Al Shelton, Leatherworker to the Stars, Reflects on his Life and Art
Al Shelton, the master leatherwork artist to the stars who celebrated his 90th birthday at the Autry last Sunday, took a little time to talk with me about how he became interested in this craft and art.
Although he worked with a lot of movie stars and big personalities, he said he never thought of himself as a flashy guy.
“I was not an extrovert; I was not a showoff,” he said. “I thought of myself as being an artist. That’s what I really am.”
That vocation came to him very early. When he was a little boy, his watercolors won first prize two years in a row at the Weld County Fair in Greeley, Colo., his hometown. But as he grew up, he developed a love for horses and set his sights on ranch work, which was the family trade — more or less.
“I wanted to be a cowboy, and I grew up riding calves,” he said. “We were sharecroppers and we were working for dairy farms. I never did have my own horse.”
All the horses on his family property were reserved for working cowboys, Shelton said. Even so, he was allowed to ride them bareback during his free time, if the work was thin. When the ranch hands weren’t looking, he tried to make those horses gallop and buck, “to get some practice!”
Shelton’s interest in leatherwork began when he tried to make his own saddle. At that time, he didn’t even know that leather is more pliable and easier to work when it’s wet. He was working dry.
“I had been just trying to do it at home any way I could, making my own tools out of nails or whatever I could find,” he said. “I didn’t really know anything about it, but I was trying.”
In 1943, he walked into a saddle shop in Denver to study the work of the artists there.
He showed the head carver his homemade wallet, and the man was impressed enough to show it to the foreman. They offered him a job on the spot. But Shelton told them he didn’t want to start out as a flunkie, oiling saddles.
“If they started me like that they’d keep me doing that,” he said. “I knew if I started that way, it’d be a long time before I’d be doing any carving.”
So he started at the bench, working for 50 cents an hour on belts and billfolds, mentored by the head carver — a talented man who Shelton said liked to drink his lunch. Before the next week, Shelton had earned a 10-cent raise, as well as the enmity of other union carvers at the shop. He lasted 11 months of a four-year contract.
“They didn’t believe in talent,” Shelton said of the union workers. “They just believed in time served.”
He headed to California, and worked for a short time in the San Francisco area, at what is now Rowell’s Saddlery and Western Wear in Castro Valley.
Shelton had hesitated to take a job with Ed Bohlin, saddlemaker to the Hollywood set that included Tom Mix, Gene Autry and Roy Rogers. He said he was a little scared to work for Bohlin, who represented the pinnacle of the trade, while still a beginner, so he had chosen Rowell’s. But the jealousy of his more experienced co-workers again drove Shelton away after only four months.
“It gave me pleasure just to tell them, ‘I think we’d all be better off if I just went on down the
road’,” he said. “I didn’t tell them I had a job waiting for me at Bohlin’s.”
As he settled in Los Angeles, Shelton also got used to Bohlin’s gruff demeanor.
“His language, you can’t even repeat it,” he said. “Everything made him mad. It was just awful.”
Before long, he said, a fellow carver tried to hire him away from Bohlin’s, even offering him twice the salary. But he decided not to go this time.
“I just showed a little independence right
there,” he said. “If you’re too easy, they don’t want you either.”
That independence has earned Shelton the respect of members of the very guilds that gave him problems early on. On Sunday, two of them, the Leathercraft Guild, of Los Angeles, and the Longhorn Trail Leather Guild, of Texas, each presented Shelton with handcarved plaques to recognize his lifetime achievement.
Some of Shelton’s pieces were on display in the lobby for the celebration. A permanent display, including an intricately tooled guitar case belonging to Autry, decorated in scrolls and flowers and emblazoned with a winged “A”, is in the Spirit of Imagination gallery.