Painted Rock, October, 2002.
Photo courtesy of the Block Island Times.

The paintball with the crunchy rock center!

Corner of Mohegan Trail, Lakeside Drive, and Snake Hole Road, Block Island

Humans love to leave their mark. Graffiti is found everywhere from the caves of Lascaux, France, to the tombs of the Egyptian pharaohs; from colonial New England slave quarters to the desk of every high school student in the world. And since the invention of spray paint, hardly a surface on the planet has been safe from the impulse of self-expression. Sometimes the results are viewed as art, sometimes as important historical documents. But most of the time they're decried as an ugly disfigurement of public and private property.

Just ask ex-Providence Mayor Joseph A. Doorley, Jr. Back in 1987, he had to contend with a boulder in his South Kingstown front yard that was regularly adorned with profane words—"the work of infantile minds," he told the Providence Journal. He eventually solved the problem by having the 10-by-8-foot stone buried under his lawn.

So how did Block Island's painted rock get to be so beloved?

The rock in question is located at the corner of Mohegan Trail and Lakeside Drive on the southern end of Block Island. Knee-high and measuring approximately three by two feet around, it's an otherwise unassuming hunk of material. But those who pass by can't help but notice it; and those who have seen it more than once make a point of noticing it ever after. That's because they never know what color it will be… or what it will say. It's been painted more than 400 times since 1962, and it continues to change its appearance about once a week during good weather.

Every super-hero has his origin story

"Who performs these acts of serial vandalism?" you may well ask. "How did it start? And why hasn't someone put a stop to it?"

For many years the second question was asked in vain, but in October 2000 the culprits came clean in a letter to the Block Island Times. In it, islander Wendy Northup revealed the origin of Block Island's premiere art spot: "The first time the rock was painted was on Halloween night, October 1962. It was done by myself and my boyfriend, who is now my husband of 35 years."

The island is very quiet in the off-season, and that Halloween Wendy and Eddie were bored. They had both graduated from Block Island High School—Eddie in '61 and Wendy in '62—and Wendy had put off going to college to help her parents in their restaurant, Red's Lunch (now the Mohegan Cafe). The most obvious Halloween prank, dressing the statue of Rebecca at the Well in unflattering clothing, seemed banal in its obviousness. According to Eddie, it was Wendy who thought of a better idea.

The young couple went to the upstairs workshop of Red's Lunch, which at the time doubled as the island's hardware store, and collected several leftover cans of paint. Thus provisioned, they made their way under cover of darkness to the corner of Mohegan Trail and Lakeside Drive. There they hastily slathered a defenseless boulder with sloppy rainbow-colored stripes. "We certainly did it in a hurry for fear of a car coming or Arthur Rose, the town sheriff, showing up!" wrote Wendy.

Satisfied with their handiwork, Wendy and Eddie kept their crime pretty much between themselves. Wendy thinks she may have confided her secret to her mother and step-father. In any case, she soon left the island to attend college on the mainland, far from angry, painted-rock-hating neighbors.

Except that there apparently were no angry, painted-rock-hating neighbors. "No one complained," Wendy told us when we called to follow up on the Times article. "No complaints," she emphasized cheerfully. Surely there should have been annoyed letters to the island newspaper, calls for an investigation. Perhaps some civic-minded person could have been moved to cover up the garish designs with sensible white paint, to discourage such flagrant disregard for public property. But no, islanders didn't seem to mind. In fact, many may have even liked the rock better after its make-over.

According to Wendy, even the sheriff has a sense of humor about it. "Arthur Rose was the sheriff then—Bo Rose… he's still on Block Island. And he laughs about it now…."

A door opens upon a small world of artistic expression

At least one islander was turned on early to the possibilities of the new fresh-air art gallery. The summer after that first coating, architect Charlie Koulbanis got into the act. A native of Westerly who divided his time between his office in New York City and a seasonal residence on the island, he remembers covering up a motif of orange and white stripes with one of his own creations "around 1962." (More likely the summer of 1963, according to Wendy Northup). He continued to paint the rock periodically for years afterward, "probably about a couple dozen times," he thinks, "until everyone else took over."

Koulbanis recalls that the rock originally bore a marker for the United States Geodetic Survey, "inscribed with the elevation of 130-plus feet above sea level. I used to teach celestial navigation in New York City. Sailing friends would take 'sights' from my house on Block Island and used the marker to determine 'height above sea-level.'"

During the 1970s another island resident, Pat Tanucci, took photographs of the rock's changing face every week, amassing an impressive collection. Unfortunately, when we contacted her, she told us she had had second thoughts about their utility and had thrown them all out. Block Island culture is poorer for their loss.

The painting has continued to the present day and is now carried out by a wide variety of wannabe artistes, both island residents and summer people. Understandably, the rock changes colors more frequently in the summer, when the island's population swells from about 900 to about 15,000. Originally most of the painting was done at night, but that's rarely the case anymore as the shifting appearance of the rock has become an established island tradition.

John and Sandra Hopf live in the house closest to Painted Rock, so they're often the first to see its new faces. Although they've only lived there since 1996, they already feel a kind of proprietary responsibility for the rock. They sometimes revise or replace particularly "unfortunate" designs, and they've even been known to hand out cans of spray paint to kids who look like they're jonesing for a fix of artistic expression. The rock is such an unmistakable landmark that their answering machine message proclaims, "Hi, you've reached the Hopfs at Painted Rock on Block Island!" They also own a cabin cruiser named after the enameled mineral.

Painted Rock has sported memorial wishes, happy birthday messages, anniversary notes, sports-related rah-rah, or just plain "Hello." For a visit to the island by President Clinton in 1997, the rock begged, "Mr. President, Keep B.I. Green!" Other messages have included "Dot.com this," and "Bye-bye," which is a sentiment that is often found on the rock at the end of the summer season. Within hours of the events of September 11, 2001, the rock reflected the mood of the country with the date painted in white over a black background. A week later the somber message was replaced by a stylized American flag. A September 2002 message, "Thelma Forever!," celebrated the 80th birthday of life-long Block Islander Thelma Fay, who had died July 21.

An ill-advised color scheme

We asked Charlie Koulbanis if he had ever encountered anyone who didn't like Painted Rock. He offered the following story:

One time when arriving at my home on the island, I noticed some very talented artist had painted an exceptionally beautiful design on the rock. I was very pleased. It was late evening or dusk, so I decided that first thing in the morning I would take photos of it. Unfortunately, some vandals splattered black paint all over and ruined it. Other than that incident, as far as I know everyone did appreciate and enjoy it. The fact that others took it upon themselves to continue to have fun and paint it themselves is a good indication that it was appreciated and liked. When I painted the rock, I would always receive many favorable compliments.

As a sidenote to the above incident, Mr. Koulbanis added that, "One evening when I was visiting one of the local 'gin mills,' some young punk bragged how he had painted the rock black! I reminded him that I am an off-islander and can only see the rock on weekends or short visits, however, 'You live on the island all year long and have to look at it all year long!' One dark night or two later a car drove into the black rock. Down deep in my heart I always hoped he was the one that drove into the rock!"

How many licks does it take to get to the crunchy rock center of Painted Rock?

So many years of paint being applied—latex, acrylic, even oil paint; brushed, sprayed, and rolled on like the layers of a pearl—raises the question: just how thick is that paint, anyway? Many have wondered, but few have acted. In September 2000 one measurement was taken that showed the surface of the rock to be hidden under an inch-and-a-quarter of solid paint (no mention was made of which side was measured, though). Two years later, a group of summer kids went one further—they hammered a No. 12 common nail into five points on the rock and came up with the following numbers…

East and south sides, 114 1/4 64 inches
North and west sides, 140 1/4 64 inches
Top, 158 1/4 64 inches

No, those numbers don't make sense to us either, but that's exactly what was printed in the Times article. Filled with an irresistible yearning to know the truth, we did our own measuring on a visit to the island in early May 2003. We also used the common nail method and found the thickness of the paint to be as follows…

Top, .75 inches
North and south sides, 1 inch
West side, 1.125 inches
East side, 2.125 inches

It was estimated at the time of the September 2000 measurement that each paint layer was about .003 inches thick, for a total of 417 layers. If that estimation can be trusted, then the east side of the rock, the side that is usually adorned with messages, is made up of 708 individual layers.

At the present rate of accretion, we estimate that Painted Rock will fill the entire intersection in a mere…4,292 years.

Update

The engulfment of the intersection of Mohegan Trail, Lakeside Drive, and Snake Hole Road may have to wait a few extra years. Sometime on the night of August 3-4, 2006, persons unknown (possibly fueled by one too many brewskies), expressed themselves at Painted Rock in a less-than-polite manner. In addition to spray painting graffiti around the intersection, they chipped and stripped much of the accreted paint from Painted Rock, peeling back the layers like those of an onion.

Former Block Island Times editor Bruce Montgomery, arriving at the scene at 7am on the 4th, found the landmark's top and sides denuded, a ragged ring of paint layers still attached around the bottom. Shards and flaps of paint were strewn around. Montgomery told us later that he believed the layers at the bottom were at least six inches thick, and he sent us a photo with a dollar bill for scale to prove it. The rock itself, he thought, without its clothes on, was about a foot smaller in diameter.

Throughout the morning a shifting crowd of passersby, would-be-painters, police, and even Wendy Northup, stopped by to survey the destruction. A couple from Huntington, New York, who came by with the intention of commemorating their son's eighteenth birthday in paint, were shocked and saddened to see the treatment the rock had received. But they were able to overcome their dismay enough to be the first to begin the process of bringing Painted Rock back to its former glory. Over the next few days the rock was painted at least four more times.

Local authorities weren't able to offer much in the way of resolution. In the August 12 issue of the Block Island Times, the Police Log noted that Police Chief Vin "Carlone said that a group of kids had been seen near the rock at 11:30pm the night before, and that phone numbers painted on the ground nearby did not lead anywhere. Upsetting as the defacing of the rock was for many, Carlone said stripping it of paint was not a crime."

The stripping of Painted Rock had at least one positive result, that of resolving a minor mystery. Before it was painted again, Bruce Montgomery was able to snap a picture showing that, indeed, as Charlie Koulbanis had claimed, there was a geodetic survey marker embedded in the top of the rock. Unfortunately, the elevation was still unreadable. According to the National Geodetic Survey website, this marker is no longer even listed, but the nearest marker, "Barlow's House Cupola," is listed with a height above sea level of 331 feet.

Although it's being painted more often now than it was during its early days in the 1960s and '70s, it may still be some time before Painted Rock assumes its familiar dimensions. So if youíre planning a trip to Block Island, donít forget your paint brush!

Be Interactive!

Do you have a photograph of one of Painted Rock's many guises? Why not contribute it to our slideshow? Please send all submissions to stuffie@quahog.org. Don't forget to include your name, town, and state! Don't have a digital copy? Just contact us at the same address and we'll arrange to receive it through snail mail. All originals will be returned.

Painted Rock Gallery

View all the photos in Quahog's Painted Rock Gallery on Facebook.

Information

Cost: free

Time required: allow approximately 30 seconds, longer if you want to lick it

Hours: open year round, dawn to dusk.

Finding it: travel south from Old Harbor on Spring Street, which becomes the Mohegan Trail; pass the Southeast Lighthouse and Mohegan Bluffs on your left, and continue straight along the south coast of Block Island to a sharp right-hand turn at the intersection of Mohegan Trail, Lakeside Drive, and Snake Hole Road; Painted Rock is here.

What’s nearby

Distances between points are actual distances, without regard to buildings or icky penguins. Your travel distance will be longer.

This article last edited September 7, 2010

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