Iron on the Hoof
Iron on the Hoof
You could call John Lopez a maverick. It’s the same name the sculptor chose to anoint the 10-foot-tall Texas longhorn he brought to life when he welded together old chains, wrenches, shovels, sections of rusted ploughs, and anything else he could pull out of the pile of parts he keeps in his studio in Lemmon, South Dakota.
Lopez’s Western-themed art didn’t always look this way. Eight years ago, he detoured from a successful career in classical bronze casting to the more rock-and-roll world of scrap-metal art.
A talented draftsman, he’d originally discovered sculpture after taking an introductory course in college. (He graduated from Black Hills State University in 1997 with a bachelor’s degree in commercial art.) “We had these bronze-casting projects, and I just fell in love with metal,” says Lopez, 43. “I loved how you could shine it up, and it’s virtually indestructible.”
For a decade he worked on private and public commissions, including the City of Presidents project in Rapid City, his home for several years, where he created likenesses of American leaders including Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt.
In 2006, after his beloved aunt, Effie Hunt, died in a car accident, Lopez returned to the family ranch to help her husband, Geno.“She was very outgoing and she pushed me to do things and to get out and talk,” Lopez says. “She and Geno really, really believed in everything I did.” Effie was buried on a hill overlooking the ranch. “Being there, I could still feel that encouragement.”
Lopez was charged with building a gate around the new cemetery, which he did using oil well pipe he found on the ranch, adorning it with a metal angel, his first scrap-metal art.
“When I first did sculpture in college, I was very excited because it was something I didn’t know I could do,” he recalls. “But I never had the total excitement that I did when I was working with scrap iron. With that I felt like I was really on to something.”
Lopez’s sculptures, most of animals and especially horses, stand apart for their vitality and anatomical precision.
“We rode horses all the time, ever since I was a little guy,” he says. “When I was young, I was always kind of scared, worried the horse would run away or buck me off. So I became in tune with their signals, how their ears and their eyes moved. I think that made me very observant in my sculptures.”
When Lopez designs a new piece, he first sculpts the figure in clay or wax to determine proportions. Over time, he’s found certain objects work well for specific body parts – a scoop shovel or a tractor seat for the hindquarters, car mufflers for buffalo horns, chains for manes.
But that started feeling predictable, so Lopez more recently started creating his own objects to add to the mix. For Maverick, for instance, he built out of scrap iron a cowboy boot with spur, a guitar and a violin, and used his casting skills to create a bronze bust of Texas founding father Sam Houston. Combining those iconic elements with the found metal, Lopez created a Lone Star mother lode.
While Lopez values his gift for envisioning a whole from many random parts, he’s becoming more interested in masterminding each component. “I don’t want to just get lucky with how the work looks,” says Lopez. “I feel like I could keep pushing it and pushing it until my pieces aren’t made out of found objects anymore.”
While most of Lopez’s sculptures are commissioned, Maverick and two other equally monumental works in progress – Tyrannosaurus Rex and The Last Stand – fulfill the artist’s need to imagine more elaborate components and themes.
“I want to continually challenge myself. I’m not just a welder, I’m a sculptor. I really want these pieces to be different from any other scrap-iron work you’ll see. I want people to be able to say, ‘That’s a John Lopez.’”
Diane Daniel is a writer based in Florida and the Netherlands.