Residents have a secret community of painted rocks that are scattered, both big and small
Dubbed as “Bellingham’s unofficial billboard'' by residents, there is a painted boulder slightly south of the city, to the right of Interstate 5 northbound, that is covered with layer upon layer of history.
Keith Cook, a lifelong resident and real estate broker in Whatcom County, started a Facebook page for the rock about 10 years ago so people could post pictures after they’ve painted it.
“My curiosity was ‘I wonder what the rest of the story was with that rock,’ because it inspired people one way or another to want to take the time, energy and effort to go paint it,” Cook said.
He went on to say that while some people will do a base coat before they paint, others decide to simply graffiti it. As long as people are safe in getting to the rock, it’s open to anyone.
“People paint it for all kinds of different reasons,” Cook said. “Somehow, folks want to share a message, and that seems like a pretty safe message board. It's local, it's iconic and the rock doesn’t discriminate.”
Cook said a goal of his would be to compile all the photos and history of the rock into a book, so he encourages anyone who has a photo past, present and future, to post it to the group for all to see.
Some locals have taken a liking to the painted boulder so much, they paint smaller rocks to hide all around the county.
Polly Barnreiter, a paraeducator at Custer Elementary School, started painting rocks 11 years ago when her daughter was in preschool.
“I would make rocks for all the kids in her class for all the holidays then I continued doing it for her class, as well as my son, all through elementary school,” Barnreiter said. “When they got to middle school, I couldn't really do class rocks since they had so many different classes. I thought my rock painting days were over.”
That’s when Barnreiter found multiple groups on Facebook, like Whatcom Rocks, that have communities full of rock painters.
The groups helped Barnreiter keep at her hobby until she was hired at Custer Elementary. Barnreiter now paints rocks exclusively for students to find on the playground. They are known as "Polly rocks" by students and staff alike.
“I just enjoy it because I know it makes the kids feel good,” she said. “They get excited and they don't really even care what's on it, as long as it's colorful.”
Barnreiter said she enjoys both painting the rocks and the process of finding them since it means a trip to Birch Bay. It’s also completely free; you just have to find a smooth enough rock.
“I think it gives people a sense of inspiration,” Barnreiter said. “There are good people doing something for free; there's nothing in it for them. It's just spreading a little bit of happiness, and I think we could really use that, especially in a time like this.”
Theresa Drake, a karate instructor in Whatcom County, and her 11-year-old daughter, Melena, don’t just paint rocks, but collect them as well.
"It’s kind of weird, so I’ve always liked painted rocks,” Drake said. “And just as we saw them, we started collecting them.”
She said their collection started about two years ago and has grown to surpass 300 rocks. They are now scattered around her garden, in containers under her bed and displayed on bookshelves in her home. No matter where they are, Drake said the collection brings joy to her and Melena.
Ryan Kelly, an assistant professor of art at Western Washington University, offered his opinion on the rock painting community in Whatcom County.
“It seems to be a way for people to connect with one another in a one-step-removed type of way,” Kelly said. “Like one of those small pleasantries that we're missing without the day-to-day social interaction.”
Kelly went on to say while the rocks may not be considered art with a capital A, they are creative expressions. And the rock painters are still playing with the power of objects, or of imagery, to communicate something to an audience.
“I think that art is like an intermediary between the maker and an audience,” Kelly said. “And as a maker, you're hoping to reach someone through the product of your making, and you can deliver an emotion or an experience. And, you know, that may not reach every single person, but sometimes maybe you only need one person in your audience.”