THE WASHINGTON POST – Chris Penny figures that his mail carrier must have spectacular biceps by now.
Most every day for the past seven months, when the carrier arrives at Penny’s home in Grapevine, Texas, he unloads a few heavy bins and hauls them one by one up the driveway to Penny’s front porch.
The boxes are filled with packages containing painted rocks, most of them intricate works of art, handmade and mailed from people all over the country. Since the beginning of the pandemic, people have been sending them to Penny so that he and his family can place them along the Parr Park Rock Art Trail – a mile-long public walking path that has become a wonderland of more than 4,000 art rocks.
The carefully crafted rocks are sorted by Penny and his two daughters, Sophia, 13, and Julia, 11, then loaded into the family car for a trip down the road to be placed along the trail, which is about 20 miles from Dallas.
“These aren’t just any rocks – they’re works of art,” said Penny, 44. “The other day, I had 11 big boxes to unpack in my living room. It’s incredible to see that people from all over are now painting rocks to turn my community into a trail of happiness.”
The rocks – painted to resemble everything from the Beatles to Mickey Mouse to a face mask – started arriving at Penny’s house ever since he bought a bunch on eBay after noticing a dozen painted rocks scattered along a nature trail in Parr Park. Penny said he knew right away that he wanted to flood the trail with them and make it a destination.
Penny learned that the colourful rocks he’d stumbled upon were painted by Ron Olsen and his three grown children in March, after Olsen returned from a trip to Iceland and discovered that Grapevine, a city of around 46,000 people, had practically become a ghost town due to the nationwide coronavirus shutdown.
Olsen said he wanted to do something for the community, so he gathered his family together on March 28 to paint a few rocks – including one covered with blue bonnet flowers and another decorated with balloons – and scatter them along his favourite trail in Parr Park.
Soon, he and Penny decided to join forces to transform the trail into an artsy attraction for anyone in Grapevine and beyond who wanted to escape the stress of covid-19 for a while.
“We wanted to make it a getaway for people and give parents something safe to do outdoors with their children,” said Olsen, 62, who works in Grapevine as a photographer and RV dealer.
“Anyone can paint a rock,” he said. “And if you put hundreds and hundreds of them together, it really adds up to something amazing.”
Penny, who runs the non-profit Broken Crayon, focussed on helping women and children living in poverty in the United States and Ghana, said the project has provided his family with something fun and positive to do close to home during the pandemic.
In the early days in March, after he’d painted several dozen rocks with his daughters and bought dozens more online, Penny posted on Facebook, asking anyone who would like to contribute to the project to mail him their rocks and he’d pay for the shipping.
“I thought that a few people might want to pitch in, but I was stunned when I went to get my mail one day and found tonnes of rocks on the porch,” he said.
“Pretty soon, we were the talk of the post office.” Penny said he’s contributed almost USD10,000 of his own money for shipping costs (rocks are heavy), although many people now pay to ship their rock masterpieces on their own.
Renee Anderson of Prescott Valley, Arizona, is among several hobbyists who have mailed Penny dozens of rocks to decorate the trail. At last count, she said she’d contributed more than 50 with her best friend, Shauna Giles. “When we heard about the rock park online about four months ago, we knew it was something we wanted to be a part of,” said Anderson, 48.
“We’ve painted lots of rocks to resemble cartoon characters or old-fashioned advertisements,” she said. “It’s fun to know that we’re helping to put smiles on the faces of people in Texas.”
For Lissa Critz, who visits the park regularly with her two children, the rock trail has provided some much-needed diversion from home schooling in Grapevine.
“It’s become like a game when we go to the park to locate all of the new rocks,” said Critz, 41. “The rocks are so well done and so much time and care has been put into the project. We love it.”
All along the nature trail, visitors will now find painted owls, unicorns, tigers and humpback whales, along with the emblems of favourite sports teams, salutes to fallen soldiers and paintings of beloved cartoon characters and classic cars. Somebody even mailed Penny a giant tic-tac-toe board.
There are sections devoted to wildlife, teachers, health-care heroes, firefighters, Disney princesses, patriotism, movie stars, video games and travel, said Olsen, who visits the trail several days a week to photograph all of the new rocks and post them on the park’s Facebook page.
“Of course, we have a rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame, and we also have a dog park,” said Olsen, adding that they have cat rocks but they haven’t yet made a “cat park”. “I guess we’d better get busy on that,” he added.
Community response to the project has been rock solid, said Kevin Mitchell, director of the Grapevine Parks and Recreation Department. Hundreds of people visit every week, he said.
“The fact that so many are using the trail to stay encouraged during these times is uplifting in itself,” he said.
“This is truly a great way for kids to connect with nature and art at the same time. My family and I have spent hours on the trail, exploring all of the rocks.”
Some people are a bit too enthusiastic, said Olsen, noting that hundreds of rocks disappeared when the project first got underway in the spring.
“We now have some signage out there, telling people to feel free to leave a rock, but not to take one,” he said. “We have so many rocks out there now that it appears to be working. People now get that it’s like an outdoor museum.”
Penny’s favourite part of the project is that every rock tells a story.
“Some people have painted rocks in memory of family members who have died, and others have painted memories of high school, like a favourite teacher or a favourite song,” he said.
“One woman painted a rock to honour her daughter because she’s serving with the military in Afghanistan and she misses her. So many of the rocks are beautifully poignant.”
There’s a rock on the trail to cover almost every aspect of life, Olsen added.
“It’s crazy how it’s caught on and I’m delighted that it’s brought so much joy to people” he said. “You name it and it’s out there. We even have a 2020 rock with zeros designed like toilet paper rolls.”
Whether a rock is painted by a professional artist or a two-year-old doesn’t matter, Penny said. “When it comes down to it, there’s really no such thing as a bad rock,” he said.