John Lopez, the Metal Sculpting Cowboy

Written by: Asra Jawaid
Written by: Asra Jawaid

Metal sculptor John Lopez is a product of his upbringing along the Grand River in Lemmon, South Dakota. This is the same place where Sitting Bull was born and later died, and where thousands of buffalo roamed free before the westward expansion of gold miners and settlers two centuries ago. Given its history, it’s not surprising that Lopez grew up to domesticate colts and perfect their blood lines. However, it’s hard not to be awed by the welded works of art that this historical legacy has inspired him to create.

Boss Cowman Square

Amongst the myriad of works to Lopez’s name is Boss Cowman Square, which was designed as a way to honor those who have thrived in the world of ranching and agriculture. The sculpture portrays a mounted cowboy gazing into the distance The park where this statue resides pays homage to Ed Lemmon, a symbol of the indomitable cowboy spirit. Having founded the eponymous city of Lemmon, Ed always encouraged its inhabitants to put their best foot forward. Lopez’s Boss Cowman Square is a hybrid metal sculpture that took 6 months to create. The rider was cast in bronze and the horse was welded fusing mainly scrap iron donated by local residents, including friends and neighbors.

Maverick

The sculpture Maverick was inspired by the herd of longhorn cows owned by the Lopez family. The sculpture depicts a life-sized bovine with prominent horns. A guitar and fiddle flank a large Texas star emblazoned on its side. Lopez’s father, Lee, referred to these cows as the “horned hustlers” because they always took the lead, encouraging the rest of the herd to feed and water. A trip to Austin, Texas firmly implanted them in Lopez’s mind and, upon returning, he created this piece as a medley of music, art, history and Spanish heritage.

In order to sculpt Maverick, Lopez started with a background texture of scrap metal and roller chain to emulate carved and tooled leather. Lopez’s good friend and musician, Ken Raba, inspired him to add guitar and fiddle cut-outs with various symbols of Texas, including Sam Houston and the Alamo. Needing something with a natural taper to create the horns. Lopez remembered that Russell Umback, the father of a girl he knew in high school, had left him a bunch of excavator bucket teeth. Lopez found the teeth, sliced them up and curved them into shape.

johnlopezstudioLopez’s elegant, silver-black Friesian started out as a motley collection of plow disks, harness hames, tractor seats, brass bells and other equipment that had been burned and tempered in a prairie fire that destroyed the buildings that housed them. The sculpture captures the grace and nimbleness of this large, Dutch breed with unusually long, wavy manes and tails. Friesians were used for tasks such as pulling wagons before being developed into smooth-gliding show horses. It is believed that their ancestors carried knights into battle during the Middle Ages. Today’s Friesians are popular in areas of horse showing such as harness and dressage. They are also replacing the thoroughbreds that once inhabited historic Runnymede Farms in North Hampton, New Hampshire, where this sculpture resides.

Hugh Glass

Hugh Glass is definitely one of Lopez’s more striking sculptures. It evokes the raw energy and terror that 19th century frontiersman, Hugh Glass, must have experienced when he battled a fierce mother bear that feared for her two cubs. Glass courageously struggled against the animal using only a knife and his bare hands. Although he ultimately killed the bear, Glass was left horrifically mauled and mangled near present day Lemmon. Already having suffered many loses to attacks by members of the Arikara tribe, Major Andrew Henry offered a pay bonus to any two of the remaining trappers that would stay behind and bury Glass when he finally died. Jim Bridger and John Fitzgerald dug a proper grave and waited, but after two or three days fear got the better of them. They took Glass’s gun, knife, and other possessions and left him to perish near the banks of the Grand River. Amazingly, Glass survived and trekked more than 200-miles back to Fort Kiowa, intent on revenge. If this story sounds familiar, it’s because it has been retold countless times since that fall in 1823, most recently in the 2015 film The Revenant.

Black Hawk pays homage to the draft horses that pulled plows, carts, and carriages before the advent of tractors and trains. To create the piece, Lopez used tractor parts and other components from the powered devices that eventually replaced the draft horse. These farming elements were brought together to form mini-landscapes that represent the story of agriculture. Examples of the landscapes include a section of rolling hills along the back; the broad prairie horizon on one side of the neck; and an abstract representation of the Missouri River which cuts through South Dakota’s farmlands.

Sue

As you can see, much of Lopez’s art expresses the unique character of South Dakota’s natural, cultural, and historical heritage. Given this, the artist’s wonderful menagerie of welded art would not be complete without one of the area’s most famous original inhabitants. Sue, the largest, most complete tyrannosaurus rex skeleton ever found, was discovered twenty years ago near Faith, South Dakota, an hour’s drive from Lopez’s Lemmon studio. Sue now resides in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Illinois. However, Black Hill’s Institute (BHI), the company responsible for excavating Sue, is still located in the fossil-rich state. Lopez invited BHI president Pete Larson and his son to visit his studio and they brought several of the tools that were used to excavate Sue twenty years earlier. To no one’s surprise, Lopez was more than happy to incorporate them into his anatomically correct representation of one of his state’s most recognizable icons.

These are just a few snapshots of Lopez’s many works of art. To see more, visit his website at www.johnlopezstudio.com and, if you are interested in learning the welding skills that allowed him to create these pieces, visit us at AWS Learning.

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