Bison on board
The little town of Lemmon, South Dakota, with a population of about 1,200 people, is the hub for artist John Lopez. Small town living doesn’t keep Lopez from national recognition however. The sculptor traveled with commissioned pieces to France earlier this year and to Qatar this month.
“I mean, I started at the Black Hills Stock Show showing my work, and so, it’s one thing when people who know you and love you love your work,” Lopez said. “It’s another thing when people who don’t know you love it.”
Lopez builds quite a few bison from scrap metal found locally or harvested off old machinery, though he also fashions other animals. He’s most excited to build an Arabian horse inspired by his most recent travels.
A bison was commissioned to be placed within a North American animal exhibit at Parc animalier de Sainte Croix in France. The life-sized scrap metal beast keeps the company of actual bison, bears, coyotes, and prairie dogs, among other species.
“The paddocks at the zoo have saw blade signs, and it looks like an old western farm,” Lopez said. “There is a covered bridge that looks like one out of Madison County.”
While Lopez was able to see the final destination of his bison, it didn’t make it in time for the unveiling, despite Lopez’s great efforts.
“They forgot to put him on the ship, which apparently never happens,” he said. “But the sculpture is doing well. There are boards around it that talk about me and my biography. They went all out on that one.”
Lopez made the most of his trip abroad by also delivering—this time successfully—a five-foot replica of an Oscar to the late Princess Grace Kelly’s 90th birthday party in Monaco in April. A gallery owner organized the memorial event and reached out to Lopez to build the piece.
“It was outside my realm, but I wasn’t uncomfortable building it,” Lopez said. “I try to do what I do and not worry about it. He obviously wanted me to do it.”
He used farm equipment for the larger-than-life trophy, like parts off a corn planter, as well as shovels and a decorative car hood ornament.
“I got to meet Prince Albert; he came by and met every artist,” said Lopez. “His dad [the late Prince Rainier III] liked to do welding. It was a very interesting, surreal experience.”
Other artists created memorial pieces for the party in other mediums.
Upon returning home, Lopez got back to the grind, replacing a falling-down building with a sculpture garden next to his gallery in the Kokomo Inn in Lemmon. His commissioned sculptures are displayed in the garden for a few weeks before they are due at their new homes to allow to public to view them.
A Northern State University Wolf, their mascot, kept Lopez’s busy next, and the unveiling of the wolf in September at the new science center at the university in Aberdeen, South Dakota, was quickly followed up by another trip, the largest to date.
About mid-summer, Lopez hesitantly agreed to build a piece for an art show in Doha, Qatar.
“None of the artists there thought it was real,” he said. “We didn’t really believe it was happening until we got our plane tickets.”
The show directors sought artists who have a presence on Instagram in an effort to soften their image and bring attention to the safe, booming city. Three other United States metal sculptors were invited amongst the 30 artists. Others were from Russia, Turkey, Italy, Iraq, and Iran, as well as one of Lopez’s students, Dotun Popoola, from Africa.
His prior shipments were endless headaches to ship, from customs and paperwork to a missed ship, but the Qatar show, Scrap Art, was smooth sailing. They took care of all aspects of shipping, all Lopez had to do was supply the weight and transport the bison to Chicago and see it on a plane. Until he arrived at the show, that is.
“They couldn’t get it through the tent door,” he said. “They set up three big dome tents, because you have to have air conditioning all the time, otherwise you just couldn’t function. So the bison wouldn’t fit through the door. How do you say ‘forklift’ in Arabic?”
He was able to relay the message, though the sandal-clad forklift operator didn’t want to lift the bison for fear of injuring the piece. Lopez told him he could do it, though he received an incredulous look, he said.
“It was strange for them to not know what it’s like growing up on the ranch, having to learn how to do all of that,” he said. “It was rewarding to be able to take charge and do it.”
Lopez spent two weeks in Qatar through the duration of the show, in which he got to stretch his wings a little, while still sticking to what he knows.
“I really enjoyed getting to ride the camel. It was an opportunity for me to show that I was a cowboy, I could kind of show my roots a little bit,” he said.
A demonstration of building an Arabian horse bust offered Lopez a humorous experience. He was given welding assistance in the form of a Bangladesh man, once again in sandals and without a welding helmet.
“I would hold a piece and he would weld it. He didn’t have a helmet; he just closed his eyes,” Lopez said. “I really got a kick out of that guy.”
He is inspired to build a full Arabian horse at home, as well as a camel, from experiences in his travels.
Throughout the entire journey, Lopez found everyone to be welcoming and kind, and he discovered the poor stigma surrounding travel to the Middle East to be untrue. He was safe and well cared for at all times.
“They’re going to have World Cup there in 2022, and they’re taking advantage of having the World Cup to build up an infrastructure of trains, island, and museums, and all this artwork that was in the show that didn’t sell, they bought and are going to scatter throughout the city,” Lopez said.
Throughout each of these humbling experiences that Lopez has had this year, he has discovered one common, incredible thread.
“I have a hard time grasping what is really happening, but I think the one thing that stands out to me the most is the people who are putting on these events make my pieces really stand out,” he said. “Really, I enjoy the new experiences, and it takes me to different countries to learn something new. It can’t get better than Qatar.” F