A Canandaigua trio started painting and hiding rocks as a form of therapy — and it's got folks in the community searching and smiling

CANANDAIGUA — Tina Marie Erskine believes the world could use a little more kindness.

She, along with her son and best friend, have found a way to do that with painted rocks.

The trio have spent the past several months decorating stones they find in the area with everything from inspirational phrases and landscapes to animals and cartoon characters.

They then place the rocks at various locations in the community, such as banks and restaurant drive-throughs, the hospital, courthouse and downtown businesses for people to find.

Those who have found the painted rocks can choose to either keep them or re-hide them for another person to find.

Over the past four months the three have painted and hid about 100 rocks.

The process has not only been therapeutic for them, but it has brought joy to others as well, Erskine said.

“We just want to make people happy and contribute to the community,” the 52-year-old Canandaigua resident said. “Human kindness is free.”

The idea for the rocks came after Steven Rath, Erskine’s close friend, was diagnosed with a progressive form of dementia in 2015. It was the same year he retired as a state highway superintendent.

At the time of the diagnosis, Erskine searched for creative activities that would keep Rath engaged and focused. They began with gardening and then added rock painting to their hobbies.

Erskine is no stranger to dealing with challenges, having been diagnosed with lupus at age 25 and multiple sclerosis at age 30.

In 1991, Erskine's son Jeremie, now 32, suffered brain damage on the left side of his brain at the age of four due to a motor vehicle accident.

At the time of his accident, Erskine turned to art and creative outlets to help her get through. Over time, Erskine saw improvement in Jeremie. He was eventually able to do things doctors never believed he would again, like walk and talk.

Erskine believes the creative process used in the rock painting is helping Rath. She has found that searching for the rocks, cleaning, painting and then hiding them stimulates Rath’s brain. It allows him to focus on a vision while painting and stay focused to complete the picture.

They write down where the rocks are placed, and Erskine will ask Rath after a few days if he remembers where certain ones are hidden. He usually does.

Each take their own unique approach to painting. Jeremie Erskine tends to be the most detail-oriented, while Rath has a vision of what the picture will be in his head and then he goes in search of the perfectly shaped rock to create that vision. Tina Marie Erskine opts for inspirational phases, such as “You’ve got this” and “Fall 7 times, get up 8.” She believes people need some encouragement, and a small act of kindness can go a long way.

“If you touch someone’s heart you can touch the brain,” Erskine said. “When you show love, it can change the way one thinks.”

The response from the community has been supportive. Many who have found the painted stones post pictures of them on the Canandaigua 2020 Facebook page.

Rath enjoys the fact that people are getting out of the house and searching for the rocks together. He spoke of a grandmother and granddaughter who are doing just that. And a girl scout troop in Washington, D.C. reached out through social media to let them know they, too, are doing something similar in their community.

“When you hear these stories from people who are finding the rocks, it’s kind of neat,” Rath said.

They say part of the fun is hiding the rocks. They often place them somewhere that ties into what they have painted. For example, a rock with a bike on it was recently hidden at a local bicycle shop. Another floral decorated stone was placed at the local florist, and yet another rock with the phrase “Be the rebel” was hidden at a tattoo shop.

The group has extended its reach when it comes to hiding and now leaves the painted rocks at locations throughout Ontario County. They would love to learn that a rock has been re-hidden in another state.

Erskine said they are thrilled with the community response.

“We love that people love finding them and are talking about it,” Erskine said.