Metro -- Rocks jury canvas.jpg

Sys Qvist Johnston really enjoys the variety of art projects she has created using mostly river rocks, ranging from small vignettes to free-standing sculptures and jewelry.

Sys Qvist Johnston had an “aha” moment when looking to test a color for her pottery.

She was looking for a piece of paper, but picked up a rock instead. It’s as if the rock spoke to her — and she’s never made a piece of pottery since.

Qvist began painting hand-picked river rocks, creating scesnes and images that quickly resonated with her followers. She now describes life as contented and happy.

Her rock art sold in galleries, gift shops, and arts and crafts fairs in Montana and Oregon, as well as on She also had a display at the Hood River Harvest Festival last October.

A native of Copenhagen, Denmark, Qvist was a professional tennis player on the Virginia Slims circuit. That brought her to the United States, eventually settling on some property in Montana with her husband.

There, they built a log cabin on 12 acres, where she had built herself a kiln and wanted to pursue pottery. But it was rocks that really captured her interest, something she has enjoyed for the past 23 years. She now lives in Northwest Portland.

She loves the outdoors and enjoys searching for rocks among Montana’s rivers, preferring them over Oregon’s lava rocks for the type of art she creates.

“I just start walking and find unusual shapes,” Qvist says. “They are all hand-picked. It’s a lot of hard work, but I like the freedom of being my own boss.”

At first, her husband was skeptical of the idea of painting rocks, but became supportive when he saw what she could do with them.

“I see things in rocks,” Qvist says of the shapes, textures and colors she finds. One of her latest works, a collection of humorous chickens, brings delighted reactions.

“My customers say there’s something funny about my rock hens with the egg that makes them smile,” she says. “Always, laughter has been important to me. I like to make people smile; it is what I get back.”

Always the artist, Qvist says ideas “come out of the blue,” and she’s always coming up with new ideas. To bring her rocks to life, she uses polymer clay and acrylic paints.

“All my work is original, to create one-of-a-kind pieces of art work incorporating humor into each rock’s characteristic,” she says. “Each piece is varnished to protect the painting and to bring out the color in each rock.”

Qvist grew up with art in the family. Her late father, Hans Qvist, was widely known for his cartoons in Denmark, appearing in newspapers and magazines across the country.

She says he created 30,000 cartoons in his lifetime.

When she was younger, she painted 50-pound rocks with pictures of cats. Now, she creates charming dog necklaces, canvases and shadow boxes.

“At home, when I look at the hundreds of chickens I’ve painted and see them staring at me, I burst out laughing,” she says.

Recommended for you