Linda McWhirter’s art rocks. Literally.
McWhirter paints lovely images — some whimsical, some very detailed and realistic — on small, smooth stones she finds here and there.
She’s been doing her little rock paintings since she retired from 20-plus years of teaching — mostly social studies — at Key Peninsula Middle School.
Her husband, Larry, was also a teacher. Soon after they both retired, they moved from Gig Harbor to the Methow Valley.
There, they settled into a different lifestyle and explored new interests. “We liked to collect rocks and we often found lots of really interesting stones there on the river,” McWhirter recalled.
Before long, they had amassed quite a collection of river rocks and other stones.
“My husband started making mosaic wall tiles from them — interesting landscape designs that were reminiscent of the mountain region we lived in — and pretty soon people were wanting to buy them,” she said.
Suddenly, the McWhirters found themselves in business making and selling rock mosaics that incorporated pieces of slate, basalt and other stones. The slate was used for mountains; small, flat stones made up the sky, which was usually Linda McWhirter’s contribution. The mosaics were built on old, weathered barn wood or cedar planks.
Most of the mosaics were fairly small, about 8-by-10 inches. But the couple also did several large pieces, including a few fireplace surrounds with scenes of the mountains and sky.
“The biggest one we did weighed more than 130 pounds,” Larry McWhirter said. “That’s the challenge with working with stones — they’re heavy.”
He developed a special hanging method for the heavier pieces, a cleat system that helps keep the piece level.
Helping her husband with the mosaics kept her busy, but McWhirter wanted to find something unique and more personal that she could do in the winter. That turned out to be painting images on some of the small, smooth stones in their collection.
She experimented with different subjects and found that painting natural images gave her the most pleasure. Her images often depict flowers, birds and insects, forest scenes and barnyard animals.
Some of her most eye-catching images are of fish, frogs and wildlife — highly detailed and realistic.
“I get a lot of ideas from photos and from websites like Pintrest,” she said.
The couple sold much of their work at the general store in Mazama.
A few years ago, the McWhirters moved back to Gig Harbor and built a home in Olalla next door to one of their sons. They continue to do their “rock art” and still sell some of their mosaics at the Mazama store, but now McWhirter also sells her painted stones on Esty.
“The pigs and chickens seem to be the bestsellers on Esty,” she said with a laugh.
If you attended this year’s Gig Harbor Garden Tour, you likely saw Linda McWhirter’s work on display in their garden, which was featured in the tour. It’s obvious that the McWhirters share a love of gardening as well as art, as they have created a remarkable landscape in the two years they’ve lived in Olalla. A fenced side garden holds at least a dozen galvanized, agricultural-size watering troughs that serve as containers for an abundance of vegetables and berries.
Elsewhere around the home, they’ve incorporated flowering plants, small trees and shrubs and several varieties of ornamental grasses.
The couple’s artistic touches are evident throughout their yard and gardens. Mosaic stepping stones are set into the sidewalks and McWhirter’s brightly painted stones identify the various fruit trees and berry bushes.
“Mostly the rock painting is just a hobby,” she said modestly. “I’m not in any of the local ‘painted rock’ groups. For me, really, it’s just for fun.”
She plans to start doing more “serious” art — and larger pieces — soon. Already she has done several small portraits of her grandchildren, as well as pet portraits for friends. She taught herself to use oil paints and has experimented with oil pastels, but acrylic paints are currently her preferred medium.
“I don’t have a particular style yet, but I especially like impressionism and the work of Vincent van Gogh,” McWhirter said.
She had a small setback this past summer when she broke her right arm two days before the garden tour. She wasn’t able to paint while the arm healed, but that gave her more time to do some of her other favorite pastimes, such as practicing Spanish with “El Grupo” Spanish Club at the Gig Harbor Library and hanging out with friends and family. And admiring her beautiful gardens.