Artist John Lopez welds scrap metal, reclaimed objects, and small bronze figurines into hybrid works of art.
Sculptor John Lopez’s first big commission was to create bronze likenesses of America’s leaders for The City of Presidents project in Rapid City, South Dakota — a series of 43 life-size statues that pepper the city’s downtown streets and sidewalks. It makes sense that Lopez, whose father is a cattle rancher and whose mother is distantly related to President John Quincy Adams, would play a role in memorializing American history as much as firmly rooting it in the West. It’s even more fitting that his current work is as much of an amalgamation as his genetics.
Lopez takes scrap metal, reclaimed objects, and small bronze figurines and welds them into elaborate animal sculptures — a process he calls “hybrid metal art.” The final product is a 3-D collage of a horned, hooved, or clawed beast, composed of everything from scoop shovels to scissors and poised as if it’s about to charge across the prairie.
Lopez’s artistic beginnings are as traditional as his pieces are unusual. A lifelong resident of Lemmon, South Dakota, a rural town on the prairie just north of the Grand River National Grassland and west of Standing Rock Indian Reservation, Lopez first discovered sculpture as a commercial art student at Northern State University in nearby Aberdeen. He apprenticed with several seasoned sculptors, including Dale Lamphere, before going solo. His early output mostly consisted of conventional bronze pieces. They sold, he says, but “it was really hard to stand out.”
Eight years ago, both Lopez’s life and aesthetic vision were transformed after his beloved Aunt Effie died and he created a tiny hand-welded angel statue from a pile of discarded metal to top her cemetery’s gate. “I was dealing with the loss of one of my biggest fans,” he says, “so I put all my energy and emotion into it.”
The angel changed the course of Lopez’s career. Pleased with the final outcome, he embarked on similar, yet more ambitious projects: enormous scrap metal horses, a grizzly bear, and even a peacock made from silverware. “My style really came into its own and changed,” he says. “I’m excited about the new direction.” That enthusiasm is shared by collectors, corporate clients, and museums across the country who have been snapping up his fanciful sculptures.
But the pieces stand out for more than their novelty and wow factor. As a rancher, Lopez understands animal anatomy and seeks out materials like roller chains, tractor parts, and plowing discs that mimic the flow of joints, muscles, and bones. “Animals are basically made up of different shapes,” he says. “It’s just understanding what the shapes are and what angle they’re at when the animal’s moving.”
At their heart — beyond the anatomy, the whimsy, the inventiveness — even his smallest assemblages are about telling a story. At his rural studio on a windy hill on the Dakota prairie, nestled amid layers of scraps, are tiny bronze pieces that he has welded into shapes that give playful nods to the culture of the West and its epic story. Whether it’s a minuscule Mount Rushmore or a diminutive spurred boot, Lopez says, “I’m trying to really squeeze the essence out of an area and put it into a sculpture.”
From the January 2015 issue.