by Jack Fowler
It’s a Friday night in Knoxville. The campus is calm, with various events taking place and students working hard in the Hodges library. Meanwhile, across Cumberland Avenue, parties begin to emerge, and guys wearing New Balance shoes drink with girls wearing heels.
Knoxville is on the eve of its time-honored, weekly holiday: football and tailgating.
But over the past two years, a new addition has been made to the timeless festival. Almost every game day morning, Knoxvillians awake to a new wonder: a painting on their beloved Rock.
For those of you unfamiliar with Tennessee traditions, “The Rock” is a large, well, rock, placed at the heart of UT’s campus. Located in front of the music building, it has been an icon on campus for decades. Students paint it with various doodles, announcements, memorials, and/or graffiti. In fact, so many people paint on it continuously that it’s surface appearance changes daily!
However, one artist owns the Rock on game days: Payton Miller. If you haven’t heard of her yet, I implore you to Google “Payton Miller Rock” for some visual examples. She has become a local celebrity thanks to her wonderful pieces. Drawing inspiration from the Volunteers and their various traditions, Miller creates inspiring paintings that resonate with every Vol.
While said festivities run rampant on Friday night, she is busy tending to her craft. Armed with spray paint and brushes, she sets to work on her new masterpiece-to-be, usually with an accompanying crowd of fans supporting her. Each painting takes anywhere from 4-7 hours to complete, and she usually signs her name around 3 or 4 in the morning. The results, clearly, are breathtaking.
Her paintings last all day Saturday, and often inspire every fan and player for the games. She has made works for every major SEC conference game in recent times, as well as tribute pieces and standalone works of art. As of this article’s publication, she has created 18 unique masterpieces on the Rock. When asked about her favorite piece, she often can’t decide; “That’s like picking your favorite dog,” she believes.
But you know what the real interesting part about Ms. Miller? She isn’t even an Art major. A Math major converted to Biochemistry, Miller is training to become an ophthalmologist. Rather, she gained a love for art in elementary school. “My art teachers growing up were pretty cool,” she recalled. “ They helped me, but also challenged me.” This positive reinforcement helped her develop a passionate hobby for art. While she works and studies rigorously to become a doctor, she always wants to nourish her artistic side.
One of the aspects that she enjoys the most about her art is its fleeting nature. She has stated repeatedly that her art isn’t supposed to last for decades or even days; it is far more valuable in that regard, she believes. However, she likes to break up the monotony and create more permanent pieces. Miller has created murals in several different residences, complete with Smokey profiles and Power T’s (Tennessee’s huge orange T). She does not believe in charging money for these works, but she will usually take, “beer and pizza as payment”. Some of her work has even been auctioned off at charity events, her most recent piece (cut in the shape of the state of Tennessee) sold for around $1,000.
Miller’s art is something that the community cherishes very fondly. Earlier this summer, when the great Pat Summit, one of the most successful coaches in all of sports, and a true legend in Tennessee athletics, passed, she created a memorial to her on the rock, pictured below:
Remember how most paintings on the Rock last less than a few days, including Miller’s own pieces? This tribute lasted just about an entire month.
While the Knoxville and Volunteer communities would love to see Miller continue her work for years, her career goals make that request a little challenging. As her senior year progresses, medical school looms on the horizon. She fears she might have to take a break this semester, before she ultimately leaves Knoxville to complete her education.
Thankfully, however, east Tennessee and Knoxville are home to Miller. She wants to have season tickets as an alumna, of course, and perhaps she will reprise her role as UT’s favorite artist. But just as her art is fleeting, she too wants to pass the tradition on to new students. “I won’t want to intrude like an annoying adult,” she joked. “It belongs to the UT students. I’m just glad to be a part of this great community.”
Well Payton, your work might live on via the Internet and social media, but the Rock may not see such a gifted artist take to it anytime soon. Your work will rest in peace, just like Harambe: