Artistry with painted rocks

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 5, 2006

By Ed Shannon, staff writer

Rocks of various sizes can by arranged in many designs and painted to add special touches to landscape projects, borders and even for advertising purposes. And here in Albert Lea there have been at least two examples for this last part. One is from the past, and another arrangement of rocks in two colors is now a part of the city&8217;s scenery.

About eight decades ago a design based on rocks painted white was part of the property of the Albert Lea Packing Co. This firm was selling some of its meat products with the brand name of Cream. However, this was a label more closely associated with the products of the dairy industry. Maybe the intention was to exploit the old &8220;cream of the crop&8221; saying. In time, the Albert Lea Packing Co. became a part of Wilson & Co. and other more appropriate brand names replaced the Cream label and the design in white rocks.

The present local example of using art with painted rocks for advertising purposes is in front of Applebee&8217;s Neighborhood Grill and Bar, 2740 N. Bridge Ave. This eating establishment is five years old. The name of Applebee&8217;s and the red apple emblem or trademark design outlined with rocks on the slight slope between the front of the building and Bridge Avenue is two years old. This unusual design embedded in the lawn can be mowed over and even touched up with a weed whacker. An interesting detail on the red apple is the small white highlight or accent which reflects the same design on the firm&8217;s main sign. This artwork with rocks on the lawn is reportedly the only one of its type in the Applebee&8217;s chain.

For area residents who go West or to the Southwest for vacations or winter breaks, there&8217;s another way to enjoy seeing this phenomenon of artistry with painted rocks.

In many Western localities with a high school or college, the availability of a nearby undeveloped, treeless and fairly steep slope on a mountain or foothill has proven to be a challenge to students. Sometime in the past they have gone to an easily visible place overlooking the community and created a large letter with concrete or painted rocks. As a result, there are now nearly 260 of these distinctive monograms on mountains all over the West.

This practice probably started in 1905 when a group of students at the University of California, Berkeley, constructed a 70-foot “C” on a slope overlooking the campus and city. This cute and constructive caper soon spread to other localities with handy hillsides.

A map

the January 1989 issue of Atlantic Monthly magazine indicates the nearest hillside letters to this area are located above Zap and Kenmare, N.D., and Rapid City and Spearfish, S.D. The first two are high school creations, and the South Dakota versions are associated with colleges.

Some of the institutions of higher learning with nearby hillside letters mentioned the Atlantic Monthly article include: University of Texas-El Paso, University of New Mexico, California Lutheran College, Whittier College, University of Nevada-Reno, Idaho State University-Pocatello, University of Wyoming, Carroll College (Helena, Mont.), Montana College of Mineral Science and Technology in Butte, Western State College (Gunnison, Colo.), and one of the newer creations for the Oregon Institute of Technology above Klamath Falls.

The best known, and most over-publicized, set of hillside letters in the nation is a series of nine billboards located on a slope above the Hollywood area of Los Angeles. However, this is a chamber of commerce promotion and doesn’t quite meet the standards for student creations found elsewhere in the West.

There may be a lack of hillsides for many Midwest communities to decorate with painted rocks. However, the names of communities and pertinent designs can be painted on the sides of water towers. A prime example can be seen with the name of Albert Lea and the three-color city logo on two sides of the water tower near Home Depot.