Painting Chico, one rock at a time

What started off as a small gesture of kindness has turned into a popular pastime in the Chico community. In the summer of 2016, painted rocks mysteriously started to appear all around Chico. 

Ed Nelson, founder of the Chico ROCKS! Facebook group, has an explanation for this.

Nelson first started hiding rocks for fun as a pastime until other community members took notice, and started hiding rocks of their own. He started the Facebook group in 2016, and it currently has 2,400 members. Children bring their own rocks to local parks and swap them with the new rocks they find.

It gained popularity with Wildcats in 2019 when the HiYa Project was introduced at Chico State during the week of National Random Acts of Kindness Day. Painted rocks or “HiYas” were passed out to students, faculty by student athletes as a gesture of kindness and a way to brighten up people’s day. 

“It was a great bridge between athletics and the ‘other side’ of campus,” said Oliver Hanf, head coach of Chico State’s track and field team. “It was done during finals week, and it was great to see smiles on students’ faces when they came by to paint a rock or pick one up. It’s a great way to remember Brittni and Brynn and a wonderful way to keep their spirit alive by spreading positivity across our campus and town.” 

The HiYa project was dedicated to sisters, Brynn and Brittani France who were in a fatal car accident while driving from San Luis Obispo to Chico State for the spring 2018 semester. The France sisters were avid runners who were part of Chico’s track and field team. The goal was to spread painted rocks throughout the country to connect people and spread positivity.

Hanf said the positive energy from the project felt magical and taught a number of lessons. “They taught us perspective, to be mindful of one another and to live life with our EYES WIDE OPEN, to dance, be loving, full of laughter, to be accepting, kind and RUN with passion,” Hanf said. “In other words. TO FIND YOUR INNER CHICKEN.”

Chico ROCKS and the HiYa project have similar agendas. They are both organizations that want to spread positivity in the Chico community.

Nelson said Chico State should have some painted rocks scattered around campus.

 “I would be surprised if there wasn’t,” Nelson said. “But there’s no way to know until you stumble across one.” 

Everyone is welcome to participate, there are no requirements except to keep things child-friendly since young children partake in this activity. People just need to grab a few rocks of any size and start painting or write whatever comes to mind.

“We are painting rocks to ‘hide’ around Chico, California to spread joy and brighten people’s day,” according to the Chico ROCKS Facebook page. “This is a community-building group meant to inspire creativity in all ages and energize people to explore the beautiful area in which we live.”

It’s important to be mindful of where rocks are hidden, since it can damage lawn mowers or trip people. Participants should also refrain from trespassing on private property to get rocks to avoid unnecessary trouble. 

“The goal is to get lots of people across our communities painting so that there are lots of rocks to find out there,” according to the Chico ROCKS Facebook page. “You might find yourself rediscovering part of our community you haven’t appreciated in a while.”

Participants can post pictures of their findings or creations on any social media platform with #ChicoRocks. However, Facebook is the primary outlet that people have been using. 

Nelson said his favorite thing about the hobby is the pay-it-forward and good karma aspect. 

“I hope somebody gets [good karma] when they stumble across one of my rocks unexpectedly,” Nelson said. “It’s one of those random acts of kindness we need.”

There’s hundreds of painted rocks already scattered throughout Chico. The Genetic Resource & Conservation Center, also known as the “tree farm,” is a popular place to search. The best part about this pastime is giving people an excuse to go outdoors, and explore the outdoors with friends and family. 

Painted rocks reflect the opinions, attitudes and creative expression of the individual artists, so no one can be held accountable if some rocks are offensive.

Melvin Bui can be reached at [email protected] or @Melvinbuii on Twitter.