Boulder art honors troops, draws thousands of visitors

MENLO, Iowa – Ray “Bubba” Sorensen wanted to quit years ago, but there he was turning up again and again at a 56-ton boulder to paint murals of the sacrifices of America’s servicemen and women.

For nine years, he has painted the boulder, dubbed “Freedom Rock.” It has made him a celebrity in this swath of central Iowa farm country and has become a Memorial Day tradition that draws thousands of people.

“I’m thanking these guys who signed up to do a job no one else wants to do,” said the 27-year-old graphic artist from Ames, Iowa, whose idea began after watching the movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

Before Sorensen began painting murals each May, the boulder about 40 miles west of Des Moines on an empty stretch of Highway 25 was covered with graffiti.

But only once has the rock been defaced since he began painting scenes of soldiers, whether they’re crossing the Delaware with Gen. George Washington or flying in a helicopter over Vietnam.

A 58-year-old Vietnam veteran became so angry at the one bit of graffiti that he beat up the young vandal, earning himself a citation and a $90 fine that other vets helped him pay.

“I got very upset,” John Porter said. “The rock is a pretty sacred thing to our community.”

It takes Sorensen about three weeks to sketch out and paint scenes on the rock. Using floodlights, he sometimes works past midnight.

On a recent May morning, Sorensen knelt on gravel, his sweatshirt hood pulled over his head against a gusting wind. He methodically painted an image on the rock of Marines carrying a stretcher.

Sorensen tipped his brush to passing motorists, but he rarely took his eyes off the painting.

Every year, 54-year-old Marilee Kajewski of northeast Iowa stops to see the rock.

“I think it is an amazing tribute to the armed forces,” said Kajewski, whose father fought in World War II. “It kind of brings home the commitment, the sacrifice that they’ve made to keep the United States free.”

Sorensen sells T-shirts and prints emblazoned with images from the mural, but the money covers little more than the cost of his supplies. He planned to stop painting the boulder in 2003 but reconsidered after taking a call from an American Legion post in Colorado.

“I had to talk to every legion member. I was probably on the phone for three hours,” he said. “They were all giving reasons why I shouldn’t quit.”

Sorensen emphasizes that his murals are in support of veterans, not blind backing of war.

“I’m not pro-war or pro-anybody’s policy. It’s just one big thank-you card,” he said.

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