WILLMAR — Hundreds of pieces of colorful joy – in the form of small, brightly painted rocks – are being created and placed all around area communities this summer as artists give a little of themselves in hopes of brightening the day for others.

The gifts are free for whoever happens to find them.

Fashioned after similar hometown groups from all around the world that connect through Facebook, “Willmar Rocks” is a group of painters/hiders – and seekers – that is steadily growing as more rocks are painted and found.

The Willmar Rocks group was started this spring by Sue Dallmann while she was at her winter home in Arizona, where painting and hiding rocks is a popular activity.

Because of the COVID quarantine, Dallmann had plenty of time on her hands to paint rocks with cute, cheerful designs.

Dallmann said she thought it’d be a fun, inexpensive activity to start in Willmar as a way to give people, especially kids, opportunities to paint rocks and hide them in public places around their neighborhoods for others to find and enjoy.

“It’s just a fun thing to do, and the whole family can get in on it,” she said.

Dallmann created the Facebook group while still in Arizona and by the time she returned home in May there were 120 members. The group, which is open to anyone, does not meet for any organized activity but share a common interest by connecting through social media.

Typically, people post photos of the rocks they’ve painted – and sometimes include tips on where they’re hidden. The stones are placed in public areas in easy-to-see spots and not actually “hidden,” said Dallmann.

“It’s not a scavenger hunt,” she said. “We want people to find them.”

People who find the rocks are encouraged to go to the Willmar Rocks Facebook page and post photos of the rocks and where they found them.

Dallmann said her hope is that people who find a rock will start painting rocks and “planting” them for others to find to help spread the love.

Sarah Miller, who moved to Willmar two months ago with her husband and 1-year-old son, had painted rocks for years while she and her family lived in Idaho. She enjoys participating in the activity because it helps her improve her skills as an artist and hiding the rocks gives her an opportunity to explore her new home surroundings.

“I like being able to share my work with other people,” said Miller. “I know it’s not a huge difference but it’s just one way I can contribute to the community.”

Elizabeth Grimm said she tries to imagine what the person who finds her rocks is going through and hopes the message on the rock will “speak to them” and “give them hope.” Grimm said she and her 6-year-old daughter, Mackenzie, have hidden hundreds of painted rocks.

All three women, who brought their painted rocks and stories about why they participate in Willmar Rocks to Robbins Island Regional Park recently, said painting rocks is easy.

“Anyone can do it,” said Miller. “If you’ve never painted anything before, you can do it. If you’ve painted lots before, you can do it. Any skill level is totally appropriate because anyone, no matter who you are, can share love with other people,” she said.

Miller likes to use smooth river rocks for her art, which currently features a collection of dinosaur paintings and comic strip characters.

Dallmann and Grimm typically use rocks they find along roads or yards.

While Miller paints on the bare rocks, Dallmann first coats her rocks with white exterior spray paint before using water-based craft paint for the designs. She gives each rock a final coat of sealant to preserve the work. On the back of each rock she paints “Willmar Rocks Facebook” so people know where the rock came from and where to find out more information about the activity.

Painting the rocks is just part of the fun, followed by finding places to put them and speculating on when they’ll be found and who will find them.

Dallmann said when she sees her rocks in the same spot she left them a couple weeks ago, she wonders if people know they can take the rocks home with them.

“Every time I go by there, I say, ‘Oh, my rock is still there,’” said Dallmann, who said she's already put well over 100 painted rocks around Willmar this year.

Miller said she gets excited when she finds a painted rock. “It makes me think that someone cared enough to leave it there and share a little piece of themselves,” she said.

Many area towns have similar groups, and there’s another group in Willmar started by students at the DREAM called Willmar Kindness Rocks.