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Custer vs Crazy Horse bison collide inside John Lopez's gallery, a former downtown bar.
Custer vs Crazy Horse bison collide inside John Lopez's gallery, a former downtown bar.

Scrappy Art of John Lopez

Field review by the editors.

Lemmon, South Dakota

Turning pieces of metal junk into art requires talent. For some craftspersons, there's the comparative simplicity of welding a car muffler into a person or chrome bumpers into an animal. For more complicated stuff, there's John Lopez.

John Lopez at his Tree of Life Sculpture Garden.
John Lopez at his Tree of Life Sculpture Garden.

John was born and raised on a South Dakota ranch -- but rather than staying with the herd, he became a professional sculptor of bronze statuary. His big break was in 2000, when he was asked to create a John Adams statue for Rapid City's City of Presidents project. The city liked the statue so much that it commissioned John to sculpt nine additional Presidents, and the steady income gave him the freedom to experiment elsewhere.

Statue of George Ed Lemmon, city founder.
Statue of George Ed Lemmon, city founder.

That began in 2006, when John tried to sculpt an angel at a rural graveyard, ran out of fresh metal, and used pieces of old ranch equipment instead. He realized that it would be artistic to recycle identifiable pieces of Western hardware into frontier-themed sculptures -- horses, cowboys, Indians, bison -- and he's made a career of it ever since.

The Tree of Life.
The Tree of Life.

John calls his sculptures "hybrid metal art" because he embellishes the scrap junk of the prairie with new sculptural metal that he crafts in his studio (For example, he worked a tiny Mount Rushmore into his big buffalo statue in Rapid City). Because John is skilled at what he does, it's hard to distinguish the real scrap from the fake scrap, and the pieces are so salted with peekaboo, Easter Egg enhancements that most people don't care anyway.

This newfound approach also enabled John to take liberties with typical Western subjects. He sculpted a cowboy astride a dinosaur for his home town of Lemmon's creationist museum, and a bronco-buster riding a giant walleye fish for Mobridge, the Walleye Capital of the World. Popular appreciation of these public works suggests that John will find ways to make more of them, even though he has a serious-art world side, and attends gallery openings in far flung places like Qatar.

Collision in the gallery.

John Lopez and sculpture garden mural.
John Lopez and sculpture garden mural.

Back in Lemmon, John has had his hands full trying to help revive downtown. He built an equestrian statue of the city founder (Mr. Lemmon), bought the old Kokomo Inn bar and turned it into his gallery, and opened an adjacent outdoor sculpture garden, where visitors can admire a giant wolf head, and a humpback whale made from an airplane gas tank. The iron Tree of Life (vaguely resembling a Game of Thrones Weirwood tree) contrasts the lovely flowers of youth with the gnarled bark of accumulating age -- augmented with more of John's hidden mini-artworks. Can you find the man's face? The elephant? The octopus? A cephalopod doesn't have much relevance to Western ranch life, but John conjures it from his broad creative palette. That's why we like his art.

John Lopez South Dakota Scrap Art

Scrappy Art of John Lopez

Tree of Life Sculpture Garden

306 Main Ave., Lemmon, SD
Downtown, on the east side of Main Ave., just south of its intersection with 3rd St. E.
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Petrified Wood Park MuseumPetrified Wood Park Museum, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Petrified Wood ParkPetrified Wood Park, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
Scrap Metal Bronco BusterScrap Metal Bronco Buster, Lemmon, SD - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Hugh Glass Mauled by Bear Here, Shadehill, SD - 14 mi.

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