Dave’s Rock Garden celebrates kindness, one painted rock at a time

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Seven years ago this month, Dave Dean was fed up with weeds and trash choking on a vacant state-owned lot not far from his home near Moonlight State Beach in Encinitas.

But rather than leave the job in the hands of local or state officials, Dean grabbed trash bags and tools and began the cleanup job himself on the property, a hillside lot at the northwest corner of Second and B.

After a few weeks, he started visiting nurseries and buying succulents, bromeliads, ice plants and drought-tolerant cacti to decorate the now weed-free hill. Six months later, he began carving winding footpaths lined with large beach pebbles that he hand-carried from the beach each day.

People walk through Dave’s Rock Garden near Moonlight Beach in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Then, one day in the summer of 2015, Candace Jesse Jessup, an artist from Arizona staying at a nearby hotel, painted one of the stones in the garden with a mandala and a heart to thank Dean for his individual mission to beautify the community. It was then that the commercial estate agent, now 64, said he had the light bulb moment that transformed the land into the unique tourist attraction it is today today.

“When I saw her swinging, I thought, oh my God, that’s it,” he said. “I will have a thousand stones of a thousand colors from a thousand people. This was the start of Dave’s Rock Garden.

Today, Dave’s Rock Garden is decorated with more than 7,000 hand-painted rocks by visitors from 113 countries and all 50 states. It also includes thousands of plants, handmade statues, meditation stumps to sit and play checkers on, a flag pole and a self-service art station where anyone can paint pictures. stones for Dean to add to the garden.

Dave Dean holds the very first rock an artist from Arizona painted for Dave's Rock Garden in 2015.

Dave Dean holds a beach rock painted by Arizona artist Candace Jesse Jessup. It was the very first painted rock in Dean’s Dave’s Rock Garden in Encinitas.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dave’s Rock Garden is now a beloved part of the city’s funky art scene, but its presence hasn’t always been appreciated. Just two weeks after Dean’s project began in 2015, a nearby resident filed a lawsuit with the city, and Encinitas officials issued Dean a cease-and-desist order, asking him to stop. what he was doing and to remove all the plants within two weeks or they would take action.

The city never followed through on his threat, and Dean eventually snuck to the property. But instead of working in broad daylight, he gardened every night under cover of darkness. It wasn’t until 2017 – after the garden was recognized as a community treasure – that Dean finally felt safe gardening in the sun again.

“One of the inspirations I used for my motivation in creating the garden is that I like to think of Moonlight Beach as the crown jewel of our city and Moonlight Road as the gateway to our crown jewel,” he said. “I think as citizens of Encinitas we owe our visitors more than just letting them see a weed field on the way to the beach.”

Although Dave’s Rock Garden remains an unofficial public art installation, it has received widespread recognition from local and national media, rock art and painting groups, and even Google, which has registered it as a point of interest. official. A few years ago, Dean was honored by the Ben’s Bells Project in Arizona, which rewards people who perform acts of intentional kindness. And rather than adversaries, Encinitas city officials have become defenders of the garden. Last year, when the city decided to build a new retaining wall on the southern edge of the garden, Dean was asked to serve on the wall’s design committee.

“Although the city has yet to officially approve the garden, many city officials have offered their unofficial support and appreciation for the garden,” Dean said.

A Hindu sculpture and painted rocks at Dave's Rock Garden in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

A Hindu sculpture and painted rocks at Dave’s Rock Garden in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

The garden has a small box where visitors can leave donations to help pay for paintings and plants. He’s raised quite a bit of money over the years, but Dean remains the main funder of the project. Over the years, he’s spent over $20,000 on plants from local nurseries and green glacier rocks from a Utah quarry and hundreds more on paints and brushes. He also spends every weekend morning weeding, trimming and raking the garden and he stops most weeknights before sunset to check in. about 100 visitors stop there every day.

Dean says he’s determined to work so hard and spend so much on the garden because it’s his hobby and he feels well rewarded by the volume of “thanks” he receives.

“The locals love it so much,” Dean said. “When I walk into any restaurant in town, people see me and say, ‘Hey, you’re the rock guy.’ It’s happened a thousand times. I didn’t know that I would be known by so many people.

Encinitas resident Dave Dean cleans up the garden he's maintained since 2015, called Dave's Rock Garden.

Encinitas resident Dave Dean cleans up the garden he’s maintained since 2015, called Dave’s Rock Garden, near Moonlight Beach in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Among the thousands of rocks in the garden are painted tributes to the Grateful Dead, the Kool-Aid Man, the painter Bob Ross, Volkswagen buses, Peter Pan, the Morton Salt Girl, the Taj Majal, Taco Bell and Humpty Dumpty. There are rocks painted with Arabic and Chinese letters, a 9/11 memorial flag, an elaborate octopus, and photo-realistic koi fish. Dean has created groupings of rocks painted with themes like mushrooms, animals, human faces and university insignia and there is a path he calls “believer’s row” lined with hundreds of rocks with spiritual themes. and religious.

Although most rock artists are amateurs, Dean said several professional artists have contributed greatly to the project over the years, including David Owens, Svetlana Kozak, Tiana Souligny, Steve Grah and Rich Strayer.

Dean’s favorite rocks are those with poignant stories. A rock painted with an ocean landscape features the words “I dropped a tear in the ocean.” When I find him, I’ll stop missing you. Another depicts a broken heart held together with a bandage. It commemorates a local surfer who died of a heart attack a few years ago. A third rock bears the words: “I donated a kidney to my wife. She already has my heart. August 11, 2021.”

A collection of small painted rocks at Dave's Rock Garden in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

A collection of small painted rocks at Dave’s Rock Garden in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

Dean said some rock artists arrive with their gifts pre-painted, but most rocks in the garden were painted on site by visitors. Over the years, he only had to remove two rocks because they had inappropriate content.

“My only rule is that it has to be safe enough for Disney because we have a lot of kids here,” Dean said. “All these little children come to see me to share their pebbles. I never imagined having a connection with so many children. This project exceeded my wildest imagination.

On Jan. 9, Colorado artist Brian Simmonds, who paints under the name “Pher01” (or “Pharaoh 1”), stopped while walking his Lab mix, Lola. He grabbed a few brushes and tubes of paint and started brushing a rock with a bright blue and green cactus design, which he says was inspired by a recent visit to Peru.

“I love it here,” Simmonds said of the garden. “I love the imagination that went into creating such a beautiful art installation for the community.”

Brian Artist

Artist Brian “Pher01” Simmonds paints a cactus on a rock at Dave’s Rock Garden in Encinitas on Saturday, January 8, 2022. Paint, brushes and rocks are available for anyone who wishes to paint their own design of rock.

(Hayne Palmour IV/For the San Diego Union-Tribune)

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