Art + Sports = Drè

By Kristine Hartvigsen

Like the robust center on a college football team, Drè Lopez can be an intimidating fellow. His bearded, no-nonsense game face belies the thoughtful fine artist at the center of Columbia’s Piensa Art Company, which specializes in distinctive, nonconventional forms of illustration, graphic design, and writing services with a youth-culture bent. Over the past four University of South Carolina football seasons, the popularity of Lopez’s art – particularly his series of Gamecock football posters – has grown faster than the nationally ranked SEC team has changed starting quarterbacks.

“When I moved here, I didn’t know about the Gamecocks, but I was a sports fan,” Lopez explains. “My brother went to USC, and most of my friends are USC fans.” What quickly struck Lopez was the enduring love and respect Gamecock fans had for their team through thick and thin, no matter what. “It’s easy for me to pull for them. As things have built up, little by little, it’s very much how the fans appreciate it (Gamecock football) and what it is. It’s a labor of love within the cause. It’s real. I get it.”

The poster project took off shortly after Lopez developed a print advertisement for a client, Devine Eyes, to run in the Free Times newspaper. It was football season, so the client wanted to include that theme in its ad. A staffer took notice and suggested that the Gamecock-related elements of the ad be transformed into a poster. The Free Times subsequently ran the posters in its publication, The Sideline, published for every USC home game for the past four years.

“The posters have been gathering more attention within the last two seasons,” Lopez notes, adding that last year, when posted on Facebook, one of the posters gained 250 fans in a single day. “It just flew. Now every time I put one up, it gets constant support. I have sold quite a few prints of it. I love it. The people have reacted really well to it.”

At 33, Lopez is the elder partner in Piensa Art Company, which he has run for more than five years with his younger brother, Sammy, and friend R. Chambers LeHeup. “Piensa,” he says, is the Spanish word for “think.”

Many on the local art scene truly took notice of Piensa this past summer, when the partners held a benefit for the Red Cross Japanese Tsunami Relief Fund as part of its release of a new comic book titled Heavy Feather Falls. The June 25th event at Tapp’s Arts Center included related exhibits by several Columbia artists. Heavy Feather Falls is set in feudal Japan and written entirely in haiku form by LeHeup. Sammy Lopez did the illustrations, while the book’s cover and colors were Lopez’s contribution.

Heavy Feather Falls is the second of three books produced this year by Piensa, in addition to The Heroes of Santa Moreno and, most recently, God Will Save Me, which debuted at Cola-Con in September at the Columbia Museum of Art.

As a young, small business in the Midlands, Piensa continues to inspire, not only with its distinctive approach to visual expression but through its ongoing practice of raising money for worthy causes in conjunction with its shows. The partners followed up tsunami relief with their latest cause, Hidden Wounds, a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping military personnel dealing with combat stress injuries. For his November “tailgate” show sponsored by Jasper magazine, Lopez hopes to contribute to Hidden Wounds.

“There’s nothing more American than football, so I thought it would make sense to most football fans to want to give towards our troops, their families, and their continuing battles at home,” he says. “They fight, sacrifice, and die for America and don’t get the proper help once they return home. All in all, we all want to be able to help out at several points throughout our lives and careers, so it will most likely be something that you will see PIENSA involved with as we move further.”

As a self-taught artist, Lopez is driven to study and experiment constantly. The work he puts in is obvious, and he’s been included in the Columbia Museum of Art’s Contemporaries’ Artist of the Year show for three years. “That is a great honor,” Lopez says. “Obviously, the museum is the pre-eminent arts hub in South Carolina.” He admits, however, to conflicts related to competition.

“My drive and motivation is that I want to be the best,” he explains. “I realize there are so many ridiculously talented people out there. And I want to be better than them.”

Lopez admires many local artists. His favorites right now are Thomas Crouch, Whitney LeJeune, and Lyon Hill: “I think Thomas Crouch is a great painter. His technique is great. I also respect how Whitney LeJeune does everything. It excites me to see what she is going to do next. And Lyon Hill – he is amazing. I love his work and his range. It’s criminal that some people are just finding out about him. I think he is one of the best artists that this place has. I am glad he is beginning to get some exposure.”

He’s also quick to compliment his brother, Sammy: “He has had a natural spark from the beginning. He has an in-touch sort of mind that people connect with very easily.”

Lopez recognizes that some if his darker works are not for everybody and takes no offense. He understands the market here and keeps a pragmatic business stance. “We are in a conservative market, but we are not a conservative company. We make methodical decisions. It’s a careful balance. We are trying to be business savvy without alienating everyone, but at the same time, we want to stay true to our vision,” he says. “The one thing I can say about Columbia is that just about every time I have thought I was about to put something out that was going to be controversial or outlandish, the response from people has been nothing but positive.” The people who come to me are the people who want to do something different. They want to separate themselves from the norm.”

When it comes to self-publishing comic book titles, Lopez is proud to say Piensa funded Heavy Feather Falls itself and sold out its first printing. Creative freedom is essential when the partners are their own clients. “We like to have control of what we do. Everything just works. It can be a pain in the ass. It can be tedious. But the ability to do what we do for us – that liberty – is great,” Lopez explains. “For now, it works. We get to dictate when and how we work and to express whatever the fuck we want to express and don’t have to worry about an editor trying to censor us for content.”

Lopez is justifiably proud of the niche Piensa Art Company is carving for itself.

“If I were to die tomorrow, I could be at peace because of our level of quality. How we handle stuff cannot be denied. As much as you may not like what we do, you have to respect us,” Lopez says. “This is my passion. This is what I am. I am always an artist. I have always known that.”

Lopez’s Gamecock posters can be viewed online at or on the Piensa Art Company studio page on Facebook. An online store is in development.

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