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Artist Turns Iowa Graffiti Rock into Military Tribute

By John D. Banusiewicz
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Nov. 17, 2003 – Something about a 12-foot-high, 56-ton rock north of Greenfield, Iowa, must scream "Paint me!" to the artistically inclined. For years, it played host to teenagers' graffiti as it stood sentry next to Highway 25, about a mile south of the Greenfield exit off Interstate 80 in Iowa.

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Ray Sorenson's 2000 mural on a boulder north of Greenfield, Iowa, featured the artist's reproduction of Lee Teter's painting depicting a visitor to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Photo courtesy of Ray Sorensen
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II, 24, now of Des Moines, Iowa, grew up in Greenfield and had seen the rock countless times. Until 1999, if the rock was calling him to paint it, he wasn't listening. But then he saw the Tom Hanks film "Saving Private Ryan," and soon he answered the call.

"It was right around Memorial Day, and I was driving by that rock and wondered what it would be like if I actually took the time to go out there and paint it," he said in a telephone interview. "And so I painted it with the flag- raising at Iwo Jima." He included the inscription, "Thank you, veterans, for our freedom" with his depiction of the famous World War II image.

"I got such a huge response that I kept painting it," Sorensen said. "I've been painting it for the last five years with tributes to veterans on Memorial Day."

A rural road on the Great Central Plain might not seem to be a venue that could bring worldwide renown to an artist, but Sorensen said he gets anywhere from five to 15 e-mail messages every day from all over the world expressing admiration or thanks for his work. Photos of the rock are posted on at least 10 World Wide Web sites.

But seeing the rock on the Internet wasn't enough for one Maryland man, Sorensen said. "He had seen it (on a Web site) right before he had to go to a wedding," Sorensen said. "He didn't really have time to research who did it or where it was."

Sorensen said the man later sent an e-mail message to his friends, offering to cover the expenses for a visit to the rock with him if someone could find it for him. "Somebody got back and said it was in Iowa," Sorensen said, adding with a chuckle that "he didn't realize it was that far away" when he made the offer. "But he kept his word," Sorensen said, "and drove out one weekend from Maryland to see the rock."

Though the rock had been festooned with ever-changing graffiti for more than 20 years, only once in the nearly five years since Sorensen started painting the rock has his work been vandalized. A 60th anniversary tribute to veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack was defaced just a few weeks after it was finished. The vandal, Sorensen said, got a punch in the face from a Vietnam War veteran for his trouble, and vandalism has never again been a problem.

Sorensen said that although he never has served in the military, he always has been patriotic, and he hopes his work makes veterans and military members feel appreciated. He said he had planned for this year's tribute -- which features the Prisoners of War and Missing in Action flag, the U.S. flag, and various patriotic scenes and quotations -- to be the last. "But I've got such a huge response from so many people who want me to keep doing it, I know I'm going to do it at least one more year," he said.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageRay "Bubba" Sorensen II of Des Moines, Iowa, has painted a different patriotic scene on a boulder north of Greenfield for each of the last five Memorial Day holidays. This is the rock as it now appears. Photo courtesy of Ray Sorensen  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageThe 2001 version of Ray Sorensen's "patriotic rock" in rural Iowa was a 60th-anniversary tribute to the veterans of the Pearl Harbor attack. Photo courtesy of Ray Sorensen  
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