- Associated Press - Sunday, June 1, 2014

LEMMON, S.D. (AP) - 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, in northern 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 tells The Bismarck Tribune (http://bit.ly/1r98XqN ). 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 it’s made of found objects. They look and say, ‘Oh, there’s a scissors.’ 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.

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