Going out into nature and taking photos wasn’t the same for Susie Foss anymore. Her photo partner was her late husband, Stan, who died in 2018. “I never went out and did it without him,” Foss says.
Looking at her camera was a reminder that her husband was no longer there, after 43 years of marriage. But eventually, she decided to take up the activity solo, and she’d grab her camera and put on her shoes and go out into nature looking for beautiful images.
In October of 2019, she was out taking photos at Lovers Point in Pacific Grove, where Foss came across a small rock with a clown painted on it. On the back, it said to post her findings on Monterey County Rocks, a Facebook group for rock painters and hunters to share. Foss got home to Salinas, logged in, and connected to some 2,000 members and her new hobby got started.
When she first started, Foss used river rocks and acrylic paints. She watched rock painting tutorials on YouTube and decided to try Santorini rocks which are flatter, smoother, sparkly white rocks. “It feels like I’m painting on a canvas,” she says.
Another Monterey County Rocks member who goes by the name Mia Rebel got into the hobby almost a year ago, when amid new shelter-in-place restrictions, toilet paper was in limited supply. She found a rock painted with the phrase, “I love toilet paper.” That rock made her day and she looked into it. She loved the idea of being artsy and making random people happy.
(Only Rebel’s family and friends know her identity. “ I just want to be anonymous and do this for fun,” she says.)
It’s that same spirit of a simple, surprising way to make someone’s day that guided Kristin Torrice, the manager for CSU Monterey Bay’s East Campus housing, to look for a creative way to share uplifting images and messages on rocks. CSUMB Housing is joining the Kindness Rocks Challenge, a global movement to spread kindness and positivity in this accessible way.
The campus housing administration wants to create a rock garden at Schoonover Park with painted rocks featuring positive messages. They are encouraging residents to find, paint and share photos of rocks by Feb. 14.
“It’s to get it started and get the movement going,” Tirrice says.
For Foss, what she literally stumbled upon a year-and-a-half ago has become an obsession: “I love it and know I’m addicted to it,” she says. She now paints at least two rocks a day, featuring detailed characters from Disney, unicorns, mermaids, whales and dolphins. She recently painted a special rock for her friend Maria Lempkowski with a portrait of Laylah, her beloved dog who died.
Since she came across that first rock with a clown, Foss estimates she’s painted more than 500 rocks.
She says painting rocks helped her get through her grief after Stan died. “When you’re painting rocks, you are so in that moment, that you just forget all of your troubles,” Foss says.
Her rocks take on a life of their own too – one made a journey to Alaska, a place that Foss especially enjoyed visiting with her late husband, and a place they dreamed of returning before he died. The rock was discovered last fall by a couple at Toro Park; the next day, they flew to Alaska and took the rock with them. Foss received a photograph of the rock at Matanuska Glacier. “These rocks are amazing, they can travel all over the place,” she says.
She’s passing the new tradition on to her 10-year-old granddaughter, Olivia, who is on the Autism spectrum and cannot speak – painting rocks together has added a layer of communication in addition to sign language. Together, they paint rocks and hide them around Monterey County.
Other rock painters work in different styles, with marbling or more abstract styles. Some are left on benches and bus stops, other in trees at eye level or at beach entry points.
Foss encourages people of all levels to get into it – she recommends affordable paints, and you can use any rocks.
“It’s such a great outlet for the times we live in,” Foss says. “Just to relax and find a moment to de-stress.”