Old West Artist Still Creating in Los Angeles

Western artist Al Shelton has made leather and bronze pieces for Gene Autry, Ronald Reagan and Steve McQueen. The 87-year-old is still at work in his Los Angeles studio.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

When Western artist Al Shelton first set up shop in Los Angeles, there was sagebrush behind his store. Today, Ventura Boulevard is home to strip malls and franchised retail outlets. A lot has changed in Shelton's neighborhood in 50 years, but inside his store, well, that's another story, one that reporter Gloria Hillard stumbled upon just the other day.

GLORIA HILLARD: The first thing you notice is a hand-carved sign that reads Western Artist. In the window, catching the morning sun, is a well-fed orange cat sprawled next to a white cowboy hat. And if you were to step closer to the storefront, shade your eyes and peer inside, chances are you'd get a glimpse of the 86-year-old artist at work or play.

(Soundbite of music)

HILLARD: For 50 years, this is how Al Shelton has been starting his day, here at his studio store and place he calls home.

Mr. AL SHELTON (Artist): (Singing) (Unintelligible)

HILLARD: The former cowboy from Colorado is self taught on the guitar. The art that surrounds him he also learned on his own. Wild horses and cowboys stare down from framed watercolors and oils. Others are sculpted in bronze. But it is the intricate hand-tooled leather art he is best known for. Shelton says he first fell in love with the leather tooling when he worked as a ranch hand as young man, admiring the hand-carved saddles of well to do cowboys.

Mr. SHELTON: I thought it was beautiful. I'd follow the lines, you know, so graceful, and then I wanted to do it.

HILLARD: And so he did, bringing that talent with him to Los Angeles in the late '40s. He started out working for the famed Nudie's Rodeo Tailors, the store that outfitted everyone from Roy Rogers to Elvis Presley.

Mr. SHELTON: Well, they were real famous in the old days, and all of the big people were going to Nudie's for his fancy shirts and my fancy guitar cases, briefcases, my fancy leather work.

HILLARD: One of Nudie's most famous customers back then tracked Shelton down, a cowboy by the name of Gene Autry.

Mr. SHELTON: Well, I did quite a bit of work for him. I started doing his work in '53. I did a guitar case for him. He has it over there.

HILLARD: By over there, he means the Autry's Museum of the American West in Los Angeles, where a number of Shelton's leather and bronze art pieces are part of the museum's permanent collection. Around his waist is one of his famed belt buckles. Worn cowboy boots rest on aged linoleum. It's hard to match the balding man with the gray stubble to the framed oil painting of a cowboy sitting on a black and white pinto, or the one just thrown by a bucking horse. Every painting has a story and every story is told in great detail.

Mr. SHELTON: And boy, if I thought she was a bucking horse yesterday, I didn't know - she just bucked so hard, but I was staying right with her. Extra low and then she came up with such force...

HILLARD: Shelton made his last painting in 1991, because of his eyes, he says. But at his leather workbench is a custom guitar cover for a Martin guitar. Aged hands work patiently on the almost filigreed-looking design that he traces lightly.

Mr. SHELTON: Raised centers - you never see any work like that around. Well, there it is.

HILLARD: At the center of the elaborate designs, he's carved and painted a small picture of a young singing cowboy, guitar in hand.

Mr. SHELTON: That's me and my horse, Buck, and my cat, Teddy.

HILLARD: He's been working on the piece for a couple of years, and it bothers him that it's taking so long to finish. This versatile Western artist who sold most of his work to folks more famous than he now lives with the few remaining pieces that remind him of other days among horses and brilliant sunsets. On Ventura Boulevard, the sun is going down, and for Shelton that means ending the day the way he started it.

Mr. SHELTON: (Singing) Remember me when the candlelights are gleaming. Remember me at the close of a long, long day.

HILLARD: For NPR News, I'm Gloria Hillard.

Mr. SHELTON: (Singing) It'll be so sweet when all alone I'm dreaming, just to know you still remember me.

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