Story and Photos by Taylor Eisenhauer
Once that was checked off the list, it was time for a crane to deliver the boulder to the city park. And finally, it was time for Sorensen to start painting the Audubon County Freedom Rock.
Sorensen made a name for himself by painting the original Freedom Rock in Menlo with patriotic images every year for Memorial Day.
After the success of the original, Sorensen started the Iowa Freedom Rock Tour, where he travels around the state of Iowa to paint an individual Freedom Rock for each county. “I had three goals (for the tour): thank our veterans, promote Iowa tourism and feed my family. And I thought if I could accomplish all three of those, you know, it would be something successful,” Sorensen said.
The original Freedom Rock came to be when Sorensen was an art student at Iowa State University.
“In 1999, I had the idea to say thank you to our veterans,” said Sorensen. “I kind of felt like Memorial Day was forgotten about. I felt patriotism had died a little bit.”
To boost public spirit, Sorensen painted the iconic image of U.S. soldiers putting up the American flag at Iwo Jima with the words “Thank You Veterans For Our Freedom” on a rock that had always just been covered in graffiti.
The next year, after his work had been ruined by the graffiti’s return, Sorensen was asked to paint the rock again. And he’s been doing it every year since.
“Every May for Memorial Day, I repaint the rock with patriotic images saying thank you to our veterans,” Sorensen said. “It’s coming up on my 16th year in a row of doing that.”
“It actually was one of my favorite years, as it was the longest I have ever spent on the original Freedom Rock,” Sorensen said.
Schildberg Construction Company owns the land on which the stone sits and now presses charges against anyone other than Sorensen who paints it.
This 12-foot-tall boulder in Menlo, weighing over 60 tons, is 44 miles west of Des Moines and 18 miles north of Greenfield, where Sorensen grew up.
He credits his elementary, junior high and high school teachers with instilling a love of art.
“They always continued to push me,” Sorensen said. “They saw something. If anything, they saw at least the willpower in me, and so they pushed me to continue going and to further my education and everything like that.”
But Sorensen’s biggest inspiration for Freedom Rock art is the veterans of the Vietnam War, during which his uncle Ted served in the Navy.
“As a whole, the Vietnam veterans didn’t get a very good thank you or welcome home. That never really sat well with me,” he said. “I just wanted to make sure to say thank you to those guys.”
Sorensen thanks all veterans in his artwork, though. He does sometimes feature those he knew personally, and these images become special to him.
“It’s always really meaningful to me when I include portraits of those I knew,” he said.
C.J. Miller, a marine from Sorensen’s hometown who was killed in the line of duty, was featured in the 2007, 2009 and 2011 images of the original rock.
Because of the nature of his work, Sorensen has heard from veterans all over the world. One man flew up from the Virgin Islands to meet Sorensen and to see his unique creation. But most of the cool stories, Sorensen said, come from those who aren’t veterans.
“I had a handwritten letter from a Chinese man who enjoyed America’s freedom when he ran a Chinese restaurant over here,” Sorensen said.
The man was simply expressing appreciation for Sorensen’s work.
“Things like that are so neat to realize that there are other people besides Americans who appreciate America and (our) freedom.”
The notoriety of the Freedom Rock eventually led Sorensen to start the Iowa Freedom Rock Tour. He sees it as the perfect opportunity to spread his message of patriotism. “I thought, ‘How cool would it be to have artwork in every single county?’” he said. Sorensen ultimately hopes to make a rock for each of the 99 counties in Iowa.
Sorensen started the tour last year, completing rocks for 13 counties. “I’m asking each county to come up with its own idea,” he said. “(Because) there are local veterans (and) local points of interest.”
The Audubon County Freedom Rock began the 2014 leg of the tour. It features a depiction of the Little Mermaid holding American and Danish flags, as Kimballton is a Danish settlement. Sorensen incorporated her to represent the Danish American soldiers who have served our country.
“He’s a very, very good artist,” said Poldberg, who helped accommodate Sorensen while he painted the rock in Kimballton. “He pretty much puts his feelings into his paint.”
Sorensen said 65 counties have booked a rock, with 14 of them now completed.
Sorensen can complete about 10 a year, with each individual rock taking a week to two weeks to complete, depending on the weather.
“It’s going to take me the better part of a decade to get the whole thing completed,” he said. He only paints the rocks from April until October because he works outside when doing so. “You know Iowa. It gets dang cold in the winter.”
To help the images endure the winter, Sorensen uses a specialty paint, made especially for rocks and boulders. This paint becomes the surface of the rock and binds to it instead of acting like a glue.
While the paint protects the rocks, Sorensen is free to work indoors during the winter months. He typically gets hired for murals, which he painted even before his work on the Freedom Rock. The murals are usually patriotic in nature, but this is not always the case.
Before he started the Freedom Rock Tour for this year, Sorensen did a mural for the Knoxville Regional Livestock Market in Knoxville, Iowa.
“They’re having their world championship (for livestock) auctioneering, so I did a ring man and cowboys and stuff like that,” he said.
Because the Freedom Rock Tour has become so popular and takes up so much of Sorensen’s time, it has become his full-time job.
Sorensen Studios is headquartered in Greenfield, with Sorensen’s wife, Maria, handling the logistical side of the tour. And his daughter, Independence or “Indie,” is not to be forgotten.
She is on track to be Sorensen’s artistic legacy, even though she is only 2 years old. “(Indie) seems like she’s going to be interested,” he said, referring to the future of the Freedom Rock.
Sorensen just wants to make sure the rock is always thanking our veterans and promoting Iowa tourism.
“And then just maybe we can keep the spirit of the Freedom Rock alive long after I’m gone.”