Evanston photographer documents lakeshore rock art

Rebecca Cohen

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By photographer Brian Cox’s estimate, the decorated rocks on Northwestern’s Lakefill include six or seven languages, a half-dozen marriage proposals and countless painted hearts.

“I’d love to have a dollar for every time I saw the word love,” Cox said.

Cox knows the themes of the rock paintings better than most Evanston residents. For an entire year, in rain, fog and snow and at all hours of the day, he photographed the artwork. The resulting images are collected in his book “Imprinted on This Rock Forever in Love,” which he published in 2009 and updated two months ago.

The idea for the project came to the Evanston resident of 20 years as he biked along the lakefront several years ago, Cox said. The overwhelmingly optimistic messages of the paintings reaffirmed his faith in human nature.

“Are you going to write, ‘Blah blah blah this life sucks,’ or are you going to write, ‘Thanks to my friends’?” Cox said. “I saw some that said, ‘F you,’ but that was 2 or 3 percent.”

Though town-gown relations in Evanston are not always smooth, the rocks’ positivity shows that NU students appreciate the city, Cox said. He hopes his book will expose the artwork to a wider group of Evanston residents, many of whom remain unfamiliar with it, he said.

First-year graduate student Alex Albanese, who was eating pizza on the Lakefill on Wednesday, said he thought the rocks indicated NU students enjoyed their years at Northwestern.

“I wonder where, if you’re a new student, you can find a rock to paint on,” Albanese said.

Jens Notstad, who graduated from McCormick in 2009 and now works for NU, said the paintings seemed like a blemish on the landscape when he arrived in Evanston, but they have grown on him.

“They add an element of uniqueness to the Lakefill and the university,” Notstad said.

The rocks reward in-depth examination, Cox said. His usual routine when photographing them was to start at the top level and work his way down to the water. He made some of his favorite discoveries there, including a life-size mermaid with an Afro chiseled into one rock.

Picking an absolute favorite would be impossible, Cox said.

“It’s kind of like what’s your favorite Beatles song,” Cox said. “It would change every time I went out to shoot.”

“Imprinted on This Rock Forever in Love” conveys the creativity of the Lakefill artwork, said Charles Depondt, assistant manager of the Norris Bookstore, where the book is available for purchase. When Cox walked into the store and suggested Depondt sell the book, Depondt said he immediately warmed to the idea.

“I just loved the pictures,” Depondt said. “It’s a beautiful way of showing the lakefront.”

The book has sold well, especially during Wildcat Welcome Week, Depondt said.

To go with the new edition of the book, Cox created a website, nurockart.com. It includes a section in which people who painted the rocks in the photos can identify themselves. Although Cox said he has yet to hear from any of the artists, he hopes some will step forward in months to come.

“It’s the NU students who get all the credit,” Cox said.