Lopez sculputures, paintings introduce the world to cowboy life
for Tri-State Livestock News
There’s no question that John Lopez is stirred greatly by inspiration as he creates one phenomenal sculpture after another. The Lemmon, South Dakota, artist can’t put his finger on the source of his creative genius either. He just draws on the instinctive innovation he finds deep within himself.
“I can’t say for certain what it is about scrap iron that appeals to me when I create a sculpture,” Lopez says. “All those little manufactured pieces are so perfect and there are so many that are the same or similar shape. My father was always fascinated by gears and wheels, the inner workings of machines. He had his own collection of pieces he found at the landfill or around the area. Before I started creating my own sculptures, I saw works other artists created out of these kinds of materials. I always wanted to try making my own.”
The journey leading Lopez to development of his current sculpture designs began during his high school years. His drawings earned peer admiration and one image was featured on the cover of a magazine, boosting his own confidence in his artistic abilities. When his art teacher recognized his potential for working in the commercial art industry, Lopez decided to follow the recommendation that he should pursue a commercial art degree at Aberdeen’s Northern State College.
“One of the required courses was Sculpture 101,” Lopez says. “In the first classes it seemed lightning struck. I didn’t know much about sculpture before taking that class. When I learned bronze casting in that course I knew that was the sculpture form I wanted to work in.”
Lopez completed his Bachelor of Arts in Commercial Art at Black Hills State College and went on to work with Dayton Lanphear, whose main sculpting tool is a chain saw. His skill and innovation captivated Lopez, who worked alongside Lanphear for about three years. As a result of his sculpting experience, Lopez landed the job of creating life-sized sculptures of United States presidents that were to be on display on the corners of select Rapid City streets. While he’d already done many coffee-table sized bronze pieces following college graduation, Lopez now found time and the resources he needed to dig deeper into his expressive instincts.
“My Aunt Effie passed away in 2006,” Lopez says. “At that time, I moved back to the ranch where she and my uncle had lived and where I had spent time as I grew up. My uncle built a cemetery on the ranch and we wanted to set up a gate for it. I designed and made the gate, using scrap iron to create an angel sitting on top of it. That experience was a bit like throwing gas on a small blaze. I knew I had to do more scrap iron sculptures.”
The process Lopez uses to create awe-inspiring, life-sized sculptures begins with a clay model that provides him with some sculpture details and dimensions. From there, he constructs a steel frame and begins adding pieces of scrap metal as his vision becomes more defined.
His scrap iron materials, stored in different piles at the ranch, are primarily donated by farmers and businessmen in the region who have iron and metal scrap piles, some dating back as far as 50 years.
“I’m often invited to visit the farm or ranch and sort through a scrap iron pile to find and take whatever I’d like,” Lopez says. “I try to maintain an inventory of pieces so I have different types of pieces to choose from when I’m sculpting. Some of the pieces have rust or maybe old paint on them. Depending on what I need, sometimes I leave them as they are. Other times I sandblast and polish pieces or sandblast and paint them before I use them in a sculpture.”
Some of the works Lopez has done were commissioned; others evolved from his own imagination and creative spark. The Black Hawk draft horse pulling a plow was one of his first creations.
“That piece connected with and has stimulated response from people worldwide,” Lopez says. “I think people love the size and power of draft horses and many people have worked with them or seen them work. The energy in that sculpture makes it very lifelike, with the horse’s head down as if he’s working. The Friesian horse sculpture also elicits a lot of response when people see it.”
Comments on his sculptures have come from as far away as the Netherlands, England and Germany. An American company flew Lopez to Paris to select some hardware for a sculpture they commissioned. He’s currently working on a horse sculpture that will be placed in a New York City store window and a larger-than-life sculpture of Lemmon city founder Ed Lemmon.
“I’m very happy to do something for my hometown,” Lopez says. “In light of the movie ‘Revenant’ and all the interest it generated in Hugh Glass and this area where he was mauled by the grizzly bear I sculpted an image of him fighting the bear. That’s housed in Grand River Museum here. We expect it will draw visitors here who are interested in the area and the Hugh Glass story.”
If there’s anything that Lopez finds especially challenging about his work he believes it’s the need for isolation to generate both ideas and creativity. Each creation requires hours of contemplation and consideration before it’s started and completed.
“I love taking part in ranch activities in my neighborhood here,” Lopez says. “That’s one area where I do find inspiration. But this type of work tends to consume you. Often, the more isolated you are as you’re working the better the end result. Still, I don’t want to be the kind of artist that, when I finally put my head up, there’s no one around. I’m working to find a healthy balance between creating sculptures and enjoying life.”