Why 5,000 people in Lexington County are just crazy about ... rocks?

Camden artist’s work to roll through the streets of Columbia

Artist Laurie McIntosh loves Columbia and her affection for it can be found on a COMET bus. Andy Wilmoth and Richard Larson, with Sightline Graphics, wrap the bus with McIntosh's artwork.
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Artist Laurie McIntosh loves Columbia and her affection for it can be found on a COMET bus. Andy Wilmoth and Richard Larson, with Sightline Graphics, wrap the bus with McIntosh's artwork.

A few weeks ago, Gena Cogswell wasn’t feeling great. She was going to skip her almost-daily routine, but then she thought, “Oh shoot, I already have them with me.”

She placed them by the door of the Target on Sunset Boulevard in Lexington. And then she spotted a child, who must have been “about 3 years old,” the 62-year-old said. Cogswell pulled a Ziploc bag from her purse.

“I just saw a bunch of rocks toward the door,” she told the girl, handing her the bag.

Cogswell is one of the thousands of people who are part of the “Lexington County SC Rocks!” Facebook group where people share pictures of rocks they have hand painted or found around the county.

The rules are simple: When you find a rock you like, keep it and replace it with one you made. Or, take it somewhere else and hide it, and maybe drop a hint on the Facebook page so others can go searching for it.

It may sound almost too simple to have such a following but Cogswell and other members of the group say it’s about much more than rocks.

When that little girl saw the rocks Cogswell had painted and “hidden” by the front door at Target, the girl was in awe.

“She looked at them like she’d picked up a gold nugget,” Cogswell said. “It tickled her to death, and it tickled me to death.”

This was one of Cogswell’s favorite moments in her almost three years of painting more than 100 rocks a week and hiding them throughout Lexington County, she said. Most nights, she sits in her living room, watches TV and gets to work.

“You can always tell what’s going on in my life by the rocks that I paint that night,” she said.

Some are beach-themed. Others are simple designs — Cogswell does not consider herself an “artist,” but she loves this hobby. And others are more profound and reflect what is going on in the world at the time.

When Hurricane Florence was churning toward the South Carolina coast, Cogswell made a rock that said “Hurricane Florence, behave!” Since she has two children in the military, she said she paints a lot of “pro-military, pro-Air Force” rocks, too. It’s her way of honoring their service.

The one theme she tries to avoid is politics, she said. About six months ago, Cogswell said, she was upset by something President Donald Trump had done. She painted a defiant rock with the words “Go back to New York, Trump.” The Facebook group did not respond with solidarity.

So although she watches the news “24/7,” she said she refrains from making political statements on the rocks because children will be finding them.

At this point, Cogswell has her rock routine planned out the way some schedule family meals or workouts.

She buys 30-lb. bags of Caribbean white stones at Home Depot. She washes the rocks to remove the white powder she dislikes that makes them look “straight from the Caribbean” (and white) and sets them to dry on her kitchen counter. The next evening, she paints 20 or 30 and puts them in a green basket, so they’re ready to go when she runs errands in the morning.

And then she drops them anywhere she goes, whether it’s a park, the grocery story, a school, even a hotel or restaurant. She’s quick.

“I can put out at Starbucks in five minutes and be gone,” she said.

Amber Fox, manager of the Starbucks on Sunset Boulevard off Innkeeper Drive, said rocks have appeared “all over the store” every so often for about a year, and her staff leaves them there to be taken, moved and admired.

For Cogswell, the rocks are a welcome and joyful creative outlet. She said she worked as a law enforcement record keeper for 12 years, and now she’s a caretaker for her 84-year-old mother as well as for her youngest daughter, who lives at home.

Her family may not understand her passion for the rocks, she said, but she doesn’t need them to.

“I know they think it’s silly, but that’s OK,” she said. “It makes me happy. I’m not hurting anybody. I don’t have any other bad habits, other than coffee, so good God!”

Cogswell is definitely not alone. The “Lexington County SC Rocks! Official Page” on Facebook has almost 5,000 members and is full of pictures of colorful creations and children showing off rocks they found. There are painting tips for the novice, advice on where to find the best rocks (McDonalds drive-thrus have “beautiful” rocks) and scavenger hunt-like clues posted by members who have just “rocked” locations around town.

Nicole McLinden, 39, stumbled into the group when her son, Caleb, found a brightly painted rock with the page’s name written on it.

From the time he was 2 years old, Caleb underwent multiple surgeries, including three operations to place tubes in his eardrums to help with infections.

His mom would take him out to the park and play with him to keep his mind off the surgeries. McLinden said she remembered him worrying and crying the day they found their first rock. But once he spotted it, it lifted his spirits.

Caleb soon became fascinated by rock hunting, McLinden said. He and his sister, Emma, found butterfly, Halloween and strawberry rocks and kept them all around the house. The two eventually started decorating and hiding their own rocks, too.

Something so simple started to mean a lot to their family.

A few years ago, Caleb had a peritonsillar cyst that went septic, and he had to have emergency surgery. As McLinden drove him and Emma to the emergency room from their pediatrician’s office, she said Caleb went limp in his car seat. In a panic, she asked Emma to shake his brother awake, but Caleb would not respond.

“That was probably the worst day of my life,” McLinden said.

Caleb underwent emergency surgery for the cyst and was scheduled to get his tonsils removed altogether shortly thereafter. They went to the park, like they did before the previous surgeries. But this time, McLinden was the one who found a rock.

It said “strength” on it.

After years of putting on a brave face and keeping life upbeat for Caleb, McLinden said she was shaken up. Seeing her son unconscious in the rearview mirror got to her. The rock came at the perfect time.

“Finding that rock was really special to me because it was just like I needed strength in that moment, and it reminded me that I was strong and that he was strong and he would make it through,” she said.

Caleb did make it through. Now, he’s 7 years old, and he is thriving, McLinden said. He recently got straight-As on his report card for the first time, thanks in part to his new school. He just started at Lakes and Bridges Charter School, a free public school that opened in Greenville this fall and specializes in educating children with dyslexia.

McLinden is in the process of moving the family from Lexington to Greenville, but she said she hopes to continue “rocking” in their new hometown. She may have to start her own group in Greenville, but she wants to pay it forward, she said.

“Life is so tough. We’ve been through so many things and just with something fun like that, it connects people,” she said.

Cueto can be reached at 803-771-8621, @isabellacueto
Isabella Cueto is a bilingual multimedia journalist covering Lexington County, one of the fastest-growing areas of South Carolina. She previously worked as a reporter for the Medill Justice Project and WLRN, South Florida’s NPR station. She is a graduate of the University of Miami, where she studied journalism and theatre arts.