Metal Artist Showcase

Larger than life

By Lynn Stanley

Above: Welded from parts of early tractors, Black Hawk is a tribute to the draft horse that carried the weight of progress on its shoulders and an artistic expression of the history of agriculture.

Sculptor’s hybrid metal art builds bridges between the past and present by telling stories with scrap iron, bronze and steel

January 2022 - In Madeline L’Engle’s 1962 novel “A Wrinkle In Time,” 13-year-old Meg Murry and her brother, 5-year-old child prodigy Charles Wallace, must attempt time travel with a tesseract. Their father, a physicist for a top-secret government agency, is missing. Charles Wallace explains that “tessering” is travel in the fifth dimension. Length, width and depth—elements of physical space—comprise three dimensions. The fourth dimension is Einstein’s concept of time. Tessering connects two distant points—a wrinkling of space and time—a series of shortcuts to reach faraway locations in a matter of seconds.

Like the tesseract, the hybrid metal art that springs from the imagination of sculptor John Lopez occupies a dimension of its own and has the power to instantly transport people to distant places, events and moments in history. His materials are a conglomeration of small cast bronze figures; scrap metal gleaned from discarded farm equipment; old tools; reclaimed relics and memorabilia. Lopez welds, plasma cuts, chop saws and hand forms seemingly unrelated pieces to a frame he builds from steel tubing. The larger-than-life animals and cowboys that emerge possess a kinetic energy that has captured the attention of people across the globe.

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The Tree of Life is symbolic of winter’s difficulties and the renewal that comes with spring. Artists from around the world created many of the cherry blossoms.

“I’ll sculpt a mockup of an animal [like a buffalo] from clay,” he says. “I study the anatomy, figure out the pose and use that as a guide.” From there, he lets the process unravel and happen. “Part of it depends on what kind of scrap I have laying around. That’s the fun part. You don’t really know what you will use until you start throwing stuff up there and see what works. A theme, a texture and a flow begin to take shape and you just keep pushing those patterns. I always have ideas bouncing around in my head. I have no shortage of those.”

Lopez draws his inspiration from his roots growing up on a cattle ranch in Lemmon, South Dakota, along the Grand River. His late father, Lee Lopez, was honored in 2018 by the American Quarter Horse Association for 50 years of breeding and registering quarter horses. John Lopez maintains the bloodline with a couple of horses he keeps on his 14-acre property, which also houses his workshop.

The region’s rich history offers another source of originative fuel. Ranches owned and operated by his siblings occupy grasslands once dominated by buffalo. Standing Rock Indian Reservation—where Sitting Bull was born and died—covers roughly 1 million acres. Lemmon boasts the world’s largest petrified wood park. Just a few miles outside city limits, a 7-ft.-long Triceratops skull was uncovered in 2019. The fossil was found just 60 miles from where the skeleton of Sue, a Tyrannasaurus rex, was discovered.

A 1997 graduate from Black Hills State University, Lopez says it was Sculpture 101, a required course for his commercial art curriculum, that introduced him to his vocation. As the first step to learning bronze casting, the class was asked to sculpt the figure of a man from wax. “I was obsessed with perfecting it. I knew sculpting was what I was meant to do. I fell in love with metal.”

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T.rex began as a clay model and steel frame. Scrap metal from local ranches and some of the tools used to dig out the skeleton of Sue some 20 years earlier fleshed out the sculpture.

Changing lanes

He apprenticed with several accomplished sculptors in bronze work before going solo. His first large commission took him to Rapid City, South Dakota. From 2001 to 2006 Lopez contributed to the City of Presidents project by sculpting 12 life-size bronze POTUS statues. The same year, life threw Lopez a curve ball and changed the trajectory of his career.

“I got a call that my aunt, Effie Hunt, was killed in a car accident,” he says. “I moved back to the family ranch to help my Uncle Geno. She was buried on a hill overlooking the ranch. It was my task to build what would become our family cemetery. I ran out of material so I decided to use some scrap iron my uncle had to build a gate. The project allowed me to experiment with forming and fabricating scrap metal. I also sculpted a small angel out of scrap for the top of the gate to keep watch.”

The response from people who saw the finished result was overwhelming. A scrap metal horse head followed and business exploded. The family cemetery became ground zero for a new art form.

“I was burnt out on bronzes of people,” Lopez continues. “I wanted my pieces to tell a story. I wanted to do something that hadn’t been done before.”

Lopez soon found the search for materials added an unexpected layer to his artistic process. Since ranchers never throw anything away, there was a plethora of scrap at the homesteads populating Perkins County. “The community wanted to see me succeed, so they invited me to look at what they had,” he says. “Incorporating their pieces into my sculptures allows them to become part of the stories I’m telling. Each piece of scrap has a history. My horses are my emotional connection to my dad. People have emotional connections to their scrap. When I load my truck, people will check out the pieces I took. Sometimes they will decide to take a piece back because the memories it evokes are so strong.”

Whether a project is a public art commission or a piece that is personal, Lopez is never quite sure where the creative journey will take him or the connections he will make. When he began work on a sculpture he titled T.rex, he consulted experts about anatomy, posture and design elements. Pete Larson, president of the Black Hills Institute of Geological Research, led the excavation for Sue, now on display at Chicago’s Field Museum. The institute is the world’s largest private organization specializing in the excavation and preparation of fossils.

“I invited Pete and his son, Matt, to visit Lemmon,” Lopez says. But the pair brought more than their knowledge about dinosaurs. They gave Lopez some of the actual tools used to dig out Sue along with a miniature casting of the original skull of Stan, the second largest Tyrannosaurus unearthed. Lopez incorporated the pieces into the sculpture, which was sold to Ripley’s Believe It or Not! in San Francisco.

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Another work, titled Maverick, is a nod to the Lopez herd, which always included Texas Longhorns. “My dad called them horned hustlers,” he says. After a trip to Austin, images of the breed haunted Lopez. He decided to meld music, art, history and Spanish heritage into the piece. A background texture of scrap metal and roller chain mimicked carved and tooled leather. Guitar and fiddle cut-outs along with other Texas symbols like the Alamo and Sam Houston were also worked into the piece. The signature horns of the breed, which can reach a span of 6 ft. or more, were key to the project. “I needed something with a natural taper,” says Lopez. “I remembered that a friend had left me a pile of bucker teeth [early hay baling equipment]. I sliced them like a Slinky and curved them into shape.”

Over the last 15 years, Lopez’ unique hybrid metal art has given him focus. “I was never interested in the pressures that accompany a high-profile career,” he says. “I wanted to focus my energies instead on my hometown.”

In 2016, Lopez purchased two lots on Main Street where his sculpture of town founder Ed Lemmon stands. Nigerian artists Dotun Popoola and Jonathan Imafidor painted a mural on the long north wall of the Kokomo building. The empty structure’s age and advanced state of decay prompted Lopez to purchase the building and renovate it for use as a gallery to house a permanent collection of his works.

Lopez ultimately repurposed five lots with the gallery as the centerpiece between Boss Cowman Square and his Tree of Life sculpture garden. The Tree of Life dominates the public courtyard with its thick, twisted trunk topped by a cloud of pink metal cherry blossoms. For Lopez, the piece marks another grim milestone. “My dad was diagnosed with cancer in 2018,” he says. “I was struggling with the decision to place him in a full-time care facility. The sculpture became a channel for all those raw emotions.”

Like the cemetery that became a catalyst for a new career path, the Tree of Life helped Lopez craft a new chapter after a devastating loss. The dramatic curves of the trunk were formed with materials like oil weld pipe, rebar and an elevator chute to communicate life’s trials and tribulations. At the center, one can see the face of an older man emerge. To fabricate the cherry blossoms, Lopez decided to turn the work into a celebration by inviting metalworking artists from all over the world to contribute their versions of a cherry blossom.

“Packages began arriving in the mail from across the United States, Costa Rica, Nigeria and Australia,” says Lopez. “The community also contributed. My junking buddy [and local gunsmith] Ken Tomac made a blossom out of .30-06 cartridge and .50 caliber machine gun brass. Carriage bolts, parts of a bridle and old tools were also used to make innovative versions of the flower.”

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The life-size sculpture of frontiersman Hugh Glass was first displayed in front of Lemmon’s Palace Theatre during a special screening of the movie “The Revenant.”

Building bridges

In addition to giving people a positive outlet during the midst of a pandemic, the exercise introduced young people to new skills. A local boy, Trigg Odenbach, and his sisters made cherry blossoms by gluing and painting fishing lures. “When I tried to weld them to a branch on the sculpture the glue melted,” says Lopez. “I invited Trigg to come over and remake the blossom. As part of the process, he was introduced to plasma cutting and welding.”

Lopez’s sculptures of horses and draft breeds pulling a plow rank among his favorites because they, too, speak to skills that are fading. Society once needed blacksmiths to manipulate metal, “whether it was to repair equipment, shoe a horse or perform some other task essential to daily life.”

Scrap metal art’s ability to bridge past and present is what makes the works timeless. “Old-timers who look at my work experience a sense of nostalgia,” he says. “The materials I use pull in elements of the past, of simpler times. Young people are fascinated with the stories the pieces tell and the fun of seeing how many hidden surprises they can find.”

Social media is feeding a new generation of individuals who are interested in making things. Avenues like Instagram allow fledgling artists and metalworkers to share their work, ideas and techniques. “Fabrication is something people can do in their own garage,” says Lopez. “And every community has scrap metal. I’m glad my work inspires people to have fun and try something new.”

“I want to keep creating,” he continues. “There’s a little high you get from the creative process. I keep thinking maybe I have a masterpiece in me yet. You never know when that could happen—when lightning might strike. It keeps me motivated.”  FFJ


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