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Local family rocking ArtPrize

Marie Havenga • Oct 5, 2016 at 11:00 AM

FERRYSBURG — Aaron Zenz and his kids have been doing family-friendly street art projects for a half-dozen years, just for fun.

But now, after landing as one of the top 20 finalists in this year’s ArtPrize competition in Grand Rapids, the Ferrysburg family could be on the cusp of a cool and crisp $200,000 if they capture the top prize on Friday.

Zenz, his wife Amity, and their six children — Isaac, 18; Amity Grace; 16, Lily, 13; Elijah, 10; Evie, 8; and Maggie, 5 — have spent the past year painting 1,000 rocks with silly faces. They painted the rocks in sets, so that each one has a match.

They have placed 500 of the rocks on display outside the Grand Rapids Children's Museum and hid the other 500 all around downtown Grand Rapids. The family then asked ArtPrize visitors to search for the hidden rocks, take photos of them and post to social media with “#rockaroundgrandrapids.”

The interactive art project/art game called “Rock Around” has been a worldwide hit. On one day alone, Zenz was interviewed by three British journalists.

“It's getting a lot of global attention,” the freelance illustrator said. “This is a unique entry. If you go see a painting, somebody makes the painting and the artwork is done. You go look at it and leave. This is different because it's an interactive art experience. We create this art game, basically. When somebody shows up, it's just the beginning.”

Zenz said he delights in seeing little kids dance around in excitement when they learn they can participate in this ArtPrize entry.

“It becomes art as soon as a 5-year-old cheers and races around town looking in all the nooks and crannies seeing if he can spot a rock,” Zenz said. “It's really us collaborating with every family, every school class, grandma, toddler and businessman who walks around and wants to participate in this experience we created for them.”

Zenz said the family rock-painting projects began 5-6 years ago after his oldest daughter wanted to become a street artist. Zenz didn't want her going off to do graffiti, so he devised the family rock-painting projects.

Those, too, caught media attention. They're featured in a “Ripley's Believe it or Not” book and in a German children's magazine.

“We got rocks, painted them and put faces on them,” Zenz explained. “We went and hid them all around Grand Haven and took photos of them. It was a fun alternative to vandalism-type street art. We posted pictures on our family blog and had hundreds of thousands of visits. People all over the world were telling us they were going to do their own rock-painting parties.”

They've also painted sticks and leaves.

When the family visited ArtPrize last year, Zenz tried to come up with something he could enter in this year's competition.

Suddenly, the idea dawned on him. The family members could paint the rocks in matching pairs so the static display portion could be viewed and voted on by visitors (voting number is 63608), while the other set could be hidden throughout downtown as part of an innovative, interactive game.

“I pitched the idea to the kids,” Zenz said. “'Are you up for painting rocks? You'd have to paint a huge amount of rocks for it to be visually significant.' They were onboard. A year ago we started painting. We had a 1,000 goal. The rest is ArtPrize history.”

Zenz said he is thrilled to be in the Top 20 out of nearly 1,500 entries.

“It's exciting,” he said. “It's fun to connect to people on a larger scale. The small community that is our family, we had a lot of fun painting, dreaming, organizing and hiding them.”

And now there's more dreaming to be done — dreaming of winning a $200,000 prize. If the family triumphs, Zenz said it would relieve some pressure.

“I could relax a little bit,” he said. “As a freelance illustrator, you're very much living month to month. I'm sure some of the money would go to schooling. We'd take a family vacation. We wouldn't go blow it on something. We'd try to be wise with it and be very thankful for it.”

Voting ends at midnight Thursday.

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