Allen County Rocks is a new public arts project asking for participation from the entire community, and is a visual statement that symbolizes how, together, we will endure through the COVID-19 pandemic.
The project is sponsored by the Bowlus Fine Arts Center in Iola and, in the words of executive director Daniel Kays, was envisioned as a way of “getting people inspired” and “bringing people together,” even as they adhere to social distancing regulations.
How it works is that whenever you’re out taking a stroll, exercising, walking your dog or perhaps hunting for teddy bears in windows, just stop by the Bowlus’ fountain, grab a rock, paint it at home, then return it to the pile.
You can decorate your rock however you choose, though some of those already returned have been adorned with patterns and designs (akin to Easter eggs), inspirational slogans, landscapes, patriotic and religious images, animals like birds and whales and much more.
Kays said he was inspired to develop the project after seeing a community program in Vista, Calif., where artists painted utility boxes all over the city and thereby “became statements of art.”
Bowlus assistant projects director Mandy Moyer added that “putting some color into the fountain” is a great way to “show your Allen County spirit.”
It’s also a way, she said, of collectively stating: “We’re going to get through this together” because “our foundation is strong” as a community.
Moyer said she was inspired to do the project given her experiences at Southwestern College in Winfield, where “mound building” is a long-standing tradition that unites the college community.
NOT only does the “Allen County Rocks” project present an opportunity for the community to come together and make a collective statement; it is a great activity for kids to do at home in lieu of traditional art classes.
“This is an educational opportunity, it really is,” said Kays.
Families can enjoy making art together, say, doing so at the same time they decorate Easter eggs, and then talk about everything the rocks might symbolize.
For instance, “when you’re adding color to a gray stone, you’re adding life and character to that stone,” explained Kays.
How therefore might children explain the act of painting to their parents and one another as involving “adding life” to an otherwise bleak, that is, “gray” or “colorless” situation?
Or kids might be urged to paint a message on their rock for others, thereby helping them to understand how art can help people to feel better during times where they may be sad, bored or cut off from friends.
Rocks are also a symbol of strength, Kays said, such that kids can explain to parents how rocks remind us of how strong and unbreakable our community can be.
REGARDING more complex, adult-level messages, Kays discussed how “a performing arts community is about bringing people together, and experiencing something together.”
In the case of the Allen County Rocks project, people are “coming together to witness a performance,” a performance by the community itself, even if we’re not all present to view it at the same time.
Kays described public art as providing a “point of coming together, collecting in a space,” suggesting that it can provide for togetherness even in times of separation.
And when we put our rock down next to those painted by others, we symbolically put a burden down, even if it’s a small one, and remind ourselves that others have burdens as well, even if they might be different from our own.
Together, Kays suggested, we thereby “produce a collective sigh,” as we simultaneously share a weight and shed a weight.
“We’re sharing and shedding the load together,” said Kays.
Kays also planned to keep the Allen County Rocks project in place at the Bowlus for “as long as possible.”
“It will be permanent to the point of rain washing the color away,” he said.
So even though the installation is ephemeral, it will serve as a “reflective memorial” in the near-future — “a memorial to what we’re going through right now,” Kays explained.
Public art produces memory, and during difficult times like the COVID-19 pandemic, can leverage memory to remind people they’re not alone in facing hardships.
Even something as apparently simple as rock-art can remind one of key historic events, carrying “the ones who were there physically” back into time “in their senses [and] in their minds.”
Imagine when the pandemic is over.
“When people can physically come back together as one, they’re going to bypass that fountain,” he said.
“The color and the life will be there, and you’ll feel the life of the community as you come back into the space.”
People will enter the Bowlus and not only recall the burden and difficulty of the pandemic, but recognize it as now being in the past. It will have been overcome by the power of our community’s emotional strength and color, symbolized in both bright paints and lights illuminated in the fountain.
Kays said, “This [will be] a memorial where we celebrate life and coming back together.”