Manassas Rocks: Art That Touches the Heart

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By Carla Christiano

They are turning up all over— outside of hospitals, close to train stations, near restaurants and beside
shops. You may have walked by dozens of small painted rocks with messages of love, encouragement or joy. They are the handiwork of Manassas Rocks’ members, designed to brighten the day of those who find them. They are easy to overlook, but hard to forget once you find them.

Matthew McCourt, who started Manassas Rocks with the help of family and friends, got the idea for the rock painting group when his grandmother passed away a year ago in West Virginia. He wanted to help his family cope with their grief, and remembered hearing about the Kindness Rocks Project. According to the organization’s website, its purpose is to “cultivate connections within communities and lift others up through simple acts of kindness.” Inspired by this approach, McCourt asked his family to paint some rocks in honor of his grandmother. “[The gathering] turned from weeping to everyone sitting around telling stories,” he said. “I saw our household change.” That got him thinking about what he could do on a larger scale, and Manassas Rocks was born.

“I saw it as a way to unite [people]. It doesn’t matter if you are old or young. Art brings everyone together. It touches your heart,” McCourt said. “For me, it’s a platform to put positive energy out there. If I can put something on the ground—a flash of color—it creates positive energy.”

McCourt is also teaching his seven-year-old son, Colin, about compassion. It must be working because it was Colin’s idea to paint rocks for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital patients at an assisted living center in Manassas. On a cold February afternoon, some members of Manassas Rocks, their children and a few of
the residents worked side by side painting rocks at paper-covered tables in the assisted living center’s community room. They laughed and chatted as they worked to turn ordinary rocks into pictures of turtles, flags, chickens and whatever else inspired them. As McCourt surveyed the scene, he said, “I get a kick out of seeing people do this.”

Simple Creative Process Brings Joy to Others
The “rock stars,” as group members are known, use a simple process. They wash the rocks they acquire and paint and seal them. “My wife told me that I can’t put rocks in the dishwasher anymore,” McCourt said. Then they leave the rocks for someone to find. The person who finds the painted rock takes a picture of it, posts it to the Manassas Rocks Facebook page, and places the rock somewhere else. “If someone finds a rock that has meaning, they can keep it. If you take one, leave one in its place,” said
Heather Lane, a Manassas Rocks moderator. “That’s what we encourage people to do, but we don’t dwell on it. There are no rock rules other than it should be appropriate for kids to find.”

Inspiration for Lane’s own rock art comes from pictures she finds on the internet, of which she does her own interpretation. Although Lane has had people offer her money for her rocks, she would never consider selling them. “I’d rather do it out of love and passion,” she said while painting a Harley Quinn bombshell (character) on a flat rock. She once painted a rock for a woman who was suffering from cancer for the sole reason that it would bring her happiness.

4,000 Rocks and Counting
McCourt estimates the group, which now has 4,000-plus Facebook members, has painted more than 4,000 rocks in about a year. These rocks have turned up all over the world, including in Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Germany and Spain and are usually identified by the @manassasrocks or the #manassasrocks hashtag on social media platforms. “I call them smile seeds,” he said.

“A woman whose husband is going through cancer treatments found a Mr. Peanut. That rock is now going with them to treatment. Something as simple as a rock can be inspiring.” At a nearby table, assisted living resident Elestea Leonard was painting a white rock that read “In God We Trust.” She was going to put it in her room so that everyone could see it.

Resident Joan I. Fines, who was seated at the same table, had painted a rock with flowers. Her granddaughter and three-year-old great-granddaughter had also painted rocks, and she wanted to keep her creation to show them.

Rock star Janet Montilla’s daughter, Carla Cevallos, got her interested in Manassas Rocks. Cevallos discovered her first rock while playing Pokémon Go. Once she learned about the group, she decided to paint rocks herself and got her mom involved too. Although Montilla admitted her rock painting and finding skills may not be the best, she really enjoys the group. “It has gotten me into walking and spending more time with her,” she said, pointing to her daughter. Cevallos added, “Everyone we have
met [in the group]has been nice.”

“Kindness breeds kindness. This group has proven that to me,” McCourt said. “There is a lot of light and kindness in people, but they just need a place to express it.” With Manassas Rocks, they can.

Members of Manassas Rocks will be participating in the Occoquan Arts and Crafts Show on June 2-3. The group doesn’t charge for its events, but does accept donations. For more information, visit the Manassas Rocks Facebook page: facebook.com/groups/207749766403375.

Carla Christiano (cchristiano@princewilliamliving.com) is a native of Prince William County, an admitted history geek and a technical writer for Unisys.

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