Tradition lives on through Spirit Rock

East Campus landmark celebrates 10 years at JMU


SUMMARY: Painting and decorating the Spirit Rock has been a beloved tradition at JMU for 10 years now.

By Jessica Nickels, editorial assistant

As you walk through East Campus, what catches your eye? The breathtaking view of the mountains? The notable glass walls of the surrounding science buildings? If anything, the large, brightly painted rock in the middle of the Festival Lawn should command your attention.

Ten years ago, on March 16, 2011—James Madison’s birthday—the Spirit Rock was unveiled to the JMU community. The rock stands to represent the JMU community’s diverse thoughts and allows for students to express themselves.

“The Spirit Rock serves as a notice to all students that JMU is open and accepting of creativity,” senior graphic design major Carly Chisholm said. 

The Spirit Rock on the day of its unveiling in 2011. 

As the University Park fields were being constructed in 2010, large chunks of rock were unearthed. A newly formed group, The Madison Society, was able to secure a rock big enough for its plan: to create a place at JMU where students could creatively, respectfully and artfully express their ideas.

The Madison Society is comprised of students, faculty and staff who are committed to creating, enhancing and commemorating positive traditions at JMU.

Erecting the Spirit Rock was the society’s first project. The group’s 15 members wanted to implement something that represented culture, creativity, diversity and freedom of speech. A large, paintable rock met those criteria.

Students were eager to be the first people to paint the rock. 

On the day of its unveiling, students gathered around a large box on the Festival Lawn. Nervous energy, coupled with excitement for what could be underneath, grew throughout the crowd.

At the time of its reveal, the rock was painted white, and students were encouraged to be the first people to place their handprints and signatures on the rock. Little did they know that they were marking the beginning of a JMU tradition, one that has since seen more than 700 layers of paint.

Since its unveiling in 2011, the Spirit Rock has become an important part of campus expression and an icon of East Campus. The tradition of placing handprints on the rock, making statements and raising awareness of issues has become pivotal to the rock’s presence.

The Spirit Rock now has more than 700 layers of paint. 

The rock has seen a lot of examples of free expression in its 10 years on campus, whether that be notes to friends, event promotions, marriage proposals, election opinions, political ideas or social justice issues. The rock continues to serve JMU as a place for respectful, thought-provoking free speech.   

“The Spirit Rock is a reminder that JMU values student expression and community building,” said senior Grace Mathias, a double major in media arts and design and communication studies

Painting the Spirit Rock has become a time-honored tradition. 

The Spirit Rock has been a beacon of free speech since 2011 and has promoted dozens of clubs, organizations and causes. Not only does it give students a place to be creative, but it serves as a means to raise awareness of issues that are important to students. It also fosters open communication among members of the JMU community.

From holding doors, to bleeding purple, to flying streamers in Bridgeforth Stadium during home football games, tradition has a home at JMU.


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Published: Friday, March 26, 2021

Last Updated: Thursday, April 8, 2021

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