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Painted rocks have local roots

Marie Havenga • Sep 2, 2017 at 10:00 AM

Rock painting has become a national craze recently, and it's colorful history may have local roots.

Local artist Aaron Zenz, who came in third place in his ArtPrize category last fall with a rock painting/finding project, said he and his family started painting rocks as a family project in 2011.

Many groups nationwide now have Facebook pages, with the town name, followed by “rocks.” A group launched earlier this year called “Grand Haven Rocks.”

“The interesting thing is that even though this is a huge national activity that's been growing, if you try to track it back, this group saw it from that group, that saw it from that group,” Zenz said. “It's been on CBS, the Today Show, Martha Stewart ... If you look at these articles, a lot of them will point back to one group or another in Washington State.”

Zenz said he can further trace rock painting group origins back to Renton Rocks.

“The group there started in 2011,” Zenz said.

And the group attributes its beginnings to the Zenz family activity.

“They got inspired by that,” Zens said. “I thought it was interesting that now, six or seven years later, it's traveled far enough and swung all the way back here to our hometown (with Grand Haven Rocks). They probably have no idea the initial activity that kicked it off was right here in Grand Haven in 2011.”

Zenz said his family project started when they watched a documentary together about street art.

His daughter, Gracie, who was 10 at the time, took a liking to the graffiti type of art, so he quickly tried to come up with another creative outlet.

“I didn't want to squelch her enthusiasm,” Zenz said. “I wondered if there was something disposable we could paint on that wouldn't do any damage to property. I just thought of rocks. Rocks are all around and nobody really finds them bothersome. If you painted rocks and hid them in public places rather than painting on public places themselves it would still accomplish the same goal.”

Zenz gathered up a bunch of rocks, painted them bright base colors and brought them home to surprise his kids.

“The three oldest kids painted faces on the rocks,” he said. “When they were dry we went around Grand Haven and hid the rocks. Our kids have a blog where I post a lot of the artistic things they make. I put photos of the rocks on the blog. That blog post started getting a ton of traffic, hundreds of thousands of hits and over 100 comments.”

The rocks began tumbling and others wanted in on the action.

“People from all over the world wrote,” Zenz said. “They wanted to do it, too. We heard from schools, toy stores and libraries. We were even contacted by Ripley's Believe it Or Not and a German children's magazine wrote an article about it. This thing exploded.”

Zenz said many people asked permission to paint rocks, too.

“I said 'sure, I don't have any claim to this idea. Just have fun,'” Zens said. “One of those people was the guy in (Renton) Washington. He decided he was going to do the same thing and start a Facebook page called Renton Rocks. His family started painting rocks and hiding them. Then, all of these groups started sprouting up around Washington.”

And it spread, like an avalanche.

When he was pondering an ArtPrize submission last year, he chose the one work that's gone viral – rock painting.

“Obviously, people have always painted rocks, but as far as a documented and organized project online, there was nothing like that (in 2011),” he said. “Our post went so viral if you merely typed “rocks” into Google images our photo was the first that came up.It was one of our family's favorite memories. The fact that people are enjoying this activity now is just great.”

And he's pleased that the Grand Haven Rocks group has surfaced on Facebook.

“It's been fun to watch,” Zenz said. “And it's circled all the way back home.”

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