Eduardo Oropeza is regarding one of his works in progress, a bronze sculpture of two near life-sized figures. He examines it from all sides, his brow furrowed from his careful inspection. It's on its way out into the world, and it must be absolutely right. Then, he gestures to one figure, in whose midriff he has left a large hollow, now filled with straw. He added the straw he explains, but whoever takes the sculpture home might want to put something else there.
"Maybe they'll leave it as it is. Or maybe they'll want some plants there. Maybe a bird will build a nest in the straw," he surmises. Then, with a mischievous grin, he adds, "if you had a cow, it could eat here. Of course, it would have to be a little cow...
In this brief encounter, the visitor meets many sides of Oropeza. A quiet, gentle spirit, with a heart full of whimsy and an overflowing imagination, he speaks softly. Sometimes he can barely be heard above the spring wind whipping around the foundry's grounds. His art also refuses toshout or force itself on you. His figures are solidly planted and utterly humane. They exhibit attitudes typical among the crowds waiting for a bus, standing in line at a store, leaving- a concert hall after a late performance.
Sometimes they are erect with out- stretched arms, often supporting a large boulder. They are burdened, but bearing up under the weight, with dignity, without fussiness. This is life, they seem to express, let's do what we have to do and just get on with it.
He assesses his creations with detached affection-he produced them, but they are not an extension of his ego. He can allow space for contributions by other individuals. Few sculptors would invite collaboration in any way other than as spectators. Oropeza would permit them to put plants in his objects. And he enjoys imagining what might turn up in his work.
He plainly likes his constructs and speaks of them with affection, like old friends. This one, the woman with a violin case in one hand and a raised umbrella in the other? She's poised at the top of a staircase. Maybe she just finished playing a concert and is about to walk home in the rain. And this one, in a tiny room, peering out a small window? She's a caged canary, her only reality what is framed through the tiny aperture, a prisoner in her own environment, he describes. But, Oropeza quickly admits, that is only his interpretation. He wouldn't presume to dictate what other people should see, even though he is the object's creator. And although he is in his fifties, he recounts the process of their creation like a child enthusiastically relating his accomplishment of something really cool in crafts class.
Like his figures, Oropeza exudes an appealing mix of sweet simplicity and sophistication. Although he has a genuinely naive eye--meaning, without prejudice, lacking artifice--his technique and his approach is also refined.
A native of California's Silicon Valley and longtime resident of east Los Angeles, his academic training includes a Master's of Fine Arts in sculpture and postgraduate work at San Jose State. He studied at San Diego State at Long Beach, and also with Ron Young, a master in shell casting and bronze, at Palomar College.
He sees the revelation of form as the most important part of his effort as a sculptor. If the composition isn't right to begin with, then all the other work of sculpting is wasted effort, he declares.
Another reason Oropeza likes his trademark "cardboard originals" is that he can afford to stop and start several times, experimenting to get the shape absolutely right before he expands the size or has it transmuted into more durable material.
This perfectionism is an attribute that may not be obvious in casual conversation. But for all his gentleness, a kind of steel manifests when he talks about his work. Even though he models with the most humble of clay--cardboard, plasticine, found objects--there is nothing casual about what he is trying to execute. He has a vision, and it is precise.
One action-packed piece depicts a picador about to be impaled on the horns of a bull, entitled appropriately and humorously, "Luck Ran Out" The figure must be exactly positioned on the bull's horns. A fraction of an inch this way or that, and the composition is off, the balance would be lost.
And on this one, the patina--a relatively recent addition to his method, about which he is most enthusiastic--must be just the correct shade of warm, golden brown. Anything else and the light doesn't play off the bronze in the manner he desires.
Applying this level of devotion and integrity to one's art is, in Oropeza's eyes, simply the right thing to do. And even after years, he sees being an artist as a tremendous gift, which honors and humbles him.
Focus/Santa Fe, June-July 1996, used by permission
The straw (peasant)