Community colors: 50 years of rock painting on Peaceable Hill
When the first Westmoreland builders hauled a large rock out of the ground in 1967, they never expected it to become a cornerstone of the community.
But 50 years later, in an alcove of flowers and ferns just beyond the intersection of Remington Road and Peaceable Hill Road, the same stone still sits — though its rugged, once-dusty face looks much different.
That’s because it’s masked by an inch of paint.
For 15 holidays a year — everything from Derby Day to back-to-school day in late August — the Harford family, which owns both the mineral and the alcove in which it resides, has been decorating the rock’s craggy visage.
The tradition started in 1967, when Suni Harford’s father saw in the stone an unlikely canvas — ripe with artistic possibility.
“The rock was discovered when they were digging the foundation of our house,” said Suni, who was five when the boulder was unearthed.
“That year, Dad moved it and painted it for the first time,” she told The Press last week. “He thought it was a fun way to do something for the neighborhood.”
The Harfords’ mineral mural currently reads “SUMMER” in triumphant red print above a fierce, Jaws-inspired shark surging — torpedo-like — toward a swimmer on the ocean’s placid surface.
“When I was a kid, painting the rock was a family thing,” said Suni, who grew up in the Westmoreland neighborhood with her four siblings.
“It was a big deal if Dad let you hold the brush or do something.”
Suni, who assumed the responsibility after her father passed away in 2001, shares the same experience with her husband and three children.
She recalled her first holiday decoration, completed at the age of 12, which still serves as inspiration decades later.
“I painted a basket of easter eggs — of course, I messed it up and had to redo it,” she said. “That was one of my favorite memories of the rock, my dad just sitting there, watching, with his camera.”
Decorating the Harfords’ rock is no longer a custom shared solely by one family.
Over the past five decades, the stone’s festivities have become a staple for the entire neighborhood — a colorful beacon of community cheer, reliably bright in a world that cannot always promise the same.
Whether it’s Christmas or St. Patrick’s Day, there is always something to celebrate.
And for that, the locals are grateful.
“People stop when I’m painting, to say hello or thank you. We get notes in the mail, too,” Suni told The Press.
“One lady even commissioned me to paint the rock for her son’s birthday,” she said. “I didn’t take the money, of course, but I painted it with Angry Birds, the theme of his party.”
The decorating has become more difficult lately.
“We’re due for a cleaning,” Suni affirmed.
“It becomes hard to work with after a while. Water gets underneath the thick paint coat, it starts to chip, and we have to scrape off the layers.”
The last time this occurred was in 2012.
By that point, over an inch of pigment had accumulated on the rock’s surface.
So what do decades of paint look like?
“You can’t distinguish the individual holidays when cleaning, but you can see the different colors, like strata.”
These strata — or layers — may be telling.
Much has changed for Suni since her father first decided to dress up the stone in 1967. Since then, she’s grown up, moved out, started a family, and eventually, come back.
But cutting through the skin of pigment, slicing through the layers that map a timeline of life, like rings on a tree, it is possible to reach the rock’s original surface.
And so, with a joint knife and a few hours of work, Suni can turn back the clock and start anew on a clean canvas — the same canvas her father saw in a most unlikely object 50 years prior.
And then, as in now, it is rich with possibility.