Ypsilantian Kathleen Tajer Stadtfeld designed these stones to celebrate frontline health care workers. Remember to follow her lead and put down some newspaper or other table covering before you get to work, or you'll get paint everywhere — good grief!
Ypsilantian Kathleen Tajer Stadtfeld designed these stones to celebrate frontline health care workers. Remember to follow her lead and put down some newspaper or other table covering before you get to work, or you'll get paint everywhere — good grief!

From local Michigan Facebook groups to the Detroit Historical Museum, painted rocks have attracted new interest — and taken new meaning.

MICHIGAN — While Michigan communities keep their distance during the coronavirus pandemic, we’ve seen many go offline and get creative to spread messages of hope and positivity.  

The ’Gander brought you the story of one town that broke out all of their window paints, garlands, and sidewalk chalk to decorate their yards for the most colorful Pride ever. But one delightful phenomenon taking off across the state only requires a nicely shaped rock and some acrylic paints to get started.

“Painting rocks just seemed like a fun craft to do for the summer,” said Michelle Henry, a stay-at-home mom and former adult educator who founded the public Facebook group “Ypsi Rocks” in 2017. Ypsi Rocks, based in Ypsilanti, is the online hub for locals to post pictures of painted rocks they’ve created or found in the community. Members of the group plant or hide their imaginative creations around town, hoping for someone to find and delight in it (and maybe post a snap of it to the Facebook group). 

When Henry originally opened the group — inspired by a feature on Oprah — her children were just getting out of school. “I think it was May or something like that, just to get ready for summer fun. And it was a slow kickoff, as far as that goes. We had quite a few members in the beginning, but it hovered around 300, 400. And now recently it seems like … I feel like word is getting out.” 

Henry was talking about the numerous other semi-formal groups, ragtag crews, and individuals around Michigan who have taken to painting rocks and planting them around their communities over the past few months. 

Facebook groups based south of Detroit and in Davison; Saline and Milan; Belleville, Van Buren, and Sumpter Townships; Jackson County; Mid-Michigan; Southeast Michigan and more have memberships ranging from the low hundreds to the tens of thousands and have been active for years. And they’ve seen a recent influx of rocks featuring well-wishes and messages of gratitude and positivity during the pandemic. 

Ypsilantian Karen Grams designed these rocks to inspire gratitude and resilience in these tough times. (Photo courtesy of Karen Grams)

Rocking the World in 2020

Some of them are banded by a common mission like the Ypsi Rocks group, which Henry said participates in the #kindnessrocksproject. The global campaign, which was founded by an empowerment coach and activist in 2015, centers around the art of connecting. 

“One message at just the right moment can change someone’s entire day, outlook, or life!” reads their About section on Facebook. And that message can make even greater impact during this new pandemic, when people may feel especially isolated, stressed, and depressed. 

“It seems like there are a lot of people joining, at least 10 a day or more,” Henry said about Ypsi Rocks. “This is probably the most significant amount of member requests we’ve seen over the years.” 

She chalks most of that up to a curious woman’s post about organizing a rock painting project in a local discussion group driving traffic. 

But where Ypsi Rocks hovered around 300-400 members for years, it currently sits at 1.1k. 

“We’re trying to spread kindness to as many people as possible,” Henry said. “… Just trying to flood the streets with things that uplift people.” 

RELATED: Wine, Free Gas and Shawarma: 5 Amazing Ways Michiganders Are Lifting Each Other Up

But even Ypsi Rocks shut down for a time during Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s Stay-at-Home order earlier this year. Henry proactively advised the group not to hide or hunt for rocks to protect some of their best little workers. 

“I was a bit nervous with children handling other people’s stuff,” said the mother of four. “One of the reasons we closed it was to help teach children in this time not to go pick things up that they find, to keep your hands to yourself for the time being so we don’t spread the virus.

“I still tried to encourage people to participate in ways that they could but to refrain from actually hiding the rocks. I just opened up a poll recently and asked group members how they felt about the safety at this time, and the majority of people were ready to go with it. So we went ahead and opened the page back up to normal activities.” 

Henry said communal rock painting projects are a great way for kids to learn about kindness, communication, and trust, traits that go far during hard times like these. 

“It’s just a fun thing to do, and it helps teach kids as well that you don’t need the gratification necessarily of a thank you or applause for your work, but that we’re just doing this for the sake of kindness,” she said. “And it teaches kids to be able to release things that they painted and liked, and trust that someone is going to find them whether or not we see a picture posted back to the page.  

“I feel like it is teaching kids deeper lessons beyond just being creative. We’re trying to teach them a giving spirit and being open to just saying kind things to people, giving little, kind gestures that may get nothing in return. They may never see their rock again, but that’s okay.” 

Browse pictures of painted rocks hidden and found around Michigan:

A Stone Monument: Detroit Historical Museum’s COVID-19 Memorial Garden

Some rock painting projects going on in Michigan right now, however, are designed for permanence. 

The Detroit Historical Museum, which will open July 10 with most other institutions in Detroit’s Cultural Center Historic District, is collecting painted rocks for their new COVID-19 Memorial Garden in front of Legends Plaza

SEE: Museums, Arts and Culture Institutes Are Opening Up In Detroit. Here’s What to Know and Where to Go

Over the summer, the public is invited to contribute to the memorial by painting a rock or two and adding it to the growing pile of colorful stones. The Detroit Historical Society’s website suggests you use your design to commemorate a lost loved one or to simply celebrate life.

“We want to make sure we have the stories from both notable and regular Detroiters,” Elana Rugh, museum executive director and CEO, told The Detroit News. “Do what you want to do. Paint a stone with a flower on it or somebody’s name.”

When the garden closes at the end of the summer, some of the stones will be added to the Detroit Historical Society’s permanent collection as artifacts from this period of time.

The garden is located in front of the curved wall at Woodward and Kirby. It’s open now and will remain in place until Labor Day. Participate by adding decorated stones any time.

“I think it’s really awesome to see [rock painting] take off like it has,” Henry said. “It was kind of a slow start for us in the first year or so, but it’s definitely picked up and I love seeing it on a grander scale like this. And this gives people the information to go search for it. Lots of people don’t even know this kind of thing exists. So the Detroit Historical Museum doing something like this — it gives that information to lots of people. Search out local groups and whatnot, because it’s just a quick search and you’ll find ’em.”

Here are some tips from the Detroit Historical Society to keep in mind when decorating your rocks, for the COVID-19 Memorial Garden or for around your neighborhood and beyond:

A Beginner’s Guide to Rock Painting

1. Pick a rock. Any shape, any size. Just make sure you can carry it!

2. Wash your rock thoroughly and let it dry completely. Drying will require some time because rocks are porous. Overnight works well.

3. Choose your paint. For durability, avoid watercolor or poster paint, which will be washed away by the elements. House paint is great. Spray paint works. Acrylics are good. Oils work but take a long time to dry. Even a Sharpie is good if you have a light-colored rock. 

4. Paint away! Dark-colored rocks might require a layer of background — paint the whole rock, let it dry, then add a design. Words are encouraged — paint them right on or add with a Sharpie at the end. 

5. As long as your paint is not water-based, no sealing is required. Just let your paint dry thoroughly.

6. Add your rock to the garden.