was concluded, after little fanfare, that it was probably a glacial boulder.

In 1992, almost as if by a timer, the Stater published another piece about the rock’s origins, this time focusing on tracking its whereabouts—from Main Street, to when the street was widened, to when the rock was hauled to its present position on the grass, cementing both its history and historical fascination

Lae’l Hughes-Watkins, an assistant professor in the University Libraries and a university archivist, sifts through this history every day.

“It’s one of those traditions that goes through time,” she said. “I didn’t realize how strong that tradition was when I was here as a grad student.”

Hughes-Watkins has only been an archivist at Kent State for three years, but her work enables her to learn more about the history of the university’s more niche traditions than most students.

“Even in some of the earlier articles that (the Stater) printed, you see that people painted and used the rock to discuss the Vietnam War,” she said. “The rock has always symbolized something— not just about tradition on campus or expressing Kent State Pride, but to talk about more controversial issues, and I think that’s always been the case.”

The Rock hasn’t moved since it rolled onto the front of campus, and yet, something about that strange tradition or promise of a message is still beckoning people to trek out to its garrison and spray yet another layer of color on those before it.

“Kent (State) is not a small college. (Trying to bring about) a sense of community … it can be a real challenge. My sense of community didn’t kick in until maybe my junior year,” said Roger DiPaolo, a Kent State alumn and current editor of the Record-Courier.

In a large campus community, the rock provides students with an opportunity to come together with one shared objective: one chance to unite, beginning with a can of  spray paint.

“I think the rock is a very, very cool tradition,” Di Paolo said. “It’s also a rallying point at times. I know there have been several vigils there, (so) it’s a definite meeting place. If you say, ‘We’re going to be out by the rock,’ everybody knows where the rock is.”

Della Marie Marshall, senior associate director of the Center for Student Involvement, has worked in the department over 25 years. She is also familiar with the history and meaning behind the rock.

“I drive by it almost every day,” Marshall said. “On a good day, I do kind of glance. I’m nosy; I want to see what’s on the rock.”

The messages painted on the rock’s surface reaches a wide audience and is aimed at a wide array of topics, perhaps wider than those who have painted it would imagine.

“When you look at the rock, a lot of times it’s used to promote or market a specific event or person, depending on which group is painting it,” Marshall said.

It can at times seem that a billboard is the rock’s only purpose, but its surface has also functioned as a more sober platform.

“When we’ve had a loss of a student, a lot of times the rock will be used in memory, which has been done frequently in the past,” Marshall said. “When there was a tax issue where students would have to pay for anything over 16 credit hours, they used the rock to voice their dissent.”

Marshall said that the the rock has been used in a variety of ways, there always seems to be a message attached to what’s been put on it surface.

“Some people have used it for political purposes,” Marshall said. “I know two years ago, when Tamir Rice was shot, people used the rock to vent their frustrations. I’ve seen it used when 9/11 (happened); People painted a patriotic flag. Around May 4, you’ll see it get painted.”

The messages put on the rock are varied and sometimes volatile. It’s easy to see why someone might want to transform the rock into their own personal picket sign or portrait. The rock is not strictly regulated by any one group or organization.

“The thing that I think is pretty incredible is that nobody regulates the rock,” Di Paolo said. “The rock is just there. It’s pretty incredible that you don’t have more offensive things painted on it. It’s not like anybody’s in charge of the rock. It’s very unique.”

For the most part, the rock is indeed a no-man’s land.

“Unless we’re requested to paint over something inappropriate, we don’t have much to do with the rock,” said Heather White, manager of the University Facility Management.

That request doesn’t even come often— only twice in the 13 years that White has been in her position.

“The decision is made by the vice president of enrollment management if they feel that something needs to be painted over. Then they’ll call and we’ll go out and paint it over,” she said.

The most usual violation isn’t even rude designs, it’s students painting the trees that surround the boulder itself.

Although she contests that the university’s grounds staff have little to do with the rock’s supervision, she, like most others who find themselves passing it time and time again, has grown fond of the chameleon-like surface.

“I take pictures of some of them that I like the best”, she said. “There’s several, there was a member of our staff who retired, and his family came out and painted it like a hamburger. We’ve had Waldo painted on it. I do take pictures of the best ones and save those.”

Such a prime location, however, has its pitfalls.

“Normally, it could be painted anywhere from two to four times in that one 24 hour span of time,” Marshall said. “To me, I find that amusing because it’s almost like you take a chance when you put something on the rock, and you would think they would leave it alone.”

But the rock continues to change, swirling through designs faster than most can keep up with since it was placed in it location.

“Some of them don’t last very long,” White said. “They don’t even last 24 hours sometimes. You could pass it in the morning and it’s one thing, and by the afternoon it’s something completely different.”

So different, in fact, that it’s hard to pin down one exact purpose for the ever-growing layers of color that cover that boulder on the lawn of front campus.

Perhaps, however, that’s because there is no single purpose for it at all. Through the years, it has affected people from all walks of life, and they have reflected back upon it in equal measure.

“I think it’s great to have something to pass down from generation to generation,” Hughes-Watkins said. “To be able to look back in history and see how that tradition has been tweaked a little bit over time, there’s something about being connected to history … and to know that you have those shared experiences.”

Though the rock itself is static, its coat is always changing with the times that surround it; a real-time self-portrait of Kent State, rendered in spray paint and chipping colors.

“The rock is used for so many different purposes. Sometimes for humor, sometimes politically, sometimes artistically,” Marshall said. “But you know, beauty – like the rock – is in the eye of the beholder.”

Cameron Gorman is a general assignment reporter for The Kent Stater. Contact her at [email protected].