Cowboy Artist Welds Rusted Tractors, Scrap Metal Into Unreal Western Animals, Garners Worldwide Fame

A sculptor from South Dakota is immortalizing the cultural heritage of the land he loves by turning rusted scrap metal and old farming equipment into breathtaking, life-sized works of art.

John Lopez, 51, lives on a 14-acre hobby ranch in Lemmon, South Dakota, the town where he was born and raised. Besides his two (breathing) horses, Lopez’s ranch is home to a welding shop where he works on sculptural livestock and wildlife commissions full-time.

Animals are at the forefront of his work. He renders everything from bison to bucking broncos, from tigers to T-rexes. He told The Epoch Times, “Whether it’s a whale or an octopus, a wolf or a bison, I’m really inspired by nature and by living creatures.

“For me, it’s really important for the animal to look like it’s alive, like it’s going to move. I really study the anatomy and the muscle, but … it kind of takes on an abstract view as you start moving closer and see how the scrap metal is arranged. It’s the best of both worlds.”

Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez in the studio with a scrap metal cow in the background. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez working on “Black Hawk.” (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez starts out by sculpting a maquette—a small wax model—to best understand his subject’s anatomy. He then takes the maquette into his welding shop to use as a model, aiming to replicate the detail and “capture the same energy” as the highly-gestural miniature in the final work.

Rather than beat his chosen scraps back into shape, Lopez retains their dents, dings, wear, and rust as a patina. “The pieces are beautiful and it tells a story,” he said. “They have a previous life, and now they have a new life in the sculpture … it creates really interesting textures, too.”

Lopez estimates that some of his bigger bison sculptures weigh up to a ton. Accordingly, he keeps a forklift onsite. A commission takes him around six months to complete.

Epoch Times Photo
“Black Hawk” by John Lopez. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
A fantastical sculpture of a fish a rider by John Lopez. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
“Iron Star” by John Lopez. (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Thanks to the internet, Lopez gained international recognition around ten years ago. Now, most of his clients are commercial. His sculptures are erected outside restaurants and other public spots for all to marvel at. He estimates he has finished around 40 scrap metal pieces to date.

Besides his wildlife, one of Lopez’s most famous works is a series of twelve life-sized presidential portraits for The City of Presidents project in Rapid City, which he executed from 2003 to 2010.

Two of his favorite works include a draft horse pulling a plow, titled “Black Hawk,” and the American fur-trapper and explorer Hugh Glass, who was famously attacked by a grizzly bear. Glass survived, and reputedly crawled some 200 miles to safety to tell the tale.

Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez poses beside his sculpture of a bull. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez and a tiger made of scrap metal. (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Growing up in ranch territory, Lopez said he “wasn’t really school material,” but was, nevertheless, encouraged to attend college to become a commercial artist. He enrolled at Northern State University in Aberdeen. There, sculpting in wax led to bronze, and he fell in love with the metallic medium.

Lopez shares his father’s taste for Western art and the work of Charles Russell and Frederic Remington. Lopez’s sculptures of horses and bison are intended to emulate Russell’s clay works. Upon landing a job working for bronze sculptor Dale Lamphere in the Black Hills, Lopez’s work grew in scale.

Epoch Times Photo
“Lemmon Cowboys” by John Lopez. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez merges industrial textures with realistic anatomy to create a highly-gestural, abstract effect. (Courtesy of John Lopez)

That job lasted nearly 20 years until a loss in the family brought him home in 2006. He was called upon to create a memorial. “I made an angel for the cemetery gate for my aunt [from] scrap metal, tractor parts, old chains, and gas tanks off of motorcycles,” he said.

Now on his own ranch, Lopez has found his milieu. “I put my sculpting ability to work, and just started building stuff out of farm equipment,” he said. Uncles and neighbors provide ample “junk,” chock-full of character, to work with.

Epoch Times Photo
A scrap metal bison in a landscape. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
A whimsical triceratops and rider. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
“Dakotah” by John Lopez. This was his first scrap metal work, completed in 2010. (Courtesy of John Lopez)

Lopez has a gallery space, Kokomo Gallery, on Main Street in Lemmon. He has worked for big brands, such as the fashion giant Hermes, has been featured in exhibitions as far abroad as Qatar, and was commissioned to make sculptures for the Princess of Monaco’s 90th birthday celebrations.

While Lopez still admires Russell and Remington, he hopes to fuse that heritage with a more contemporary syntax going forward. “Something that stands the test of time but yet it’s my own style,” he said.

Now, he is working on a global exhibition and hopes his scrap metal sculptures will be seen the same way Buffalo Bill’s Wild West was seen in Paris and London.

Epoch Times Photo
John Lopez welds a scrap metal T-rex. (Courtesy of John Lopez)
Epoch Times Photo
“Tree of Life” by John Lopez. (Courtesy of John Lopez)

“I love meeting new people, seeing what other artists are doing, and experiencing new places … that’s what makes life interesting,” Lopez said. “I’ve been very fortunate. I’m making a good living doing what I love to do.”

Lopez shares his extraordinary work on Instagram.

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Louise Chambers


Louise Chambers is a writer, born and raised in London, England. She covers inspiring news and human interest stories.

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