Juan Lopez is a smiling, irrepressible man with a quick and quirky sense of humor. The path to his calling has been zig-zagging and strewn with detours and side-tracks. Even now, he isn’t sure that he has quite found his calling.
Apart from a stint of military duty, Juan has always been his own boss, opening a small café in Corrales, New Mexico, after leaving the service. The café occupied his time and attention for several years before the idea of working outdoors pulled him in a new direction. For a short while, he mixed and poured concrete, but the toll such work took on his knees, back and hands soon nudged him into yet another direction.
He had worked a little with silver as a young man, but it hadn’t held his interest; now, he came across some silver and, as a lark, used the silver to create a likeness of the Santuario de Chimayo in Chimayo, New Mexico. Cutting each feature of the mission—towers, bells, overhangs, roof peaks, windows—from the silver, he layered one over the other, creating a three-dimensional likeness of the Santuario. By the time he stopped, he had created eight pieces, each depicting one of the many missions found throughout New Mexico. He strung the eight pieces together into a concho belt that won a blue ribbon and sold almost as soon as he finished it. The friend who bought the belt mounted it on a wall in his home, protected in a glass case.
Another friend introduced Juan to Paul Rhetts, publisher of Tradición Revista magazine as well as a variety of books. Paul encouraged Juan to enter his work in Spanish Market. Apart from tinworking, the only precious metal work shown at Spanish Market is religious statuary or hollowware and traditional filigree work. Hmm. Filigree. How tough could that be? Juan went about answering that question in his typical ‘jump in and swim’ style. There were a few examples of existing work he could look at, but there were no classes, no masters, no books he could turn to for instruction. He picked up some wire and started to experiment, adapting a variety of hand tools, trying out numerous wire-working techniques, testing over and over to discover what worked and what didn’t.
One of several challenges he worked to overcome was delicacy of filigree work. Soldering such fine connections had him making his own solder bits and filing down pins and wire to make applicators fine enough to prevent flooding those tiny joints with solder. One problem was solved when he discovered paste solder at Rio (he still buys it here, and swears no other formula performs with anything close to the results he gets from that solder). The second obstacle was solved by his new puppy.
Every day, in the late afternoon, Juan took his dog walking along the Rio Grande. One day, the puppy came bolting out of the underbrush after an unfortunate encounter with a porcupine. Juan pulled the quills from the dog’s muzzle, dropping them on the ground, thinking nothing of it. On the walk home, it struck him—porcupine quills are damn sharp! He went back and retrieved all those he could find, and he’s been using quills to apply solder ever since.
After many months of trial and error, Juan had taught himself techniques that would produce the exquisite detail he could see in the pieces made centuries earlier. His first finished piece of filigree was a cross.
He went on to create whatever forms intrigued and inspired him.
The detail in Juan’s pieces is incredible. More than 145 feet of sterling wire went into making the VW bug. Its doors open, its wheels turn—I wouldn’t be surprised if the little driver were to zip up and park it between the salt and pepper shakers!
This year, Spanish Market’s promotional poster not only features precious metals for the first time—it features a black agate cameo set into a sterling filigree pendant by Juan Lopez. And the fun doesn’t stop there. Juan Lopez’ “Our Lady of Guadalupe,” took first place in the precious metals category for the 2011 Spanish Market. The piece also received the People’s Choice award, awarded by the artists and sponsors of Spanish Market, and the Archbishop Award for the most noteworthy entry of a religious nature.
“Our Lady of Guadalupe” is rendered in glittering fine sterling filigree, set with gemstone cabochons and rests on a pedestal of ebony-stained wood. Her face and hands are hand-carved from moose antler, the angel at her feet is carved from deer antler (carved by Juan, who, naturally, had to learn to carve in order to create them).
Five exhaustive months in the making, this piece left Juan wondering, where do I go from here? So where will he go from here? Juan says he is unsure . . . though he has this little thought taking shape in his mind . . . something about of a series of patron saints . . .
Only time will tell.