John Lopez: Welded to History

by Mitchell Clute

The scrap-metal sculptures of South Dakota artist John Lopez are a compelling blend of movement and stillness, realism and whimsy. From a distance, his life-size cattle, horses and buffalo seem almost alive; but a closer view shows that they’re made from the rusted castoffs of a vanishing culture—old hubcaps, stove parts, tractor seats, wrenches and cables, chains and gears. Somehow, the modern-day sculptures invoke the Old West with the very things the Old West left behind. 

Graveyard Inspiration

A few years back, when Lopez picked up a torch and began to weld his first scrap-metal sculptures, he wasn’t looking for a new career path. He’d already found success with his traditional western-themed cast bronze sculptures. His life-size bronzes of American presidents graced the streets of Rapid City, and his realistic statues of rodeo stars and their horses were featured at the ProRodeo Hall of Fame.

But when his beloved aunt Effie died in a car accident, Lopez offered to stay at his uncle Geno’s ranch and build a family cemetery as a memorial to her. When he ran out of material, he started digging through scrap iron on the ranch to finish the project. “I made a gate, and an angel for the top,” Lopez tells Calmful Living. “That was the beginning.”

Back home in Lemmon, South Dakota, he threw himself into this new art form, creating a horse, then a buffalo. “People were way more interested in these pieces than in my bronzes,” Lopez continues. “They were amazed by how lifelike the animals were. But I’m really an artist, not just a farm kid welding things together. In my bronze work, I had spent years studying the lines and contours of these animals, learning the anatomy of horses and buffalo. I’d crafted so many in bronze that I knew their forms by heart.”

Armed with this intimate knowledge, a welding torch, and plenty of raw material from the supportive farmers and ranchers in the area—all of whom had piles of scrap iron at their homesteads—Lopez immersed himself in his new projects, taking up to six months to fashion a single life-size animal.

A Meeting of Two Cultures

Lopez’s sophisticated use of humble materials makes more sense when you know his background. Born in 1971, he grew up on the Standing Rock Reservation in northern South Dakota, miles from anywhere. “For a while I went to a one-room schoolhouse with five students,” he recalls. “We had to drive half an hour on a gravel road just to meet the school bus.”

On his father’s side, the Lopez family initially homesteaded near Trinidad, Colorado, with John’s grandfather eventually moving to the area around Eagle Butte, South Dakota, to work for the Diamond A Cattle Company.

As a young woman, his mother had moved to South Dakota from New York City to work as a missionary. Her father was rector for many years at St. Thomas Episcopal Church on Fifth Avenue in Manhattan, and instilled in her a love of fine arts and culture.

“I think these two backgrounds made all of us kids really creative and gave us an appreciation of East Coast sensibilities that other families in the area didn’t have,” says Lopez. A high school teacher encouraged him to pursue commercial art. He went on to attend Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, where he gravitated toward sculpture. After graduation, he apprenticed with several mentors, learning from each of them before he set out on his own, establishing a stellar reputation for his traditional cast bronze works before he stumbled upon a new path.

Evoking Ancestral Spirits

Lopez’s most recent sculptures have evolved to encompass even more layers of meaning, creating a hybrid style that includes bronze castings within the larger scrap-iron forms. A Texas longhorn steer, for example, incorporates a model of the Alamo, a guitar, a fiddle, and a bust of Sam Houston; a buffalo incorporates a bust of Sitting Bull. “I’m starting to tell a story within the piece,” Lopez explains, “so I’ll take sheet metal to create a river, trees, a whole landscape, creating layer upon layer.”

When Lopez hits a wall and doesn’t know how to proceed with a particular piece, he tries to find some way to communicate a spark, an aliveness, through his arrangement of found materials.

“I want people to see the passion and power in these animals through their eyes,” he says. “They have a spirit that’s untamable, and I try to recreate that in iron with the passion and energy that flows through me.”

His works aim to honor the native landscape and its creatures, but also to evoke the resilience of the people who first lived in this beautiful, desolate landscape. “The people who settled this land had that same indomitable spirit,” Lopez offers. “When people view these works, it brings to mind their roots, an emotional connection to their upbringing. I want them to get chills up and down their spines. I want them to be inspired.”

To learn more, visit www.johnlopezstudio.com.