LEMMON, S.D. — John Lopez is the kind of man who comes out of a small town only once in a great while, not because small towns don't birth talent but because odds are few and fewer still are those who dare to gut it out.
Lopez, 43, creates art for the ages, pieces so large and strong they will endure until metal disintegrates into dust.
His sculpture begins in his mind and is welded into being in a dirt-floor building on his rural property not far from Lemmon, South Dakota.
One end of the building contains the scrap metal that forms his art, junked pieces from rusty farm machinery and old automobiles that would otherwise molder in the tree row or get buried in a pit below the hill.
It smells of rust, dust and oil in there, like grandpa's '47 Dodge farm pickup did. A small bird hops around the rafters and an ill-fitting overhead door clanks in the wind.
To see the piles of rusty parts and buckets of bolts and chain is small preparation for the miracle of transformation that takes place at the other end of the building. There, from frames of oil field pipe emerge metal sculptures that command serious money and attention in the art world and take the viewer on a visual and sensory journey deep into Lopez’s particular genius.
None of this comes as a surprise to his mother, Tottie Lopez, an East Coast-born woman who came to the prairie years ago as a missionary and after nine children, still has a face and figure of elegance.
She saved his artwork from little on and jumps up to tour her son's studio, a place she probably knows as well as her own living room back in town. "Maybe I can learn something," she says, perhaps hopeful of finally plumbing that alchemy of mind and metal that is her own son. Or maybe she goes because it's just a fascinating place to be.
Lopez returned to Lemmon, where he graduated from Lemmon High School in 1990, a good-enough student but not particularly memorable, he says.
He'd been to college and worked for years with Dale Lamphere in Lamphere's Sturgis studio. Lamphere turns out masterful sculptures of fabricated metal, along with many of the bronzed American presidents that are street art in Rapid City.
But home kept calling and he spent four years at a family ranch in the Cherry Creek and Grand River country of South Dakota, before buying property on a windy prairie hill near Lemmon.
"It was where my roots are, the ranch work, the riding and the brandings," he says. His aunt died while he was at the ranch and he built a fence and gate around her grave out there to make her feel at home.
This was more free form than the rigorous detailed bronze work at the studio and turned his art journey in another direction.
"Scrap iron is getting way more attention around the art world than any bronze. People get caught up in the fact that is made of found objects. They look and say, 'Oh, there’s a scissor.' It's like a game," he says.
That may be, but there is nothing childish about the longhorn steer awaiting sandblasting and paint out in the studio space. It would take an hour or longer to fully study the detailed metal work, how each section is a thing of beauty and texture up close and yet the whole of it, 8½ feet high from the floor to the tip of its horn and 11 feet long from tail to nose, reveals a beast of majestic harmony.
That detailed metal piecework of metal forks, knives, chains, cable, flat iron — "That comes in the moment. You can't plan too far ahead. A piece like this, you can completely squeeze the essence out of it," he says.
The big boy is headed to Austin, Texas, where Lopez says his unwitting buyer is sure to be waiting. "I know that all I have to do is pull this into town and it will sell. I don't have very many pieces that haven't sold," he says.
His pieces sell because within all that hard metal, he instills a spark of life, he says. Verbs describe that spark better than adjectives. The work bucks, rears, commands and swashbuckles. It speaks. It invites reverie.
Off to the side is Lopez's primary work in progress, a metal interpretation of Custer and Sitting Bull at the Battle of the Little Big Horn. Each comes to the fight inside a bull bison, Custer alone with his revolver and his ego and Sitting Bull surrounded by warriors.
"It is quintessential to my style," he says. "I've been isolated enough now and spent enough time by myself. I've stumbled onto things that are unique to me. This concept of Custer's Last Stand, I'd challenge you to find that story told like that anywhere in the world."
A mentor's praise
Dale Lamphere, Lopez's former employer, renowned sculptor and mentor, has praise for a young man who worked beside him for a half-dozen years.
He says Lopez's work transcends the usual scrap iron genre.
"He has a highly developed eye for accurate anatomy that he integrates with found objects. There's a layering effect that gets you involved in the details. The varieties of the parts and the memories they evoke add a real richness," Lamphere says.
He says Lopez's talent and entrepreneur spirit are in sync with opportunities for sculptors as a growing number of communities become aware of the value of art and its revitalizing power.
Lopez is reaching into his past by bringing in an apprentice who drove to Lemmon from New Jersey to work with him. Shaun Re, a welder and sculptor in the making, said he waited for the Dakota winter to break to spring, but he couldn't wait to get there. "I want to learn how John approaches his work. I want to learn all I can," Re says.
Lopez says he has much to teach Re and is looking forward to the experience.
"I wanted the fun of working with another person. I have plenty of stuff in my name; I'm ready to pass the torch," he says.
Several of his pieces are on display at the Grand River Museum on U.S. Highway 12 in Lemmon, including a Tyrannosaurus rex with a cowboy astride its back that stands along the highway. A metal saddle bronc rider hanging onto a bucking horse is on the greening lawn of the high school, where teachers helped refine his boyhood interest in art.
In all, Lopez has 12 pieces on display in North Dakota and South Dakota alone — the grizzly at MacKenzie River restaurant in Bismarck is his work — and others elsewhere in the country.
While Lemmon is no mecca for artists, unlike Sedona, Arizona, or even the Black Hills, and there's no energy of other artists drawn to its geography or to its spirit, Lopez is mostly content to be in a place where everyone knows his name at the pizza joint downtown.
His heart is back in that wide river country to the east of Lemmon, where there's inspiration in the land and the animals.
That country is a challenge in its own right, same as the struggle to be a name that artists and collectors recognize.
"You have to earn your way there," Lopez says.