Paint, passion and teaching
Rock painting preserves school pride, but not the planet.
by Julian Burrell
photography by Katherine Careaga
Nearly a hundred students are gathered around the rock in front of Founders Hall. Some are watching, some are taking turns painting the letters of their Greek organization. The iconic school rock is front and center on the lawn, 30 feet from the University president’s office window. The prominent boulder is a landmark, a celebrity stone. To paint it is an important student tradition. Caiti Helsper, new member of Phi Sigma Sigma sorority, holds that feeling as she puts the last yellow touches on the “S” in Sigma. There is pride all around. The decorated rock will bring distinction to the Phi Sigs all day. From behind, a tall bespectacled man in a white lab coat walks by the gathered student group. With brushes still in hand, they are laughing and beaming over the painting. As he draws near, Helsper and her fellow students are not aware of him shaking his head, but they do hear the quiet voice. “Forgive them, for they know not what they do.”
Meet Jay Jones: environmentalist, biologist and lead environmental apologist for the University of La Verne. Jay’s voice and views on harming the biosphere are constantly heard on campus even if his advice is not uniformly heeded. For Jones, Ph.D., and professor of biology and biochemistry, one of the oldest of University traditions is also one of the greatest environmental sins that happens on campus.
“I remember during rock paintings while pledging [Sigma Alpha Epsilon], I was always wondering whether Jay was going to come out of Founders and tell me about how painting the rock was wrong,” says junior radio broadcasting major Patrick Rodriguez. “I know how he is with his environmental views, and I know the rock goes against a lot of them.” Indeed, Jones considers himself a purveyor of environmentalism and believes the University needs to drastically reduce its environmental footprint. Practices to help ease planetary harm, according to Jones, include “carrying your own forks with you and not using plastic plates and cups, like we do in faculty meetings, which shows either ignorance or disregard.” For Jones, the rock is his ecological teaching platform for students. There is an iconic nature in the rock that drives him and his message. “The rock is an environmental hazard at this University,” Jones explains. “It’s one of those small things that we can cut back on without compromising the quality of life.”
For more than 60 years, students have gathered at the rock to paint it. It is a place to announce celebrations, to promote organizations. Past generations remember it as a place of graffiti. Sometimes it was painted and repainted by competing organizations several times before the sun came up. Students in those days guarded the rock all night to ensure their message would still remain in the morning. Now there is a reservation form that puts organizations in queue to ensure their messages are correct and visible for a scheduled number of days. Message pranking is against student life policy. These days, rock painting is a privilege, with rule breakers losing their right to take part in the campus tradition. “It’s something that’s exclusive to our University. It’s one of the first things that you learn about when you come to La Verne. Everyone takes part in rock paintings at one point or another,” says junior Shelby Griffin, history major and vice president of Iota Delta Sorority. “For Greeks, the rock is our thing. I’ve had so many great memories with my sisters at rock paintings. Taking part in such a great tradition is special,” she says.
This University tradition has been long-standing, much to the displeasure of Professor Jones. For at least 20 years, by his count, he has adamantly opposed rock painting for fear that the paint was dripping into the soil and polluting the earth. Jones’ feelings were spurred 15 years ago when one of his students analyzed a soil sample surrounding the base of the rock. “The soil was extremely toxic with things like chromium and lead. [The findings] filtered through the community, and the response was to put an apron around it,” he says. The University of La Verne paid for the three-foot cement apron that circles the rock. “To me that shows a lack of critical thinking,” says Jones. “A catchment would have been the appropriate thing to do. It should come out and have walls. That way, any of the leaching could have been collected and disposed of as hazardous waste. But that’s not what they did. They put a sloping apron around that thing. I mean, come on.”
Where Professor Jones sees an environmental hazard, students see a symbol of their involvement and dedication. “The rock was where I got to meet so many people for the first time at the school,” says freshman international business major Candy Monterroso and I Delt member. “It’s just so happy. Every time there’s a rock painting, I just want to go and meet people who share a lot of the same things that I like.” Jones is not ignorant to the sense of painting pride felt by La Verne students. “Tradition is very important. That kind of activity is of great importance.” Nevertheless, he feels that the University should give up the tradition in order to make up for damage that he believes the rock has caused. “The traditions that an institution chooses say a lot about the institution,” explains Jones. “We should be transforming this practice into something much more constructive and congruent with the University’s values instead of the equivalent of scent marking. [Painting the rock is] kind of a like a coyote pissing on a bush,” Jones laughs.
He has reduced the effects of rock paintings to specific analysis using his scientific genius. Inside his office, amongst a multitude of microscopes and test beakers, are peeled layers of paint and core samples from the rock. “This one is from about a year and a half ago, so it’s probably gotten much larger by now—probably about twice as thick,” Jones says, holding up a roughly two and a half inch tall pile of circular paint layers held together with scotch tape. Each quarter-sized circular paint disc of paint displays a variety of colors, symbolic of the hundreds of unique rock paintings through the years. Jones frequently takes these rock core samples, extracting them with a tool similar to a cork opener. The device is held up to the side of the rock and twisted until it has reached through all the paint layers to the solid rock surface. He keeps these in his office, ready to display to all who ask. “It’s just to show people and inform them. I really don’t think they understand the damage the paint is doing,” says Jones.
“I just don’t understand why the rock is so important to Jay Jones,” says junior Chelsea Morin, international business major and I Delt member. “It’s not like there aren’t other environmental hazards on campus. I just don’t understand why that’s not the bigger issue.” Jones insists that painting the rock, as a school-sponsored tradition, is the most glaring flaw in the University’s green movement. “The importance of the rock is really its iconic role with regard to the University of La Verne. In some ways, it’s sort of like the Confederate flag. If you’re going to be sensitive about things, you don’t fly the Confederate flag. You don’t honor things that you know are not consistent with your values, and painting the rock is not consistent with our values as an institution.”
Some students have a different view. “This rock painting process honestly has so many more positive aspects to it than negatives. Honestly, it probably does hurt our environment, but it’s for a greater cause,” says junior Evelyn Bobbitt, biology major and I Delt member. “There are a lot of places in the world where the environment is destroyed for other reasons. The concern should be getting the larger sources of damage to our environment stopped. [The rock] is where a lot of development happens and where a lot of connections are made. Really, it’s a tradition that cannot be replaced.” Adds sophomore Jose Serra, SAE member, “It may be damaging to this small piece of land around it, but with all the fun that it brings, is it really worth that much concern?”
Answers Jones: “For the few of us who are really aware of the environmental, it’s a source of pain. If you love this institution, and you really resonate with all of its values, having the image of this institution tied to something like that is painful.” He believes that there are other alternative traditions that could be started, including painting a house for the nonprofit organization Habitat for Humanity or having all of the organizations tend a garden. “The rock shouldn’t be removed,” says Jones. “It should be preserved and perhaps be painted one last time with a clear message: ‘The University of La Verne has moved on to things that are more appropriate for the times.’”
For now, the rock continues to be painted and serves as a place of information and celebration. For Jay Jones, it is a constant nuisance. “I really wonder what he wants to say to me if I ever happen to be painting the rock as he’s walking by,” Serra says. The answer is known by some. “To students that I’ve talked to that I think understand the situation, I’ll just say, ‘You know better than this!’” Jones says. “But for the most part, I’ll just say, ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.’”