The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

The news site of Evanston Township High School's student newspaper

The Evanstonian

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In The Mix: 2024
In The Mix: 2024
Just the Jakes
Just the Jakes
Izabella Paracuelles and Marin UbersoxMay 8, 2024
STOP! In the name of safety
STOP! In the name of safety
Izabella Paracuelles, Feature Editor • March 15, 2024
Launched in 2017, the Evanston Mural Arts Program collaborates with talented local artists to create visual art around the city. They have produced close to 30 murals throughout Evanston.
'Transforming spaces'
Audrey Bodine, Staff Writer • March 15, 2024

On the rocks

Examining Northwestern’s decades-long tradition of painting rocks

On a brisk October morning, the waves were particularly strong as they crashed against the coast of Northwestern campus, but this did not deter the students from climbing atop the boulders to get a better view. Two girls knelt on the bank, angling their camera to capture the Chicago skyline in the distance as well as a rock decorated with a simple NU flag. A few children ran across the black bags of sand just before the rocks began, shrieking as a large spray of water nearly drenched them, before stopping to admire a detailed portrait of ‘Peppa Pig’. Further down the peninsula, a large group of students gathered on the rocks, snapping pictures and pointing at messages written—one being a lyric from a Taylor Swift song, and another being a simple sentence for the future of Northwestern—’‘NU is waiting for U.”

From messages like those to murals to marriage proposals, the painted rocks along the shore of Northwestern University have been a staple in the Evanston community and a tradition upheld for decades. Almost anyone who has taken a stroll through the Northwestern campus along the lake is familiar with these rocks, as they offer a look into the history of the school, the lives of students who have long since graduated and what they determined worthy of painting on the coast. The rocks themselves stretch from the edge of the peninsula and continue for about three quarters of a mile down the shore.

Brian L. Coxx, a local photographer and longtime Evanston resident, was so moved by this tradition that he cultivated a photo collection with the main focus being the art on the rocks. Almost every day for a full year, Coxx went down to Northwestern and photographed the rocks. He created ‘NU Rock Art: Imprinted On This Rock Forever In Love’, a book with over 100 photos of the rocks, captured throughout every season. Whether they were covered in snow or surrounded by budding plants, Coxx was determined to capture the rocks in full, for people to understand the beauty he saw in them.

They’re so beautiful. I just hope people who look at [the rocks] come away with a positive feeling. I hope people will look at [them] and know that most of this is straight from the heart.”

— Brian L. Coxx, a local photographer and longtime Evanston resident

“I had been walking or riding my bike [along the shore] for many years, [and] I noticed what the paintings were and what the messages were,” Coxx says. “I thought it was a really cool thing that people would go [paint] on their own initiative. This isn’t sponsored; this is people that took their time and went out to Home Depot, [and] got some paint [and] brushes.”

Recognizing that this was a tradition most well-known by Evanston residents and Northwestern students, Coxx hoped his collection would reach people outside of the city, and influence them in a similar manner.

“I [thought] it’d be fun to celebrate this [by] cataloging it and putting it on the internet for people to look at. Hopefully it’ll do for them what it did for me — cheer [them] up,” Coxx says.

Coxx summarizes his feelings towards the rocks with a simple statement; he believes that they bring a positive vibe to the campus overall.

“They’re so beautiful,” he says. “I just hope people who look at [the rocks] come away with a positive feeling. I hope people will look at [them] and know that most of this is straight from the heart.”

Further from the shore lies another crucial aspect of this rock painting tradition: what is dubbed ‘The Rock’, with its own similar, yet separate custom. According to the podcast episode “NU Declassified: A Brief History on The Rock,” ‘The Rock’ was originally a fountain gifted to the school by the class of 1902. Only now has it taken on a rock-like form after decades of being painted by the students. With the fountain stopping its function decades ago, it has since become a staple on campus, painted nearly every night by one group of students or another.

The tradition itself is simple in theory: you must guard the rock for 24 hours before painting it, to prevent anyone else from coming and trying to paint something of their own before it is unveiled the next morning.

It was a social bonding tradition. I have stories of it being winter time and it was 20 degrees and [I’d go] with [my] fraternity brothers and other friends—two people would stand by the rock, guarding [the whole night].”

— Alum Jay Kumar

“[Painting] ‘The Rock’ was probably the most fun and the most coveted activity. For that one day, your group got spotlighted. Whoever got to paint the rock got recognition for whatever they [painted],” says alum Jay Kumar, from the class of ‘88. A political science and linguistics double major, he was also a part of a fraternity that painted ‘The Rock’ several times a year. Alongside his fraternity brothers and any other friends who tagged along, they would advertise for forthcoming events.

“There was a competition every night [between] different groups–fraternities, sororities–to paint ‘The Rock’. The big thing was, ‘what’s ‘The Rock’ going to [look like in] the morning?” He says. “[But] It was a social bonding tradition. I have stories of it being winter time and it was 20 degrees and [I’d go] with [my] fraternity brothers and other friends—two people would stand by the rock, guarding [the whole night].”

Though ‘The Rock’ is often used, as Kumar said, as a spotlight for campus affairs, it also serves as a means of protest, or a way for light to be shed on critical issues. As of Saturday, Oct. 7, The Rock bore the Armenian flag, as well as a message across the low wall in front of The Rock: 120,000 Armenian Refugees! End The Cycle Of Genocide! Similar messages have also been displayed in the past—for Pride Month, for Black Lives Matter, and countless other movements as a way of shedding light on such issues through art.

“I think [the rocks] are a really cool way for the people to express themselves, for past and future students,” ETHS junior Sophia Kiedrowski comments. “I think they’re a really great addition to the lakefront and I have [a lot of] fond memories of going there as a kid.”

Between ‘The Rock’ and the ones that line the shore, all sorts of tributes are created for the students of Northwestern and citizens of Evanston. One rock is a moment of memorial for a friend who passed, a student gone too soon. Another is the rendition of a screenshot of cheeky group chat messages, seemingly insignificant texts to just anyone passing by but important enough to be painted. Between the graffiti and several detailed portraits of Winnie the Pooh, there are a variety of hearts, in all different colors, and an arrangement of inspiring quotes.

Kumar can attest to this. “It’s one of those really interesting things about Northwestern, and [painting the rocks have] become a cherished memory,” he says.

Through these rock painting customs that Northwestern students—and anyone who visits the campus—have come to know, the school is able to offer a creative space for people to express themselves. Anyone who chooses is able to leave a lasting mark on Northwestern’s campus for any future citizens to appreciate and derive inspiration from; whether that be in the form of photographing the rocks, or finding the encouragement needed to go and buy some paint to decorate one of their own.

Jessie O’koon
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About the Contributor
Jessie O’koon
Jessie O’koon, Artist
Hi! My name is Jessie O’Koon (she/her). I’m a sophmore, and I create art for The Evanstonian. I am excited to get involved in The Evanstonian as a way to further develop my artistic interests and meet new people. At ETHS, I am in the dance company. Outside of school, I enjoy dancing at my studio, drawing, painting, playing with my dog, and rooting for my favorite sports teams.
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