Al Shelton (1920-2016) was known affectionately as the “Cowboy Artist to the Stars” for his decades of artistry within the Hollywood community. In his iconic leather workshop on Ventura Boulevard in Studio City, California, Shelton created carved leather works for celebrities such as Clark Gable, Burt Reynolds, President Ronald Reagan, and many others. Throughout his career, Shelton openly shared his wealth of knowledge in leathercraft and influenced generations upon generations of industry leaders.
Born in 1920, Al Shelton was raised by his father in a humble and hardworking family in Akron, Colorado. As a teen, Shelton contracted scarlet fever, which lead to his dropping out of school at the age of 15. He had always admired the culture of the cowboy, so he set off two years later to try his hand in the trade.
Shelton went on to work as a cowboy in Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska over the next three and a half years. Although most of the saddles he saw were rather plain, the occasional ornate saddle he would come across fascinated him and he wanted to teach himself how it was done. He decided to decorate his own saddle, however he did not realize that the background was embossed, so he used broken razor blades to shave down the leather to get depth and used nails to make designs. It was not the lavish effect he had hoped for.
After his stint as a cowboy, Shelton took a job at an auction yard in Denver for a few years. At the age of 23, he wandered into the Powder River Saddlery to simply have a look around and take in the aroma of leather. After talking to employees about the craft, Shelton found himself with an instruction book, a handful of tools, and several scraps of leather. It quickly became his favorite past time and, after only 3 months of practice, he was offered a job at the saddlery as an apprentice. He was anxious to prove himself and began trying a little too hard. The foreman’s advice stuck with him; “Al, you’ll have to slow down! Learn to do your work good first… speed will come later.”
After nearly a year with the saddlery, Shelton decided to trek out West towards California where he dreamed of working on the fancy silver mounted saddles done by Edward H. Bohlin Saddlery in Hollywood. He worked over the next year at several saddle shops, learning different techniques from each and developing his own style.
Shelton decided to become a freelance leather artisan in 1945 and started his own business. He had a booth making and selling leather goods in Hollywood’s Farmers Market, where hundreds of sight seers daily would watch and ask questions about leathercraft while he worked. After 5 years, he moved to his studio in Studio City, California where he enjoyed a little more solitude to be able to focus on his work.
Shelton also began teaching around this time. While instructing the likes of Lou Roth at Pacific Arts and Crafts, Shelton began collaborating with Dick McGahen of the Craftool Company to publish a number of Doodle Pages and a pattern book. Operation Leather Carving was released in 1950, which featured a variety of floral patterns that highlighted Shelton’s style of flowing lines and intricate leaves and flowers.
Throughout his career, Shelton became well known within the Hollywood community, expertly crafting director’s chairs, script covers, briefcases, belts, belt buckles, watchbands, and a plethora of other leather goods for films, television, and the Hollywood elite. His designs were featured on album covers for Western artists such as Patsy Cline and his work has been displayed in prominent museums throughout the world, including the Gene Autry Museum of Western Heritage in Los Angeles.
Regardless of his success, Shelton remained humble and dedicated himself to teaching others. His life work included the publication of well over 100 how-to articles in leathercraft magazines, most notably his “Tricks of the Trade” series. In 2004, Shelton was awarded the prestigious Al Stohlman Award for Achievement In Leathercraft.
Fun Fact: In addition to leathercraft, Shelton taught himself bronze sculpting, oil painting, and water color painting. Although he kept himself too busy to self-promote much, his business cards were hand painted with water colors.
Multiple images in this article are attributed to the Leather Crafters and Saddler’s Journal and Make It With Leather Magazine.