Saturday, February 23, 2019



Copyright 2019 by Lori-Ann Willey

What an honor it is to be an Honor Rock Portrait artist for an organization called Wilderness Walk for Warriors! 

Last summer, an “old” high school friend (“Jo-Jo”) introduced me to the Wilderness Walk for Warriors.  Knowing that Paul (my husband) is a Disabled Veteran and that one of my passions is to sit and listen to Veteran’s tell their stories, as well as sketch and paint portraits, she told me that I should consider being one of their artists.  I read the article she sent, and I fell in love with the concept.  It took me a while to convince myself that I could paint on rocks, though because I never had before. I also knew that my “forte” is sketching portraits on paper with graphite and charcoal, on canvases with charcoal that I make myself, or with paints called Water Soluble Oils.   My heart sank hugely when I realized that I would be much better off painting rocks with acrylics.  Rocks are porous, which means they will absorb my water oils slowly, which in turn changes the appearance as it dries.  So, using the paints I’m most comfortable with was out of the question. Besides, their drying time is longer than acrylics, too.

My passion is pure. I love our military -past, present, and future!

About three years ago, a friend of ours -a retired Pennsylvania State Trooper- was one of the Gold Star Family escorts for Wreaths Across America.  Along the way, he posted pictures and when he had time, we chatted.   During those chats, his heart rang true.  He was very touched and honored to be a part of such a journey.  In turn, it helped me grow more, too.

First completed Honor Rock.
My love for our military and fallen heroes grew stronger with each of his postings.  “Hogie” (AKA "Jo-Jo") -the friend who introduced me to the Wilderness Walk for Warriors- encouraged me, too.  Finally, one day, after doing a bit of research about the Wilderness Walk for Warriors, I felt inspired. The lure was too great to ignore. I found the President / Founder of the organization on Facebook and I had to grin. I recognized the man. He follows my husband and I on our Willey’s Dam Camp Facebook page and has shared a few of my photographs of Mount Katahdin -the view I see every day.

Chris Richardson (Founder of the Wilderness Walk for Warriors organization) was quick to reply to my message of inquiry. I asked a few questions for a better understanding of his program and he graciously answered each. Then, bravery struck me via the overwhelming urge to ask one last question -did he need another portrait artist?  The second I sent the message, a huge part of me sank deep into my chair while I asked myself, “What are you doing, Lori-Ann?!  You don’t know how to paint on rocks!  You don’t know if you can even paint portraits with acrylics, never mind on a new surface …and so small!”
The bed of our truck.

However, I would not allow myself to retract my offer. Instead, I was more determined than ever that I CAN DO THIS, despite the odds against me!  I had no idea what kind of rock to use or if I could find any suitable!   I was eager yet scared to death as I sent him samples of my portrait sketches/paintings so he could determine if my quality of work will suffice.  When Chris replied that he could use another artist, I had a lump lodged in my throat bigger than Mt. Katahdin herself!  “What did I just do?”

Though I was anxious, I told Chris that I had to be honest and before I committed myself, I had to figure out if I could paint on rocks …or not!  He understood and appreciated my skepticism while at the same time thanked me for my interest.  Soon, he hooked me up with a woman artist that had painted Honor Rocks for him. Quickly, I messaged her and quickly she replied and answered my worrisome questions, offered tips, hints, etc. I am forever grateful for her time, too!

Paul viewing GPS on phone.
So, once I learned what kind of rocks to look for, I set out to find a trial rock to paint.  As luck would have it, within 30 minutes, I found my first paintable rock!  WOO HOO! After scrubbing it clean, I grabbed my water oils and sat outside with a handful of peanuts to keep the chipmunks and squirrels happy in hopes that they would not try to help me paint. Usually, we allow them to crawl all over us, but on this day, I would not let them help me with an art project as I have in the past. 

My first attempt was a painting of my oldest granddaughter, Autumn.  Sitting in the sun with the critters being pesky, within two hours, my first portrait rock was complete. “I can do this!” Those two hours were very rewarding, and I learned a LOT about painting on rocks.  For one, as feared, the water-oil paints absorbed into the rock, so I knew, like it or not, I would have to use acrylics. I had no choice. The other lesson I learned was rock surface gouges either need to be smoothed or avoided.  There was a slight gouge in the rock I chose to paint, and it fell right across Autumn’s lip. That was the most important lesson I could have learned that day.  A sense of dread swept over me …how can I find any rock without gouges throughout the surface?  Impossible!

Because of all that, I spent the next few months in search of the perfect rocks to paint. I not only had to find the right kind of rock, but I also had to be mindful of the shape, the thickness, the size, the weight, and hardness, too.  I knew the rocks would be carried for 100 miles through the wilderness so they could not be fragile, cracked, sharp-edged, too big, or too heavy!  AND, each needed a paintable surface while watching for bumps or gouges that would give any facial feature a distorted look.  My husband is a Disabled Veteran that needs help with most doings, so I had to ask myself if I was really up for this huge challenge before me.  My days just living off the grid are always filled with things that need to be done as it is. “What did I get myself into?” was a question at the forefront of my brain …and for months!

I scoured every inch of our property, walked the logging roads, the surrounding woods, the stream below us, and even went snorkeling for rocks in the lake. I spent hours and hours, miles upon miles snorkeling, swimming, hiking and walking.  Each excursion was only about an hour long because I needed to tend to Paul, too.

My Art Helpers.
Day after day, week after week was spent in search of the perfect rocks to paint. Living off the grid, we have eight miles of logging roads to travel before we “hit pavement”.  During my search for the perfect Honor Rock, I had never been so excited to see the logging company grade the roads with huge machinery.  Nor was I so thankful for a newly replaced wooden bridge over a stream, or the newly dug drainage ditches, either.  I have somewhat of a mud phobia that I’ve worked most of my adult life to overcome (a terrible childhood experience).  Finding Honor Rocks helped me because I was so very determined to find the perfect rocks.  More and more I found myself traipsing in mudded ditches sinking to my ankles just to examine a rock on the other side!  It was a mind over matter situation.  I kept thinking that mud is NOTHING in comparison to what our soldiers go through!

Rock from "Jacque".
As the summer months turned into frosty and chill-filled days of fall, Paul, sensing my disappointment said he wanted to help.  Because he navigates mostly via a wheelchair, he could only travel where his wheelchair would go.  While in search of the perfect Honor Rocks, I happened upon several very cool fossils.  With each fossil in my backpack or clutched in my hands, I showed Paul. On his better days, he was able to research and learn about each one.  Though apprehensive about finding the perfect Honor Rock, I became more and more determined.

It wasn’t long before Paul started researching the landscape in our area of the state.  In doing so, he learned of probable spots where finding “my” rocks would be more plausible.  Despite his ill health and needing to use a wheelchair and working around weather conditions, there were days when  we’d pack snacks, bottles of well water, our rock picks, and magnifying glasses, along with geological maps of our part of the state, we’d set out in search for both fossils and possible Honor Rocks to paint.
One example of our travels.

I’d drive slowly along the logging roads as if speed was an option. It wasn’t.  Fallen trees, washed out culverts and roadways, wildlife, and boulders would force us to creep along slowly with the truck. Always, an extra five gallons of gas in the bed of the truck, too.  As we rode along, our eyes gawked through our windows. We stopped every few minutes to look at a possible Honor Rock or fossil.  Stopping to look at one rock “real quick” sometimes turned into a couple hours slowly walking throughout the area.

The entire truck is like this now.
Once, we decided to take an old “tote road” that we used to travel with a golf cart, “The Beast”, and snowmobiles. THEN, it was very navigable.   Well, a lot can change in 15 years. Man, did we get ourselves into a few very hairy predicaments!  It quickly became one of those situations that it was easier to keep going than to back up for miles.  We literally weaved between trees that prompted me to force my door open against tree trunks just so I could fill in a big hole or move a fallen tree ahead of us.  That meant first scouring the area for fallen trees, branches, rocks, etc.  Or, simply walking ahead for a while hoping to find an area where the “road” opened up or a place to turn around after about 50-shimmies with the truck.  Our truck got “scratched all tah Hell”. After the first few good scratches, it became amusing.  “That one won’t buff out either”, became a repeated phrase.

After a while, we no longer cringed at such loud screeches as limbs gouged through the truck’s paint job. With hands outside our windows, many times, we found ourselves trying to part the “road” branches 3-4 inches in diameter. Literally, I could not see where I was driving at times and was lucky if I could dodge the trees.  Our scratched truck shows that we enjoyed our excursions, though.  Scratches are just cosmetic stuff, though we killed our trade-in value for sure. It was all well worth it if we found just one rock or a neat fossil.  That day we didn’t, but it was still worthy of our attempt.

Granddaughters helping to find Honor Rocks ...and fossils!
At times, we’d spend a few hours navigating gravel pits, too. Paul would drive his wheelchair to different sections and then use his cane to walk closer to the rocks scattered about.  He sat and rested a lot, but he found some great fossils.  When our granddaughters came for a visit, we decided to take them to another gravel pit for them to explore.  That morning was very cold, but that didn’t stop us from looking for rocks.  Them either!

In the span of several months, all in all, I found four rocks that, with a little bit of sanding with a rock sander, I felt I could paint. After posting about all my hours in search of rocks, a friend messaged asking about my rock preference. He wanted to help look for rocks where he lives, too. He is the same man that I mentioned earlier -the Gold Star Family escort for Wreaths Across America. We know him as, “Jacque”.
Sketch to learn facial details.

Last week was the week I choose to sand down the rocks I had chosen to paint. Ironically, it was the same time that Jacque decided to send the rock he found, too. Perfect timing. Except, when his rock arrived, I was more than a little bit envious!  His rock was perfect!  It didn’t even need to be sanded!  Mother Nature, with her ability to erode and weather, had already perfected it for me.  His rock made for my 4th (possibly 5th) rock to paint.  Lots of hours, days, weeks, months to find 4 rocks is worth it.

In December, knowing the portraits were of small detail, I felt more comfortable learning the facial features of each hero via paper and graphite pencils first.  I wanted to learn their faces before attempting to paint them onto rocks.  For me, it is a necessary step. 

Sketch to learn facial details.
A few days ago, I started painting my first Honor Rock and this morning, I finished my first real rock portrait.  Upon completion, I messaged Chris and asked him what, besides the name should I paint on the rock. He replied, Name and Rank. Then, told me not to forget my initials as the artist.

It was that last sentence that prompted me to write this blog entry.  Though I’ve painted and sketched many, many, many portraits and paintings over the years, and always finished with my initials and the year of completion, I not once considered placing my initials upon the Honor Rocks as an artist. The rocks are NOT about me. They are about our fallen heroes …their honor.   Chris is right, though.  I should initial my work, and I will, not only because he requested it of me, but because I should claim such an honor in painting these rocks.  This project is not about me as an artist, it is all about THEM – our fallen heroes and their family members.  I am just a portrait artist that believes in our military, our country, and our flag -past, present, and future.
Onto my 2nd Honor Rock.  Yes, magnifying glass is a must.

My own disappointment is that I cannot paint all the fallen, but I wished I could. They deserve it. Their families deserve it, too.  As for me, I am so greatly honored to help in some small way.  


Wilderness Walk for Warriors treks through the Maine 100 Mile Wilderness carrying Honor Rocks of our fallen heroes. They start in Monson where a  Wilderness Walk for Warriors Team take part in an opening ceremony which include a roll call and presentation of the newly created Honor Rocks. All are deeply encouraged to join them for the event. After an Honor ceremony, the  Wilderness Walk for Warriors team starts their hike with the Honor Rocks through 100 miles of Maine Wilderness. Ultimately, the Honor Rocks are a part of an additional Honor Ceremony atop the summit of Mt. Katahdin. The Honor Rocks are then carried down the mountain and united with surviving family members.

“ Wilderness Walk for Warriors / “Assisting the Living, Honoring the Deceased.”