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From Parts to Art

Sculptor John Lopez is proof that great art can happen anywhere.

New York. Paris. Rome. Lemmon. That last city probably doesn’t jump to mind when you think about hot spots for art, but it should.

Lemmon, South Dakota (population 1,227), sits in the northwest corner of the state, right on the North Dakota border (just across the train tracks) and roughly 80 miles from Montana. It’s known for great hunting, beautiful vistas, the world’s largest petrified wood park, the Boss Cowman Rodeo, and sculptor John Lopez.

Ranching Roots

Lopez was raised on a ranch near Lemmon, and during his senior year at Northern State University in Aberdeen, South Dakota, he discovered his talent for sculpting while taking a required art course.

Lopez built a successful career in bronze sculpture and spent a decade working on the City of Presidents project for Rapid City, South Dakota. His life-size bronze sculptures of Presidents Adams, Kennedy, Coolidge, Roosevelt, and Grant can be found throughout the city.

While he could have worked anywhere, Lopez chose to stay in Lemmon.

“I never thought I would move back after high school, but I didn’t like missing out on time spent with my family,” he says. “I love the sparse traffic, going to brandings, and riding my horse.”

Divine Inspiration

When Lopez’s beloved aunt was killed in a car accident, he built a family cemetery on his uncle’s ranch. Using the on-site welding studio, Lopez went to work constructing a fence around the site. When he ran out of material for the gate, he searched the scrap iron piles, then welded interesting pieces together to create a gate with a small angel peering over the top.

Lopez says he got a great deal of satisfaction from that project, and it was a huge hit with everyone who saw it.

Combining his talent for bronze sculpture with his newfound love of scrap-iron sculpting, Lopez created a hybrid art style.

Bringing History to Life

One of Lopez’s latest works (pictured above) commemorates Ed Lemmon, the town’s founder, who died in 1945. The lifelike face is sculpted in bronze, and the body and horse are made from scrap-iron items mostly donated by local residents, including a revolver and a jackknife. “There are personal items hidden within the sculpture, which are the fingerprints of the community members,” Lopez says.

The sculpture sits in Boss Cowman Square, a newly cleared area in the middle of Main Street. It’s surrounded by benches and paved with bricks engraved with the names of benefactors. Eventually, bronze sculptures of local ranchers honored each year at the town’s annual Boss Cowman celebration and rodeo will line the square.

From atop the bronze horse, Ed Lemmon’s statue overlooks a mural of the Grand River painted on the side of the Kokomo, a one-time bar and Lemmon landmark. Lopez purchased the vacant building and is renovating it to use as a gallery. It will showcase another of his latest works, “The Last Stand,” a sculpture of two bison bulls fighting that also features Custer and Sitting Bull in the Battle of Little Big Horn.

The square is a point of pride for Lemmon residents and a boost to the business center of the small town. “Lemmon is really in need of something, and the Boss Cowman Square is a step in the right direction. We have a ton of really interesting history,” Lopez says. “I thought the sculpture and mural should be in the heart of Lemmon, right smack in the middle of all the businesses, where it could have the biggest impact on shoppers.”

Visit johnlopezstudio.com to see more photos of his work, read his blog, and order a coffee-table book.

“Maverick,” John Lopez’s sculpture of a Texas longhorn, is on display in Houston, Texas.

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