At San Joaquin Gardens, a rock can become a canvas — and a treasure

These two Fresno artists rock.

In the following clip from the May 17 episode of “Fresno Famoso,” I interview Joyce Aiken and Arminee Shishmanian, both accomplished artists and residents at San Joaquin Gardens, about their newest project: painting rocks. What’s more, they’ve turned their endeavors into a treasure hunt of sorts, scattering the rocks in various locations on the San Joaquin campus in hopes that their neighbors will find them and take them home.

Here’s a rundown:

The project: Rock painting isn’t a new idea, by any means, but sheltering-in-place across the country seems to have brought out the creative urge. (It’s also something fun to do with bored kids.)

The artists: Shishmanian started painting at age 60. She’d never done anything but coloring in grade school, yet more than 50 years later, she picked up a brush. She started with watercolors and then branched out into pastels, oil paintings and beautiful sculptures — which she particularly loves. (She’s represented at A Sense of Place gallery.) Now it’s rock painting. “It’s never a dull moment,” she says.


Aiken started teaching art at Fresno State in 1956. She taught there for 32 years, then eventually led the Fresno Arts Council. Among her works: She and Jean Ray Laury made the iconic mosaics on the benches at the Fulton Mall. Aiken is known for her mandala meditation pieces, public art and a project she calls “Honoring Death,” which includes her own designed coffin and headstone. The rock painting is something new: “It’s probably been 40 or 50 years since I’ve done a painting. That’s why it’s so interesting now, when Arminee brought me in on this project, to actually pick up a brush again,” she says.

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The designs: Shishmanian’s rocks are more painterly in their composition, while Aiken’s tend more toward patterns. Acrylic paint works best.

The specs: They try to find rocks that are smooth because they take the paint better. Shishmanian sometimes finds oddly shaped rocks that lend themselves to the artistic process. She turned this one into a car, which reminds me of my Prius:

Not in lockdown: There is a perception among the outside world that retirement communities such as San Joaquin Gardens are in states of lockdown right now — that residents are stuck in their homes and can’t escape. That isn’t the case. While most activities and common dining are curtailed, residents are free to walk about (and leave the premises) while maintaining strict social distancing. “One of the things that we thought was important in this project is to get people out of their apartments and looking for these little treasures we’ve been putting out,” Aiken says. “We encourage people to take the rocks and put them in their own gardens, or leave them another place for someone else.”

An image boost for rocks: After both artists started the project, they’ve found a newfound appreciation for rocks. Says Shishmanian: “Now when I’m on a walk, my eyes are on the ground, constantly, looking to see if I can find a little treasure to paint.”

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (3)

  • John R Donaldson

    Don, do you realize that San Joaquin Gardens isn’t even listed in the phone book now. It’s The Terraces now. I didn’t realize that until I was looking for them a year or more ago.

  • Patti

    Thanks for featuring two of our many talented residents stories!


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