Art as therapy, therapy as art

Local artist seeks redemption and recovery in art

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Art as therapy, therapy as art

The story of nationally known local artist Rich “Pops” Lopez, is not the ordinary “artist’s journey” tale.

A GREAT THERAPY: Rich Lopez working on his ART. | Photo by Mark Lentine

“The first time I tried to end my life, I was driving on the freeway. I jumped lanes into on-coming traffic. A huge semi was coming right at me.  At the last second, I swerved and ended up in a ditch.”

Lopez grew up in an explosively abusive household with a brother who used him as a punching bag and father who had been irreparably scarred by war. “I had to learn to fight to be able to beat up my brother…and learn to survive. I met my wife Cheryl at age 16. I’ll be 63 this year, and through all but the last 17 years, I was constantly abusing drugs, alcohol…and my family.”

Knowing that he had loved pottery as a child, Lopez’s wife bought him a Potter’s wheel for a birthday.  For a time, it just set there.

Lopez tried everything to stay clean and tried everything he could think of to hold onto his job as a coffee salesman, but nothing worked. Feeling that he and his family had had enough, Lopez decided to end his life a second time.

“I tell people, that second time I tried to commit suicide… That wasn’t an attempt: I died that day.”

Lopez was losing the only job at which he’d ever succeeded due to the business being sold. “I was never taught how to cope with setbacks or anything negative, so one day. while no one was in the house, I drank two bottles…two full fifths of alcohol and I downed a bottle of pills. The last thing I said was, “Let’s do this.”

THE SANCTUARY: People can visit Lopez’s place and appreciate / buy his pieces. | Photo by Mark Lentine

Enter an angel.

“Suddenly, I wasn’t upstairs sprawled out on my bed anymore. An Angel had taken me downstairs to show me what was going to happen. He said, “You’re going to be a well-known artist.” I said I’m a coffee salesman, not an artist. He quieted me and brought me downstairs and showed me the wheel that my wife had bought sometime before. He reminded me that I loved to work with pottery as a child.”

Ever the salesman, Lopez made a deal with his angel. “He showed me the wheel, he showed me the sequence of events and how it would play out, and even AMOCO, where I would have my own show, but I didn’t believe it.  I said, “If all of this is real, and I wake up…prove it to me. Let me wake up without a hangover.”  

Lopez soon awoke needing none of the alcohol, drugs, or the medications for PTSD-related stress, depression, and diabetes that he had needed to help keep his then-400 pound frame going.

“I woke up, and I felt fine.  I was amazed.”

Lopez’s wife was not so amazed.

“As soon as my wife came home that day I said honey I’m done: I’ll never touch another drug or drink. “My wife and kids had heard that so many times, she laughed in my face.

The drugs and alcohol stopped immediately. The need for psychotropic drugs ended two years ago. The worst-case that many people, including many of his doctors, had ever seen is now alcohol, drug…and medication free. He’s also down more than 200 pounds.

“It started…my comeback, the minute I sat down at the wheel.  To me, the wheel is life itself, playing out in front of me.”

That night Lopez sat at the wheel hour after hour “throwing” a total of 200 pounds of clay.  When he was finished, at nearly four in the morning, he had made figurines, bowls, pots and dishes.  I looked at my wife and said, “Honey, you bought me a wheel… Now you have to buy me a kiln.”

Lopez had somehow managed to learn his craft through every gin and drug-soaked meeting with many ceramic masters. “Somehow, I retained it all, and never forgot a thing.  Within months, I was selling my art at the “Village Fest” in Palm Springs. Still, Lopez’s wife and children were skeptical. The weight of years of broken promises, broken pottery, shattered hopes and dreams littered the floor of Lopez’s life like bits of clay thrown from his potter’s wheel.

“I learned that life is like the clay: it’s in my hands…but I can’t force it, or I’ll destroy it. I had to learn to work slowly and use my very life as the persuasive proof that I had changed. I tell people that I don’t mold the clay into shape…I persuade it.”

Lopez had gotten financial support from his rightly-skeptical wife…but little else. “I began to feel as if I was going to crumble, feeling like I would never be the artist I wanted to be…feeling that I had failed.  I began to cry, right there at a show, at my booth, surrounded by all the other vendors. I just started to cry, and I felt disgusted.”

“I don’t know why I said it, but I looked up, and I said, “God, if you told me the truth, I want to make $376 today. I still have no idea why I picked that number…it was crazy: the most I’d ever made at a show was 75 bucks. But I just sat there angry, disgusted…and crying.”

Enter angels numbers 2 and 3. 

In Rich Lopez’s world, angels look just like ordinary folks… and two of them approached his booth that day.

“They were an ordinary-looking couple, and she said to me “why are you crying? “I looked up, aggravated and said, “Don’t worry about it.” She said, “I’d like to buy that piece-it’s beautiful. And I’d like that piece.” They were 40 or 50-dollar pieces!!!”.”..and I’d like that piece as well.”

When the woman was finished, the husband spoke up.  I was in shock. The husband said, “Honey if you’re done, I’d like to get one or two pieces.” I couldn’t speak. As I was totaling everything up, she said, “Will you take a check?” “I just looked up, tears in my eyes and said, “Are you angels? “They both smiled. I said, “You’re angels! “She said no, we’re not…but you’ll be fine.” When I totaled it up, it came to $375. When she handed me the check I was shaking and crying, and I just said, “Thank you, thank you, over and over again. They waved goodbye, and as my wife came back to my booth, she said, “Who are they? “They were angels,” I said.  My wife looked at me as if I was back on the stuff, then she looked at the check and said, “They spent $376? “What? What?,” I said. I looked at the check: the woman had made a mistake and had written out the check for $376.

When I told my wife what it happened, we were both in shock.  Every time we looked at the check, we just shook our heads. Neither of us wanted even to cash the check. We finally cashed it after almost a year. My wife began to believe in me then.” Lopez says with a broad smile.

As if all this wasn’t enough to convince Lopez’s wife and even the most hardened skeptic…there’s the dream. “I was feeling frustrated because my artistry seemed to be stalled, after such a rocket of a beginning…and NAME NAME NAME OF NAME NAME NAME said, “This is California.  There are a thousand guys doing pretty bowls. Claremont is filled with people who have style. You have to find your own niche.” That’s when I had the dream. I saw myself hovering over baskets, with a unique tool. It was a tool that’s not made for the trade. I immediately woke up, took a steak knife, ran to my grinding wheel…and fashioned the tool that I use to make the striations in the clay that mimic a woven basket.  It came to me in a dream.” 

After that, things moved quickly for Lopez, a one-time student at Mount San Jacinto and Chaffee Colleges.  Lopez had his work featured at many exciting venues including the Western Science Center in Hemet and many homes and galleries around the country.  His artwork now fetches as much as $2000 for one of his signature ceramic basket that looks remarkably like a woven basket. “I am half Indian, and I spent over a year on the reservation learning the art of basket weaving. It’s those ceramic “woven” baskets that were featured in my first major show at AMOCA.”

A BEAUTIFUL ART: One of the precious unique pieces. | Photo by Mark Lentine

AMOCA-The American Museum Of Ceramic Arts in Pomona is the premier ceramics gallery west of the Mississippi and home to some of the country’s most exceptional ceramics exhibits.

Lopez may have been one of the first ceramicists to have a show of his own, but it was the second time he had visited AMOCA. “When I walked in, I began to cry. Everything looked exactly as I remembered it in my visit with the angel. I knew the walls…the floors, the steps, the furniture. I had been there before.”

Looking at the peaceful, vibrant, contemplative, honest artwork rich Lopez has created in the 17 years since his epiphany, one would never realize the hurt, the pain and the tragedy and triumph behind each piece.  And for Lopez, that’s just as well.

“I sit at the wheel for hours on end, and I tell the clay my story. It answers back…and I give thanks. When people see my work, they see a bit of me in every piece.  I want them to see a part of themselves too: the best part. My world is now filled with art and with peace.”

And when you’re near Rich Lopez, in his studio, with his art, it is his world, all you can do is sit back and stare…and wonder at its beauty.

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