Master sculptor Bernardo “Nano” Lopez of Walla Walla works gears, pulleys and rich rainbow hues into the whimsical designs he’s dubbed “nanimals.”
His three-dimensional bronze canvases are often amiable animals: purse-lipped fish, long-necked cats, friendly rhinoceroses, inquisitive giraffes, ice-cream-licking dragons, pipe-smoking canines, winged people, horned creatures and soccer-ball-balancing elephants.
Pass by the Walla Walla Public Library on Alder Street and Lopez’s ambling “holey cow,” titled “Matilde (with a window) on Her Way to the Market” is on the lawn.
Lopez enhances their bodies’ surfaces with markings ranging from “@” symbols, individual letters and numbers and maybe a hammer and tool kit, to a hat, flowers, bees, Swiss cheese patterns, grooves, lines, leaves, dots, squares and squiggly marks.
In this process, the organic textures from nature and human-made objects incorporated on his bronzes “reflect the same attention to the magic, wonder and creativity that children find in the world around them,” he said.
His human figures — his favorite forms to create — sometimes bear fanciful wings but are not fairies. “The wings suggest spirituality, freedom, a bit of fantasy,” he said on May 12, 2021, in his studio south of Walla Walla.
Everywhere, brilliant splashes of color on his works evoke the Colombian market place of his youth and pull the eye from spot to spot, each one a new discovery.
Lopez is a transplant from Bogota, Colombia, born there in 1955. At 23, he apprenticed as a carver of marble and granite and as a steel fabricator. In 1983, he moved to the Pacific Northwest and for four years developed skills in welding, tooling and patinas at various bronze foundries.
He came to the Walla Walla Valley in 1987 to work at Walla Walla Foundry.
He recalled that his earliest art piece, a clown he crafted in kindergarten, won first prize in a multi-municipal contest and was featured in a large metro newspaper in Bogota.
Nature-imbued influences come from a childhood of exploring Colombia’s rivers and forests with his father. His grandmother, a painter and sculptor who worked in wood and ceramics, loomed large in his early creative development.
“Some of the time she lived in Europe. She was well off and had a collection of European art at her house — I loved that. She was always very supportive,” he said.
He brought home clay acquired from construction sites that he molded into figures. His drive to create grew after high school. He studied the masters for a time, apprenticed two years in Madrid with a sculptor and studied with another noted artist in Paris.
He played, bit by bit, with texture, amazed by the beauty of flora and fauna and started adding organic elements to make things more visually interesting.
He intuitively expanded to other items, incorporating his fascination with gears and machinery and how they relate to man. At first he placed gears beside his creations, then affixed them directly onto the pieces.
How his designs are born does not necessarily come from a magic moment of inspiration, however. It happens in different ways, Lopez says. The steps to bring it to fruition are many. A video on his website by Tangent Media Group shows in detail how this is done.
“It’s as simple as going into the countryside and looking, and all of a sudden I see a cow in a position, and I say, ‘Wow, that is so beautiful’ that I really want to do that. So that’s one way that it happens.” Or he may wish to tackle a flash of a vision or a figure that’s powerful.
He develops such ideas with several sketches, followed by a small working clay model or a larger one with wire armature and then sculpts the piece in actual size. When the anatomy is to his liking, he said, he adds the textures then finishes with signature elements — letters, numbers and such.
A light coat of silicone rubber goes over the clay model, compressed air blows the liquid into every crevice and eliminates air bubbles. It takes two to three days and five to six hours of drying time between the additional five coats.
A rigid mother mold, such as fiberglass, is smoothed over that. Once hardened, it’s separated and removed. Melted wax is poured into the hard mold and rotated to carefully coat all the detail and not trap air bubbles. That wax is poured out, cooled down for 10-15 minutes, then repeated three to four more times.
The wax shape is removed and tooled to fix imperfections. It is prepared for and goes through a week-long repeated liquid ceramic slurry bath and sand coating technique five to seven times, and a funnel is added for the bronzing step.
With the ceramic coat built up, it goes into a kiln where the wax melts out in the lost-wax process.
Once the mold is hollow, it’s ready for the molten 2,100-degree bronze pour.
After a few hours of cool down, a pneumatic hammer breaks off the mold and the bronze sculpture is sand-blasted to bring out intricate details. Larger sculptures poured in sections are welded together and tooled to refine and make joints disappear.
Pours take place at Hunter Bronze in Walla Walla, some 300 pieces a month, he said. He said he doesn’t have the facilities at his shop because “it’s a nightmare I don’t want to deal with.”
Lopez’s pieces are sprayed with sulfur to turn the metal black. That’s smoothed back until black remains in the recesses, and the raised parts are shinier to emphasize textures. The pieces are sprayed with a dye to achieve a golden hue.
Acrylic colors are painted on and stuck to the surface with a torch that opens the bronze pores and “cooks” the color in. Three to four coats of lacquer protect the piece from UV rays. Finally, a little piece of felt might be added to the bottom to prevent scratching tabletops.
It takes six months to a year to complete one project, depending on size, he said in his studio.
“I think of an animal. It drags me into it. The thought keeps coming back. There are so many animals to be done.”
The layered designs that emerge on a piece give it life and character, some details planned, others accidental. He said they give his works a sense of history, of happening, of continuity and connections.
It needs to have history to grow, to have accidents, which give character to a piece and bring to viewers something new and surprising.
“I think they’re so full of stuff because that’s what life is,” he said.
He uses such aids as photos, images of human and animal anatomy and mannequins to get perspective and scale, so that a winged woman and child or a young giraffe, for example, will be precisely proportional.
The limited-edition pieces may come in various sizes, from nano, micro and small to large and life-size.
Palm-sized “Foxy” micro is just 13/8 inches by 3¼ inches by 2 inches with nose resting on paws peeking from below a wrap-around tail. Her description notes, “She just can’t wait ‘til morning because she’s thinking that tomorrow, early in the morning, with all certainty most probably maybe, if I’m lucky and all things go well, I will be able to snatch those eggs down the sandy path by the river.”
“Alberta,” a festooned ewe, is described as loving long walks in a note that comes with the piece, either small at 10 by 13 by 5 inches or large at 16 by 23 by 10 inches and 49 pounds.
“In fact, (Alberta) just returned from a walk that took her all the way to Cadiz, Spain. She has a fish friend called ‘Scales’ who has a crush on her. Lately, on her weekly visit to the pond, Scales jumps out and gives her a kiss. On this day, Alberta doesn’t know quite what to make of it.”
He said his bronzes are sold in galleries in many states as well as Canada and Denmark, but not at his shop. He’s traveled to many exhibits across the country and with Park West Co., which sent him on cruises that put him and other artists aboard cruise ships for maybe three days.
They gave presentations about their work one day and the next collectors would bid on their work. He doesn’t do that any longer as his work is so well known — some of his collectors own 15 to 22 pieces, he said.
He’s currently working on a cat named “Cleo,” a dog named “Eighteen,” and “Iris” the giraffe. Even unfinished, 70 copies of “Iris” have sold. No matter the size of the sculpture, each replica will be close in detail to the original, he said.
“Man Balance,” a nearly life-sized human form, is also waiting for final touches in his studio. He pays for each entire piece, from conception to bronze and beyond, thousands of dollars, and of course payroll and shop overhead work into the equation.
He’s lately been making trios, such as a sculpture of a winged female form or a fluffy owl, with the image reproduced again in relief and a third in graphic form. He’s delighted that the clear finishes make the colors strikingly vibrant on the graphic versions. A collector could own all three, he said.
He puts in as many as 10 hours every day, a little less on weekends. “I love it and feel obligated to work. It’s a pretty busy schedule.”
Lopez is also passionate about landscaping and architecture and designed his Spanish-style home with its arched doors and windows and a fantastic pool and waterfalls, collecting large rocks from all over to build it.
The landscapes at his shop and his properties bear his hand in their sculpted grounds complimented by trees, shrubs and a profusion of flowers he’s planted and nurtured for years.
His studio is a commodious building with mezzanines and rooms divided into spaces that accommodate 50 or more employees, most who paint the reproductions but also others who work in the wood, metal, welding, waxing and molding departments, the office and in packing and shipping. One office employee said the crew has nearly doubled from the 23 employed there when she started in 2010.
The site on state Route 125 once held a furniture store with a huge rocking chair out front. The store burned down to the basement. Lopez bought it and rebuilt to suit his needs in 2000.
Five years ago, it was badly burned inside and underwent a year-long remodel. He expanded his personal studio there and has a space for large computers on which he does some of the art work, landscaping and architectural drafting.
The site is not designed for visitors, although an occasional person may drop by, but, he said, normally it’s too distracting.
“I’ve been lucky in having a passion for art,” he said. “It’s been grounding to have an appreciation for the beauty of nature, to imitate it and respect it and the magic and paradise. This is the abundance that is everywhere.”
An 11- by 12-inch fine art, 243-page hardback book, “Bronze & Beautiful: Nano Lopez,” features his work, including sketches. Find out more about him at nanolopez.com.