Lopez finds a unique career in sculpting

LEMMON, S.D. -- John Lopez did not plan to become a sculptor. Then he was required to take a sculpting class while working on a commercial art degree from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D. "They had a foundry on campus that we could cas...

LEMMON, S.D. -- John Lopez did not plan to become a sculptor.

Then he was required to take a sculpting class while working on a commercial art degree from Northern State University in Aberdeen, S.D.

"They had a foundry on campus that we could cast our projects into bronze. It's rare to have a foundry on any campus -- they had a really good one in the art department," Lopez said.

This requirement spawned a career for Lopez, a Lemmon High School graduate.

Lopez is one of five South Dakota artists working on the City of Presidents project out of Rapid City, S.D.


Presidents in bronze

A life-size bronze statue of Teddy Roosevelt is one of Lopez's creations for the City of Presidents project. The statue of Roosevelt in the Roughrider uniform he wore during the charge on San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War in 1898, was on display in Lemmon's Grand River Museum during the town's centennial recent celebration.

Roosevelt is the eighth presidential bronze statue Lopez has created for the City of Presidents project.

"He's my favorite president, so I've always had ideas on how to do him," he said.

Lopez said he did research in Medora on Roosevelt for nearly six months before deciding to craft Roosevelt in his Roughrider gear.

The City of Presidents project board unanimously supported the idea.

A similar statue of Roosevelt in his Roughrider outfit comes alive in the recent film "A Night at the Museum," something Lopez said was an exciting coincidence. He hopes the similarity will attract children to see his sculpture.

Lopez was approached for the City of Presidents project by the group's Vice President Dallerie Davis. She hired Lopez and the other South Dakota artists for the project in an effort to use local talent.


Any feedback during the development of a project is between artists. The City of Presidents board has no creative control other than original approval of a concept and occasional inspections.

"These pieces aren't commissioned; I don't have the pressure of deadline or expectations. The board can't veto the finished bronze product," Lopez said.

The City of Presidents project began in 2000. Bronzed sculptures of two early presidents and two contemporary presidents were made and added each year over a 10-year period in Rapid City.

Sculptures of James Buchanan, Franklin Pierce and William Howard Taft are tentatively scheduled for this year.

A dinosaur made of scrap

On July 13, Lopez unveiled a personal creation, a dinosaur sculpture made entirely out of scrap metal. It will be placed in front of the Grand River Museum.

The dinosaur stands 6 feet tall and is 17 feet long. Lopez gathered assorted pieces of scrap metal -- nuts, bolts, chains, shovels and car bumpers -- from the farms of family and friends this past winter.

"Some of my die-hard collectors are worried that I'm going to quit doing sculptures," Lopez said. "I feel that I need to push the envelope."


He said Grand River Museum is a family project specializing in gathering area paleontology items such as fossils. He thought creating a special dinosaur sculpture would be great for the museum.

Family members continue to find fossils around the area and instead of shipping them off to museums in areas where locals would not be able to see them; the fossils are preserved and presented inside Grand Review Museum.

He said composing a sculpture in scrap metal is new to him, but necessary in expressing an artistic side he cannot show through only creating sculptures.

"I really wanted to do one of these scrap item pieces for a long time, since I started sculpting," Lopez said. "I just never have had the time or resources, and everything finally lined up for when I could do this piece."

How to make a sculpture

Lopez said the time needed to make a sculpture is dependent on size and detail. The average life-size sculpture can take four to five months, with another month to cast that sculpture in bronze, he said.

First, sculptors use a maquette, or small-scale model, to build a skeletal model of a sculpture. Lopez said he uses Styrofoam to fill out a maquette, then cutting a model from it.

Clay is then smeared into a model, with any specific fine details added using small tools.


Sculptors use a type of clay called Plasticine clay, a type of oil-based clay that never hardens. This is in contrast to pottery makers who use water-based clay.

"That's the great thing about this oil-based clay, you can just fix that side, you don't have to start over," Lopez said.

He admits he is somewhat of a perfectionist, but said the ability to craft and easily replace Plasticine clay on a model leaves few excuses for mistakes.

Mistakes can happen, however, during the lost wax casting process, which is the process used to turn the clay sculpture into bronze.

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