Walking head-down along Osage Creek in Green Forest, Ark. (pop. 2,717), Lin Wellford, 59, scans the stream bank before picking up a smooth round rock the size of a curled-up calico kitten.
“It’s like Mother Nature says this is the perfect piece for a cat,” says Wellford, holding up the sandstone canvas for her next art design. “Finding the right rock is like a treasure hunt.”
Later at her kitchen table, she transforms the river-tumbled rock into an animal so life-like that a casual observer might be tempted to scratch the faux feline behind its ears. Using a lead pencil, Wellford sketches the animal’s head, haunch and tail, then outlines the features with a black marker and fills in the spaces with acrylic paints. With fine-tipped brushes, she adds eyes and fluffy fur and layers in highlights and shadows.
Wellford calls her creations three-dimensional art and—as an artist, author and teacher—almost single-handedly has elevated rock painting from a quirky hobby to a respected art form during the last three decades.
At first, however, people thought she had rocks in her head when she began to collect them and consider the creative possibilities. With an advertising degree from the University of Florida, Wellford had moved with her family from Miami to northwest Arkansas in 1978 and bought 100 acres of forested woodlands to build their home.
“Just like tourists are fascinated by seashells in Florida, I was captivated by rocks in the Ozarks,” says Wellford, who explored the creek just a stone’s throw from her house.
One day, she came upon a rock shaped like a bunny and told herself, “By adding eyes and ears, I can make this rock a rabbit.” Painting that first piece led to the launch of Stone Menagerie, a home-based business to sell her creations by the pound to shops in Arkansas, Missouri and Florida.
Today, she works on commission and, besides painting bunnies and cats, Wellford has created her “pet rocks with personality” to look like fawns, foxes, cheetahs, leopards, mice, owls, pandas, raccoons, squirrels, snakes, turtles and walruses. Others look like miniature barns, flowers, fruit and houses. They can be used as doorstops and bookends or as decorations for flower beds, gardens, mantels and more.
As a rock artist, Wellford breaks down the process into steps, which she outlines in her books and teaches in her classes at libraries and community and nature centers. Since 1994 with the release of The Art of Painting Animals on Rocks, she has written nine instructional books that have sold nearly a million copies. Her ideas literally have rocked the world of hobby, craft and decorative painting circles.
“It opened up a whole new world for them,” says Wellford, citing readers who say the hobby has given them added income, self-esteem and a way to relieve stress.
Rock painting, she says, is particularly appealing to people timid about picking up a paintbrush for the first time or concerned about the cost of art supplies. “Rather than teach people to just turn a rock into art, I could transform people into artists,” Wellford muses.
Among her former students is Wandra Dees, 60, of Golden, Mo., who hosts annual rock painting parties in her home and gives many of her painted creations as gifts. “I never considered myself an artist before I started painting rocks 15 years ago,” Dees says.
“Lin is so willing to show the technique,” says Linda Chorice, manager of the Springfield (Mo.) Conservation Nature Center, where Wellford has taught classes for six years. “By the time everybody has created something, they feel like they want to try it again.”
Wellford is a rock star in her field, says Bill Ewart Jr., 50, of Edgartown, Mass. With Wellford’s guidance, he has learned to paint lighthouses, ships and seashells on white quartz, and he now teaches others the art form.
“I loved each new book Lin came out with and realized that I could use stones or rocks as a blank canvas and paint virtually anything I could imagine,” Ewart says. “I only hope I have been able to inspire someone the way she has inspired me.”