Sculptor John Lopez creates life-sized metal sculptures with an interesting twist. He searches junk piles for metal scraps, chains, and old plow discs and then welds them into many creatures, but primarily iconic animals from the American West.
In an earlier career as a classical bronze sculptor, John created several monuments for The City of Presidents project in Rapid City, South Dakota. His statues for the project include likenesses of John F. Kennedy, Ulysses S. Grant, Jimmy Carter, and Franklin D. Roosevelt.
Some of John's most notable metal pieces are with museums, private collectors, and corporate clients, including a T-Rex at Ripley's Believe It or Not! in San Francisco, California, as well as a sculpture of Hugh Glass on display in the Grand River Museum in Lemmon, South Dakota. The 2016 film The Revenant tells the story of Glass, played by Leonardo DiCaprio.
John’s nearly 20 metal sculptures are located throughout the United States. He lives and works in Lemmon, South Dakota.
Joyce Brown: Before your career in bronze casting, what type of work did you do?
John Lopez: I had success with bronze work right out of college, so there wasn't really a career before that. I fell in love with the media right at the start and quickly moved along the path to becoming a sculptor.
Joyce: What made you transition from bronze work to scrap metal sculpture?
John: I'd gone to some sculpture shows in Loveland, Colorado, and saw other artists who do scrap iron sculptures and was attracted to the textures. I'd attempted metal sculptures a few times with my step dad's welding equipment but started taking it seriously after my aunt died. She was a big inspiration in my life, and my greatest fan. I ended up moving to my uncle's ranch to help him after she died. He wanted a cemetery on his land, so I helped to build it. My passion for scrap metal art started after I sculpted an angel for the arch above the cemetery entrance to honor my aunt. I put a lot of love and energy into that small sculpture, and it marked the change in my career path.
Joyce: What's your creative process?
John: I sculpt a scaled down version in clay or bronze first. I define the proportions of the animal and the action it'll be doing. The model and the measurements create a template I can follow. I just don't know what pieces I'll use to make it — that's the discovery part of the process. In every scrap pile, I find something unique or interesting I want to incorporate, so the dynamics of the sculpture are always changing. I can't plan too much. I've got to be open to letting the materials go where they will. I think that's what's so fun about sculpting; you never know what you're going to get.
Joyce: Your sculptures, like Longhorn, seem to be layered in meaning; do you choose the elements for your sculptures based on aesthetics or emotional connection?
John: After I finished Longhorn I was going to take it down to Texas as kind of an experiment. I wanted to drive to a small town and leave the sculpture in the back of my trailer and watch how people reacted to it. Longhorn has so much Texas memorabilia that no Texan could look at it and not relate to it somehow. Sometimes I do like to do more of a narrative, I guess, with some of them. The overall image of Longhorn represents Texas, but then within it, there's are all these other little things. There are lots of elements and subliminal messages that trigger thoughts and feelings that make up the larger picture.
Joyce: How are you able to achieve such accuracy in the anatomy of the animals you sculpt?
John: I've been around large animals my whole life, but I think it helps that I started out in bronze sculpting, and studied anatomy. My goal when I first started bronze sculpting was to do the most realistic horse that I could do, kind of like Charles Russell. I wanted to sculpt life-size animals in wild poses that show action. I think the accuracy of my work is a combination of my background, plus my desire to achieve it.
Joyce: How do you challenge yourself artistically?
John: Lately, I've been experimenting with color. Or, sometimes I'll try something different with the way that I finish a piece so that they don't all turn out the same. I'm always trying to figure out different ways to push the boundaries and think outside the box. It gets difficult to challenge myself when I'm doing a lot of commissioned pieces. People see a picture of a piece I've already done, and they'll tell me they want one just like it. I get stuck doing the same thing over and over. When I can get away and do my own thing, then that's when I can experiment and try something new.
Joyce: What do you want people to think and feel when they see your work?
John: I guess I'm trying to convey feelings that I get when I see a particular animal, and I hope that the audience is feeling the same thing. Sometimes it's just fun to create a piece that puts a smile on somebody's face. When people take the time to look at one of my sculptures, it's hard to know what they're thinking or what they get out of it.
I've had many pieces at different art shows, and when people walk by my booth and don't stop to check things out, I feel like I must be doing something wrong. When they do take a long look, I have no idea what they feel. I guess I don't care. I'm not trying to get them to feel anything in particular, but I do enjoy seeing the reactions people have. At first glance, they don't know what it's made out of, and then they might see bits and pieces of items they recognize. I believe — and I hope — their appreciation of my work goes a little deeper in those moments.
To learn more about about John, visit his website at www.johnlopezstudio.com.