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Freedom Rock painter completes Lake Park memorial

Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II works on the Coast Guard rock that is included in the Freedom Rock Veterans Memorial in Lake Park, Iowa, Friday morning. JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE1 / 2
Five Dickinson County veterans were selected to be immortalized in the Freedom Rock being painted for a memorial at Lake Park. A dedication ceremony is planned for 10 a.m. Nov. 9, at the site of the memorial. JULIE BUNTJER/DAILY GLOBE2 / 2

LAKE PARK, Iowa -- In the crisp morning air Friday, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II dipped his paintbrush in a bucket of blue paint, pushed out the excess along the canister's rim and then colored in the lines he'd sketched on one of six large boulders that comprise the new Freedom Rock Veterans Memorial in Lake Park.

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The community broke ground on the memorial in early August, just one month before Sorensen arrived to put his artistic talents to work on the display. The nationally known painter from Greenfield, Iowa, is in the midst of his first year of the Freedom Rock Tour. His goal is to paint a Freedom Rock in each of Iowa's 99 counties.

The original Freedom Rock is located on a private quarry site north of Greenfield, west of Des Moines. Sorensen painted it for the first time in 1999.

"I didn't start it as this grand idea I had," he said. "It was more by accident."

After watching the Steven Spielberg movie "Saving Private Ryan" -- and always having a sense of patriotism -- Sorensen was moved to do something to thank America's veterans.

"I've always had a soft spot in my heart for veterans and I saw that movie. Spielberg did awesome with putting us in war without putting us in war, I guess.

"I wanted to say thank you to our veterans," he added. "I went out to this large boulder that everybody graffitied and I just put, 'Thank you veterans for our freedom' and the flag raising at Iwo Jima."

The rock was Sorensen's first attempt at mural painting, and he readily admits to hating it.

"I hate that everyone always wants to see it," he said. "You grow so much as an artist that you just become embarrassed of your past works."

That simple act on a 60-plus-ton boulder caught the attention of many local veterans, and they asked Sorensen if he'd consider painting a new mural on the rock each year in time for Memorial Day.

Over the years, the ashes of 48 veterans have been added to the rock -- mixed in with the paint Sorensen uses in his murals.

"That was off-the-cuff, too," he said. "I was painting a tribute to our Vietnam veterans and some Vietnam vets came up. They wanted to sprinkle some ashes at the base of the rock.

"I said, 'They'll just blow away in the wind. Just dump them here in my paint, I'll mix it in and they'll be here forever.' They loved that idea. Then I started getting ashes from all over the country from Vietnam veterans who wanted to be in the Freedom Rock."

While painting the Freedom Rock in Sioux County, at Hawarden, earlier this summer, Sorensen was asked to incorporate the ashes of both a local Vietnam and World War II veteran, which he did.

Dickinson County is the 12th Iowa county to host Sorensen during this inaugural year of his Freedom Rock Tour. He has one more Freedom Rock scheduled to complete before the end of this season, after getting an April start.

"I was planning on doing 10 a year, but I might bump that up as the years go by," he said.

Sorensen arrived in Lake Park on Sept. 4. While he typically paints just one Freedom Rock in a community, he was hired to do something extra special in Lake Park. In addition to the 13¾-ton Freedom Rock at the center of the memorial, five slightly smaller rocks -- one to represent each branch of the military -- will also feature Sorensen's designs.

The Freedom Rock includes two murals -- one facing north and the other south -- and an American flag that appears draped over the rock from its west to east sides.

Included in the north-facing mural is a depiction of five Dickinson County veterans. All deceased, the veterans recognized are Bill Ahart, World War II POW from Spirit Lake; Lawrence Lambert, World War II POW from Milford; Ed Gath, a Lake Park native killed in action in the Korean War; Milton Simpson, a Terrill native killed in action in World War II; and Rachel Wunder, a Lake Park native who served as a World War II surgical nurse.

Sorensen said his theme for the freedom rock is one of thanking veterans.

"I tell people there's going to be a lot of flags and eagles, but no two are going to be alike because every time I pick up a paintbrush, it's going to be different," Sorensen said. "Each rock is different."

After nearly a week and a half in Lake Park, Sorensen said he had no idea how many hours he'd spent painting the Freedom Rock display there.

"I never keep track of hours because I hate to count. That's why I'm an artist," he said.

Staying in a nearby community, Sorensen said his time at the memorial varies from day to day. On Friday, he came out to paint at 3 a.m. because he couldn't sleep, but then got too cold and took a break until 8:30 or 9 a.m.

By Friday, the Freedom Rock was finished, and each of the five military rocks had portions completed as well. The Air Force rock will feature a couple of planes, the Marines' rock depicts the flag raising on Iwo Jima, the Navy rock has a jet taking off from an aircraft carrier, the Coast Guard will feature a boat and the Army rock will include a solitary soldier.

"I kind of like the Army of One slogan," Sorensen said. Several will also feature a likeness of the branch's official seal.

Sorensen uses a special, inorganic paint on the rocks that is expected to withstand the elements for several decades. He said it takes 24 hours for the paint to adhere to the surface, and then the coating becomes rock-like. An anti-graffiti, clear-coat finish is added once the painting is complete.

So far, Sorensen has booked 57 of Iowa's 99 counties for a Freedom Rock display. Earlier this summer, he completed the Lyon County Freedom Rock at George.

"My goal was to have 25 booked by this time," he said, adding that he announced the tour last November. "I'm actually surprised at how much it's kind of jumped off the page."

To read more about Sorensen's work and the Freedom Rock tour, visit

A dedication ceremony for the Freedom Rock Veterans Memorial in Lake Park is planned for 10 a.m. Nov. 9 at the site, just east of the community center on the south side of town.

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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