Capturing the Steely Spirit of the West
Third-generation South Dakotan and metal artist John Lopez is a modern-day Frederic Remington. He captures icons of the American West in steely splendor—Native Americans, buffalo, horses, pioneers, mountain men, grizzlies, wolves, Texas longhorns, among them. His life-size dramas are sculpted in musculatures of metal,
sinew of steel, twisting, straining, plunging, bringing history to life in iron relief.
Like the famous frontier sculptor and painter, Frederic Remington, who became known worldwide for his depictions of bucking broncos, cowboys, vaqueros, Native Americans, and western scenes, John Lopez casts figures in metal that are spectacular in their dynamic motion and muscular spirit. But Lopez adds a twist: he combines scrap metal—often from old farm and ranch equipment—into his sculptures, giving them a second life.
Somehow, the abandoned implements—rusted and crumpled parts of plows, tractors, engines, combines, bailers, manure spreaders, planters, threshers, feeders, axles—and other unwanted miscellany, is given meaning once more. Their former workmanlike purpose comes alive again as the haunch of a plow horse, the claws of a grizzly, the furry mantle of a buffalo, even the rawhide chaps of a cowboy.
Take the magnificent sculpture called “Hugh Glass,” that captures the scene of a famous mountain man who, nearly two centuries before not far from John Lopez’s South Dakota hometown, Lemmon, was attacked by a grizzly bear protecting her two cubs. The legendary frontiersman fought the monstrous she-bear with only his knife in an epic struggle that left him nearly dead, mangled and bleeding to death.
His two partners, Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald, left him for dead in the wilderness, taking his gun, knife and supplies with them. Glass’s struggle to survive and his 200-mile trek back to a fort became a frontier true-life legend, recounted in literature and in Hollywood, including The Revenant, Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 multiple-Oscar winning movie.
John Lopez’s sculpture immortalizes Glass’s struggle in steel, the attacking grizzly plunging forward, its immense power recoiling from muscled layers of metal, serrated gears, and chains, its iron teeth and spiked claws bared against Glass’s lone knife, poised in mid-air. Somehow the raw pieces of jagged metal feed the violent energy, translate their iron power into a kinetic spirit. Iron becomes flesh becomes iron again.
John Lopez works in iron, but he is of the land, too, and maybe that’s why his work has so much resonance. He is a third-generation South Dakotan who has always had one foot in the white world and one in the Native American world. He grew up on Standing Rock Indian Reservation with six Sioux siblings, although he is not Native himself. His childhood was spent with horses and cattle and ranching, too. His grandfather moved to South Dakota in the 20s and was one of the first breeders of AQHA-approved Quarter horses, as well as Angus, Hereford and Texas longhorn cattle.
John’s lifelong love of horses is evident in his work. He grew up with horses and today owns and rides Quarter horses on the South Dakota range. Horses are among his favorite subjects: A draft horse straining against its traces, pulling a settler’s plow through virgin prairie sod. A splendiferous black Freisian with flaring mane and tail, clad all in metal, like the war horse armor the breed wore originally in the Middle Ages. A cowboy on a heavily muscled Quarter horse, his lariat uncoiled to rope a “little doggie.” Or, a tall, leggy Thoroughbred with mounted jockey that was commissioned by the owner of the prestigious Calument Farm in Louisville, Kentucky, the home of two Triple Crown winners and more Kentucky Derby winners than any other breeder in the world. His sculpture is installed there now.
His brand of sculpture is called “hybrid sculpture,” a combination of traditional sculpture in which he carves and sculpts statues that he then casts in metal and incorporates into larger figures created from scrap metal. Those wildly miscellaneous pieces are mixed, layered and interspersed together in random and magical patterns that become a gathered haunch, a straining neck, a flaring tail, a feathered fetlock.
Some might say his work falls in the fairly new “steampunk” sculpture genre, that incorporates elements of Wild West or Victorian England themes inspired by 19th-century industrial steam-powered machinery and utilizes scrap metal and found objects ingeniously melded together. Whatever his genre, his work is unique and readily recognizable not only by its western-themed subject matter, but also by his materials that capture so beautifully—fluidly—the musculature, anatomy, movement, and spirit of his frontier subjects.
Buffalo loom large in John’s imagination and welding studio. His buffalo creations are many. “Last Stand” depicts a young bull and a much larger, older bull sparring in a colossal battle at Kokomo Gallery in Lemmon, South Dakota.
This last year, in 2019, he installed a life-size buffalo in France at the Parc Animalier de Sainte Croix. In that piece, a shovel and spade became the flank of the buffalo, a gasket became his nostril, and chains depict his hair.
In his “Wild West Buffalo,” commissioned for a private collection in Kensington, New Hampshire. Look closer and you see that the beautifully composed animal has a head created in part from a pail, its hind quarters are wheel rims and maybe a plow disk, and its hind leg, perhaps a muffler. From the right shoulder of the buffalo emanates an amazing alcove, the rim laced in intricate metal like a dreamcatcher. Flanged metal radiates from the alcove like a shrine. Inside the small niche is a cast sculpture bust of a Native American, signifying the inextricable bond between buffalo and the Plains Indians.
Lopez has done a number of Native American figures, as well, including Siting Bull and life-size sculpture of Red Iron or “Mazasa,” Chief of the Sisseton Dakota Sioux. That sculpture is installed in Groton, South Dakota, near the area that Chief Red Iron lived that was eastern Dakota and Minnesota territory in the 1850s. Red Iron was known as an upstanding and honest chief who stood up for his people when whites broke treaties with his tribe and even went to Washington to meet with President Grant.
Behind all his art is the artist’s drive to tell a story and each of his sculptures with their strange and wonderful assemblages of roller chains, engine heads, mufflers, plow discs, plumbing fixtures, and other iron esoterica, come together to tell stories
often of struggle. Native Americans fighting to defend their way of life, buffalo struggling to survive in a disappearing prairie, cowboys eking out a living in the frontier, pioneers toiling to break the virgin prairie sod to grow meager crops.
Lopez discovered his love of sculpture while attending Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota. As an art student, he apprenticed with several professional sculptors, including Dale Lamphere, the famous Western sculptor who has created a number of world-renown Native-themed pieces, including “Dignity of Earth and Sky,” a 50-foot stainless steel sculpture of a Native woman near Chamberlain, South Dakota, that "represents the courage and wisdom of the Lakota and Dakota cultures." From there, Lopez built a sculpting career. But, “it was really hard to stand out,” he says.
It was out of Lopez’s own struggle that his successful art career arose when an angel, of sorts, came to him. In fact, it was an iron angel. About thirteen years ago, his beloved Aunt Effie died and he was heartbroken. She was one of his most loyal supporters and had encouraged him early on as an artist. He decided to create an angel to put atop her cemetery gate. He lovingly collected metal detritus to create a tiny sculpture, as if gathering pieces of his heart to put back together. “I put all my energy and emotion into it,” he said.
The angel changed Lopez’s career. Aunt Effie had helped him change the course of his life to become an artist. Now her angel had brought yet another profound change for him. Before he had produced mostly conventional bronze pieces and had trouble distinguishing himself.
But his labor of love for his beloved aunt, creating her memorial from scraps from life, had opened a new door. And her tiny iron angel led him through it. He began exploring more ambitious projects using scrap metal and incorporating his traditional sculptures into them. His career as an artist took flight. Today, he has installations not only all over his state of South Dakota, but all over the country and in Europe.
Now, in his studio set in the midst of the vast Dakota prairie, he is surrounded by large and small scraps of metal and massive works in progress. But look closer and there are also whimsical tiny bronze figures here and there he has welded, like his Aunt Effie’s little angel. He may have lost an angel, but he also gained some. Aunt Effie must be smiling.
© 2020 NOTES FROM THE FRONTIER
You can view more work of John Lopez at his artist site: johnlopezstudio.com