In describing the “slice of life” that became his artwork, “Pet Rock,” then-MFA candidate Jon Anthony characterized it as sort of like a core sample. “Not from the center, because I thought it would be obtrusive and, also, that’s where everyone really glops it on. It was really just from the side of “The Rock.”
“The idea started from my pulling graffiti off of a bridge, because I was interested in that build-up. And I was kind of interested in the idea of vandalizing vandalism. I was actually ripping the spray paint off of the wall, and getting chance composition.
Jon says, in a way, he was “working in the mode of John Cage,” who has been his hero. Cage was an avant-garde composer, a sort of Renaissance man. He had his hand in a lot of things; visual arts and auditory and writing. Anthony says that Cage was active in the 1940s and worked until his death in 1992.
“He stuck with it, and had real conviction in what he did. I guess to put it simply: in just chance composition. And that’s something I find is a recurring theme in all my work. I don’t really use chance in the same way, but there’s a mark now; an artist’s mark is visible in a lot of pieces.
“But I think the most attractive thing to me is that sense of removal in a piece. I’m a pretty anxious person, and I’m always concerned about being authentic in a way that I don’t want to push anything or try to make something that is not.
“With ‘Pet Rock,’ I was concerned about people being offended, maybe more than I should have been, just because the whole idea of ‘The Rock’ is this sacred soapbox that people guard.”
So, after getting permission from the group that had just painted it to cut into the left side front of “The Rock,” Anthony went to work.
“First, I chiseled it, and, then, refined it with a very sharp miter. It was difficult to get perfectly straight. If you’ll notice, there’s actually a little bit of a bow, so the actual piece sort of chops off a bit of the foot. But I think the hardest part was scaling it up, projecting it on the wall, and actually painting it.
“On the removal, I thought ‘I don’t know what this cross section is going to look like. And I’m going to try and index it as objectively as possible.’ Which was fairly difficult, especially with the very thin areas.”
As for how many years the “Pet Rock” biopsy represents, Jon says it’s impossible to be certain for a variety of reasons.
“Supposedly, they started painting it for war protests during the Viet Nam war. And MSU cleaned it at least a couple of times when it was located by Beaumont Tower.
“But, apparently, it cost around $500 each time they stripped the paint. So, when they transferred ‘The Rock’ over by the Auditorium, I think they thought of the students, ‘Just don’t get too crazy.’
“As for me, in the beginning, I wanted to explore how something born out of vandalism could become iconic. After all, originally, it was an icon itself. And it has an inscription on it, but most people don’t know that. The class of 1873 donated it, and it stayed like it was for about 100 years before people began painting it.
“I think of that and I’m a little sad that’s lost. But when you lose something, sometimes you gain something. Now, if someone wanted to strip the paint off, people would probably be irate, because that’s their new icon. So, as I was working on it, the name ‘Pet Rock’ came to mind for the title of my painting.
“Initially, I got interested in this sort of group ritual that people have; and just that all these people think they have something to say. I mean they feel strongly enough about something that they’re going to paint a rock and sleep by it and protect it all night. I just thought that was really interesting, especially in this age of apathy.
“I think on most nights it’s a club, or a fraternity or sorority. And sometimes, when the weather is really nice, they’ll be at it almost every night depending on what’s going on in the week. It’s pretty fantastic.
“So, I was interested in taking all those people’s passions and literally flipping them on their side, and neutralizing them; in a way that they’re somewhat representative, but ambiguous. We know that these were messages and were important to people. But flipping them on their side, you kind of take that away.
“It just becomes an aesthetic object. So I was interested in not just removal from myself, but removal for others.”
Department of Art, Art History, and Design faculty Robert McCann, Teresa Dunn and Tom Berding made up Anthony’s thesis committee, and he says their input, ultimately, helped him a great deal as he worked on the project.
“They do want you to ‘do what you want to do,’ but it can be frustrating as they pull you in various directions. In the end, I think they just want you to stop spinning, and have conviction about what you’re doing.
“I told them about ‘Pet Rock,’ and what I had planned. And I thought a lot about it in the summer. I began to paint it over a couple weeks just before class started. And by chance or cruel fate, randomly selected, I was chosen to go first. That meant a lot of all-nighters to be ready, but I got it done.
“Just on aesthetic grounds, I’m interested in layering. And I’m interested in random color interactions. Which was kind of beautiful with ‘The Rock,’ in that I’m not picking any of the colors, and it’s kind of interesting to observe what color will come after the next or be sandwiched by certain colors.
“Because, people don’t care what color was on the night before. They don’t say, ‘Oh, I think I’ll pick an analogous color to go over that one.’ So, in a way, there’s that removal of color choice.”
As for Jon’s time at MSU, he says he was undecided what he wanted to be and do for a long time. He thought he might become a lab technician, at one time, and says that was on again, off again.
“It took me awhile to come to art. My first interest was electronic imaging. But, I was always scared of painting, so I took a painting class because of that, and loved it. In fact, I loved it so much I switched my major that semester before I even finished the painting class, and graduated in 2009 with a BFA.” (Anthony went on to earn his MFA in 2012.)
After initially being installed in the entrance hall of Kresge Art Center, today, Jon Anthony’s “Pet Rock” has a home in the new Wells Hall Addition in the main first-floor corridor that connects the new addition to Wings A and C. A description that Jon prepared to accompany the piece reads:
This painting is a cross-section, sourced from a biopsy of The Rock on campus. It shows a history from the last time it was cleaned, circa late 1960s-early 1970s, to now. Originally inscribed as a gift from the class of 1873, this rock was subjected to repeated graffiti for anti-war protests. After several expensive cleanings, it was moved from the Beaumont Tower area of campus to its current location along Farm Lane, and left to face its fate as the local soapbox. About 45 years later, it has transitioned from a vandalized icon into a new icon, born of vandalism. A new tradition consumes the old and, now, it would be heresy to bring harm to the communal paint buildup of The Rock. Today, The Rock stands as a billboard for any person or group wishing to advocate anything important enough to sleep outdoors next to the painted rock. By taking all of these passions and flipping them on their side, what we are left with is an aesthetic object devoid of any one specific message or emotional content—a painting of paint. Although it’s easy to enjoy an object at face value, many facets remain to be pondered: such as ritualistic group activity, ethics involved, how objects are given power, embedded histories, color usage, oblivious collaborators, passionate youth despite our age of apathy, etc. And you, gentle viewer, where are you in this ball of wax? Or, maybe it’s a pearl.
Master of Fine Arts Candidate, 2012
Asked to name three monuments that are a staple of Michigan State’s culture, most students and alumni would respond with the Sparty statue, Beaumont Tower, and The Rock. Painted at least every other day with messages ranging from “I Love You” to information about a campus event, the Rock has become MSU’s tangible Twitter. Its history, however, is unknown to most.
The Rock was, in fact, a gift of the class of 1873. The graduating class wanted to leave its legacy on campus and began the excavation of an 18,000-year-old pudding stone that was left behind as glacial evidence. This enormous stone was located in the current Beal Botanical Garden. The students spent the majority of the afternoon digging up the stone and then moving it using a team of 20 oxen to a spot north of the MSU Museum in the “Sacred Space” near Beaumont Tower. Soon after, it was inscribed Class ’73.
There it stood for more than 100 years. Over time, it acquired the name “Engagement Rock,” for many proposals took place there. In the 1960s, students began to use the rock for other purposes. Controversial messages began to appear on The Rock.
The University would bi-annually sandblast The Rock to remove graffiti, but the $300-500 per sandblasting cost eventually proved too steep. The Rock became a permanent graffiti message board. In 1986, it was moved to its current location on Farm Lane near the Auditorium, where it has come to represent freedom of speech. Students camp out to paint it and eyes turn daily to see its message.
The Rock can be painted on by anyone, and is used for anything from birthday wishes and marriage proposals to political statements. The Rock is also a hot target for rival universities to paint. As a result, during football and basketball season MSU students often camp next to The Rock to guard and protect it.
Perhaps the most poignant moment in the history of The Rock occurred on the evening of September 11, 2001. Within hours of the 9/11 attacks, virtually every activist group on campus, along with University administration, had organized an impromptu candlelight vigil along the riverbank next to The Rock. The Rock was painted green and white with the words “MSU students in remembrance and reflection” on the front, and a U.S. flag on the back. Several thousand students attended. In a break from normal rock-painting etiquette, the University asked all campus groups to abstain from repainting the Rock for one week.
The evolution of what The Rock has come to symbolize on campus probably would have astounded the graduating class of 1873. What will it stand for in the future? Only time will tell.