By Melanie Minty, arts columnist
“Writing just seems easier then talking most times,” Katheren Szabo relates as she fills me in on her latest neighborhood-improvement project. Szabo, along with some friends at Newton Recreation Centre, have been painting and decorating rocks. This latest rock-painting project is destined for the Downtown Eastside community in Vancouver, in addition to Newton, where painted rocks and sticks have been left in various spots in the community for discovery.
This rock project, called “From Surrey with Love,” is a Friends of the Grove initiative headed up by Szabo. “We are a small group of Newton neighbours who support free, family-friendly activities here in Newton,” she notes.
Painting rocks to “fill the neighborhood” began as an extension of Kat’s Vigil project. Weather permitting, Kat spends a couple of hours each day in The Grove, an unofficial park next to the Newton rec centre, where she talks with people in the neighborhood. She always offers companionship, and sometimes food and coffee.
“So many people tell me they are so very lonely, so afraid to get involved with people, suffering from mental health or PTSD, battling addictions, etc.,” Szabo elaborates. “I listen, support, hug at times, offer any community information I know of that might make it easier for them. This is where I started to paint rocks and other found objects, to lift up the neighbourhood. I encourage people to do art when we are visiting one on one. So many people stopped (making) poetry or art long, long ago. It is exciting to share their fun to make a simple message.”
Messages on the painted rocks (and sometimes sticks and other wood bits) often have words on them – words like hope, forgiveness, and love and other such mini messages. Once the rocks are decorated, they are left throughout Newton to be picked up by anyone who is inspired to pick it up and take it.
“I have heard from so many that these small, loving items can change their whole day,” Szabo says. Espresso Café and Studio 73 have painted rocks sitting out in plain sight, for cheering people up.
“A security guard here in Newton told me these little offerings make such a difference to him,” Kat relates. He looks forward to finding the rocks – some with eyes that glow in the dark, or drawings of people holding hands with hearts and flowers. This is just one story. There are hundreds more.
Now, Szabo is taking her Newton-created rocks to the Downtown Eastside area of Vancouver. Kat has been invited as a guest on Shetalks, a show on Roundhouse Radio 98.3, on March 3 from 10 to 11 a.m. “I decided to carry an envoy of ‘love’ from Newton to the Downtown Eastside. Both communities have much bad press, and challenges. I wanted to send love and hope and community care.”
Szabo will talk about why she volunteers on this radio program. “I do it for me, to get to know my community and to lift it up where I can.” Growing up, her family moved more than 40 times before she was in grade 6. She never had the chance to build a community of friends. Now, by volunteering locally, she can build those qualities for herself, her family and neighbors.
Painting rocks is not the only volunteer project Szabo co-ordinates for the Newton neighborhood. She sets up tables at Newton Days where anyone can join in the painted-rock messages, and also at Fambul Tok events there are rocks and sticks to paint. She figures that more than 200 people have participated in this “art” project over the last four years.
“This year when I go to Shetalks (in the Downtown Eastside) I will be carrying 100 items, decorated by local neighbours, family members, local workers in Newton, businesses and myself. They will all be painted in acrylic or, if felt pen is used, they will be sealed so they are waterproof.”
The mini art pieces will be labelled “From Surrey with Love.” All these offerings will be laid down in a heart- or peace-shaped pile, with a small note of explanation. Take a rock. It is public art there for the taking. If it makes you smile, pass it on. From Surrey with love, indeed.