- Associated Press - Monday, February 8, 2016

LEMMON, S.D. (AP) - What John Lopez felt growing up was how cut off from the rest of the world it was - a ranch near Lemmon, South Dakota, where he didn’t want to stay. The biggest thing that ever happened was that the trapper Hugh Glass, way back in 1823, survived his legendary fight with a grizzly bear just a few miles away.

Then Hugh Glass left, too, even though he had to crawl.

“When I was a kid, I didn’t really appreciate it, I just wanted to leave,” says Lopez, now a sculptor. At 44, he’s becoming better known all the time for his innovative work, including a piece unveiled in 2015 that celebrates Hugh Glass’s encounter with the bear. It’s partly the product of Lopez’s own long wrestle with the Plains in his growing up years, the Pierre Capital Journal (http://bit.ly/1mehbN2 ) reported.

“I didn’t really like riding horse; I didn’t want to be on a ranch. I felt like I was out in the middle of nowhere. It wasn’t fun. All I wanted to do was go and do something else.”

As a teenager in the 1980s, John Lopez used to tune in to radio station KFYR out of Bismarck and turn up the volume.

“I liked ‘80s pop music a lot,” Lopez says now. “I liked Michael Jackson, Rod Stewart. I would even get in a tug of war with my dad about how loud the music should be.”

They didn’t have a TV for years and when they finally got one, the only signal they could pull in was public television. “Dr. Who” was his favorite show on PBS.

Yeah, that was Lemmon, South Dakota; but his grandfather, Albert Lopez, had come in decades ago from Trinidad, Colorado, to ride for the Diamond A, the biggest ranch outfit in South Dakota, so his dad was at home here; and his mom had made herself at home.

“My mom came from the East Coast,” he says. “She came out here to the Indian reservation as a missionary.”

She loved the Great Plains.

“She definitely saw something that put her in a trance the minute she saw it - she fell in love with it right away. I sometimes will see it through her eyes, especially when the grass blows and she’ll say, ‘This looks just like the ocean, when the wind would hit the water and it would kind of do this thing - it does the same thing in the grass.’

“I loved it but I didn’t know I loved it, because it was the only thing I knew,” says John Lopez. “I had to get away from it to really appreciate it.”

In 1991, he got away.

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That’s when he went off to Northern State University in Aberdeen.

A substitute teacher gave him the idea that he should - Mrs. Larson.

“I wasn’t going to go very far from home, that’s for sure. I was a ranch kid and I really wasn’t college material. I was super-intimidated by the whole college thing because I wasn’t a very academic type.”

And ranch life, even out there in the middle of nowhere, was at least something he knew.

“I felt more comfortable halter-breaking colts and riding horses. My grandparents from the East Coast offered to pay my tuition, and so I went after one of my teachers here in Lemmon told me that I’d make a good commercial artist. So I went into commercial art, not really understanding what it was, but it happened to be the perfect thing for me. And one of the classes was Sculpture 101. It was required. I would probably have never figured out that I was a sculptor if I hadn’t took that class.”

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They would cast the student projects into bronze - blue-collar stuff.

“And I fell absolutely in love with melting bronze, pouring it into molds - all that jazz,” Lopez said.

For a while the class dealt with human anatomy and they had this model stand up in the middle of the room wearing swim trunks. He was kind of short; but he helped the instructors make the point.

“They handed us these pieces of paper that divided the human body into seven and a half heads. Once they told me how to figure out proportions - like there’s a recipe, every animal, every human, you can figure out proportions based on the size of the skull - that made it easy for me. You just measure the size of the skull, and we are all about seven-and-a-half heads. I don’t know how to put that into words.”

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“So I would take this little wax model to my room, to my dorm room, and work on it. It was just like I was completely obsessed with it. And I was very obsessed with Charles Russell. He’s a western artist. My dad loved his paintings and all the action.”

For a while John Lopez wanted to take all the action that was in Charlie Russell’s paintings and put it into bronze.

“There’s something about bronze. Some people really get taken by it and fall into this bronze hypnotism. I was one of those people,” Lopez said. “I was so obsessed with trying to sculpt the perfect horse or the perfect shoulder. I couldn’t ever really get it and I just kept driving myself. I’m still not there. I think that’s probably what makes my pieces, or makes people react to some of my pieces. Every once in a while one of them really does hit people at just the right place. That’s what I keep searching for - how do you take an inanimate object, a pile of junk, and turn it into something that has life and inspires people?”

How an artist makes that happen is still a mystery to him.

“There’s a drive there, some kind of a drive that I don’t really understand - definitely God-given; definitely inspired by something bigger than myself.”

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He did bronze for a few years; he even worked for a while in sculptor Dale Lamphere’s studio at the edge of the Black Hills near Sturgis.

“Dale Lamphere is a sculptor who has influenced me. He fabricates pieces using sheet metal mixed with cast metal,” Lopez said.

A woman named Dallerie Davis, now a Rapid City real estate agent, worked with the Lamphere studio then.

“She kind of took the country boy and refined my sense of being able to write and speak in front of people,” Lopez said.

“She’s got this sensibility, or she really understands how to be the communicator between the artist and the art buyer. Sometimes the artists can be kind of moody, they’re not that good at pricing their work, they don’t know to write their own bios. She knows how to deal with things. She taught me a lot. I think she has had a profound effect upon the refining of my style and how I market my work. I just published a book about my work. I’ve learned from other people some of these things that you might not learn living out on a cow camp in the middle of nowhere.”

Dallerie Davis is the reason, Lopez said, that he got into Rapid City’s City of Presidents project and Pierre’s Trail of Governors project. He’s done the Rapid City sculptures of presidents John F. Kennedy, John Adams, John Q. Adams, Jimmy Carter, Calvin Coolidge, Teddy Roosevelt, William Henry Harrison, James Garfield, and Benjamin Harrison. For Pierre’s Trail of Governors project he’s done Arthur C. Mellette and Harvey Wollman?.

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But this is the part you don’t always hear about in art school - bronze hypnotism sometimes wears off.

“I’d go to these sculpture shows in Loveland, Colorado, and I’d see these other artists that are doing these scrap iron sculptures, and I was just totally taken with that,” Lopez said.

“I think I was definitely looking for a new path. I had kind of peaked with my bronzes. It wasn’t quite doing what I wanted it to do. It definitely wasn’t causing any waves. It was good, my horses were good, but I wasn’t getting any work out of it.”

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“My dad loves to collect that kind of stuff, junk and iron,” Lopez said. “If you grow up in the middle of nowhere, you try to do things with what you’ve got around you.”

He was probably in his late 20s or into his 30s when he started feeling burned out from working with bronze. He needed to work with new materials.

“So I got the opportunity when I moved down to my Uncle Geno’s - Geno Hunt, he lives south of Eagle Butte. He had a welding shop and a huge pile of scrap iron. His wife passed away and so I moved down there. That was my aunt - Effie Hunt. I moved down there to be with Geno and to help build the cemetery. We started making some of the features of it out of scrap iron and I did this angel for a gate, and I thought, Ah, this angel’s turned out so good, I’m going to try a horse head. And it just completely started from that - started exploding in new directions.”

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Sometimes Lopez uses the found products of distant foundries to talk about the Great Plains, where things made of iron have come to rest on old farmsteads.

“I think where that comes together like poetry is where I did the draft horse pulling the plow. There’s really something about that sculpture: You’ve got this horse leaning into the plow, he’s really pulling. And then you walk up to the piece and you see all these things from the Great Depression that remind you of your grandparents.

“We all have this remembrance of those people who are so conservative, they didn’t throw anything away, they kept everything, and somehow we have these emotional connections to some of those parts and pieces because the people are gone but it reminds us of them. You have some kind of connection to those pieces because it reminds you of your childhood, a little bit of the Depression, a little bit of settling these wild, open plains. It has a lot of meaning, especially when I use the older things that are antique-like.”

Now, as a sculptor, John Lopez works the land he wanted to leave once, but works it differently, harvesting his materials from old farmsteads.

“I live in the perfect place for the kind of artwork that I’m doing because so many people have those cool old things that grandma and grandpa had, if it’s the old pot-bellied stove or whatever, and they didn’t throw it away because they might need it someday or it’s really cool or whatever. So now this new generation is starting to clean up the place and they’ll say, ‘Hey, come over to my place and take this stuff.’ A lot of it’s getting recycled or sold off for scrap prices, so I can go and talk to a scrap buyer and say, ‘Hey, if I give you a hundred bucks, will you let me go through and pick whatever I want?’ And I don’t really take a big truckload - just cool little pieces that would look good in a sculpture. I think people get a kick out of being a part of that. It seems to work pretty well. I haven’t had to go to big scrapyards and buy a lot of stuff. Most of it’s come off these old homesteads.

“I think it helps that I went to high school here. Everybody’s seen my pieces or come to one of my unveilings. Every year there’s a new group of people who will come up and say, the wife especially will come up and say, ‘Well, you can come and clean our place up.’ And the husband will say, ‘Yeah, well, bring your checkbook, because that stuff is worth something to me.’ As long as they can be there when you pick something, they’ll say, ‘Ah, you can just take it.’”

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People like his work. And they show it in an odd way.

“One thing I have noticed is, I can show my art work at the Black Hills Stock Show in Rapid City and these old cowboys will come up,” Lopez says. “They are not necessarily that educated on art, I would guess. It has to be a certain way, the Tim Cox painting or Charles Russell, and then they’ll hang it on the wall. But it’s really funny when some of those kind of people will react to one of my pieces. You can tell, the grin that’s on their faces, they get it, they really appreciate it.

“And then they’ll go home and try to weld one themselves. A lot of people - a lot of people - send me pictures of a saddle or a horse. I think it makes people think, Hey, this is something I can do at home. I’ve got all this stuff, I can go home and do this, too. And they get enjoyment out of it. I think that’s great. That makes me feel better than somebody that just comes up and says, ‘Wow, this is amazing’ - if it really inspires them to go and then do something, change their path, learn how to weld or whatever. That’s really cool. I really like that.”

What he likes about this style of art as a sculptor is that he can build a piece “from the inside out,” paying more attention to the symmetry than he can with bronze. What do other people like about it?

“I don’t really understand it myself. When you look at it, it really catches light differently than bronze or something else. They’re objects that are mass-produced.

It’s the texture, I think. There are so many layers. It draws people in - every time they look at it, they see something different. It’s almost like a game sometimes - people kind of want to be entertained a little more than just, ‘Oh, that’s a grizzly bear attacking a guy.’ But, ‘Hey, look - look what it’s made out of.’”

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Now art buyers from across the world beat a path to John Lopez’s studio door. He recently did a store window in Houston for Parisian company Hermes, a maker of luxury handbags.

But most of his work he does, oddly enough, in a studio just outside of Lemmon, South Dakota - same place he was so eager to leave when he was a kid.

“I think it is that I have left home - I moved away and went to the Black Hills. But the whole time I was living in the Black Hills, I dreamt of going home,” Lopez said.

“I have a really big appreciation for it now that I’m older and I can see how beautiful it is. The landscape and the Grand River is a big part of that. It’s hard for me sometimes to sculpt that, but in this T-rex that I did, it went to Ripley’s Believe It or Not in San Francisco, in the side of that T-rex I put the Grand River and these hills and some of the scenery. So sometimes I’ll try to integrate some of the landscape into some of the sculptures I’m doing with, like a river. It’s definitely a part of who I am.”

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“I guess I’ve had a lot of opportunities that kind of isolated me. The isolation is almost a requirement if you’re going to be an artist and you’re really going to try to find some kind of texture or something that has never been done or that somebody else isn’t doing. You almost have to get lost in it,” Lopez said.

That still happens out there in his studio on the Great Plains.

“It would scare some people, the vastness of it, and the sky - it’s so huge. But that’s what I consider home. That’s where I’m the most comfortable. You get up on a tall hill around here and you can see a long, long way. I’m glad that I’m in a place where I can have a horse and go help with the branding. I don’t ever want to get too far away from that.”

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Information from: Pierre Capital Journal, http://www.capjournal.com

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