Some Cambrians know exactly where lost legendary aviatrix Amelia Earhart is — or rather, a larger-than-lifesize bronze replica.
The 7-foot-tall statue of Earhart was lovingly mounted about six months ago on a shoulder-high stone pedestal alongside Ernie Shelton’s Bridge Street driveway.
That’s not nearly as eccentric as it might sound, even for art-focused Cambria, where there are several unusual outdoor sculpture installations.
Shelton created the Amelia sculpture, portraying the record-setting feminist flier standing slightly akimbo, holding an 8-foot-long propeller and gazing off into the distance, as if tracking a plane’s flight or planning one.
(Earhart was the first woman to pilot an airplane across the Atlantic, and held many aviation records, honors and awards. She disappeared while flying over the Pacific Ocean in July 1937. The pilot and her navigator were attempting to circle the globe at the equator. Their fate has never been discovered.)
Shelton, 82, has been entranced by Earhart and her story for decades, but the Amelia is far from Shelton’s only notable work. His vast body of creations done over many decades includes lots of other notable Americans, including Walk-of-Fame-level entertainers.
For instance, he sculpted numerous artworks for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences headquarters in North Hollywood, including life-sized statues of Johnny Carson, Jack Benny, Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz.
In each, Shelton not only captured the entertainers’ physical characteristics, he preserved in bronze their iconic gestures and mastery of comic timing. One of Benny’s hands rests his violin against his hip, and three fingers of his other hand rest against his cheek. Carson is in his classic monologue pose, gesturing outward with one hand while his other hand is tucked in the pocket of his trousers.
The artist also seems to have tapped into his subject’s souls, from Benny’s trademark bemused expression and Carson’s wide-eyed curiosity to Ball’s sense of whimsy. You can almost hear Benny’s signature exasperated exclamation … “Well!”
Some of Shelton’s work has gone around the world, including an 80-foot-long, intricate and rather fierce dragon he created for Tokyo Disneyland. His work ranges from regal to Grecian, athletic to religious, cartoon to a sway-backed, giggle-producing horse installed at Epcot.
He also created pieces used in “RoboCop,” “Total Recall,” “Legend” and other motion pictures.
In each of Shelton’s creations, the precision of his vision comes through clearly in his work, with the drape of the fabric on “Our Lady of the Angels” as she reaches toward the sky, the break on Carson’s slightly flared pant legs, the hauteur on an outsized Olmec god’s face in the Mexico Pavilion of Disney’s Epcot (replicating some stone sculptures in Mexico), the intense exertion of the USC “Wild Bunch” defensive line, or the strength of a vaulter at the end of a pole that’s about to go “boinnng!” as the athlete springs over the bar.
Track-and-field events are sports Shelton knows intimately. After all, the art major was a two-time NCAA champion high jumper at USC, in 1954 and 1955. At one time, he was considered the world’s top-ranked high jumper, and he also competed in decathlon.
But after his stint in the Army, art ultimately would define Shelton’s life and his legacy.
He apprenticed with sculptors Merrell Gage and Stephen Zakian, and went on to develop his own style and roster of collectors. In the decades since, Shelton has won a host of awards, had solo exhibitions (including in 1986 at the Tamara Webster Gallery in Cambria), participated in many group exhibitions, had his work included in many collections and completed many public-art commissions.
Sometimes, once wasn’t enough. For instance, there are several installations of the Amelia.
The first one was completed in 1969, he recalled over lunch April 30 with a reporter and their mutual friend Margaret “P.J.” Webb. Shelton used steel and fiberglass for that gold-leaf-coated version of the statue, which was installed in North Hollywood Five Points.
Years later, when the Chamber of Commerce raised enough money, the sculpture was recast in bronze. That version was immortalized in an April 15 “Jeopardy” question about “Women on a Pedestal.”
(The original Amelia was donated to Bob Hope Airport in Burbank.)
The third sculpture was installed in 2009 in front of the Amelia Earhart residence hall at Purdue University (where she was a career counselor and technical advisor from 1935 to 1937).
And the fourth (the studio copy, which was used in a movie) is in Cambria, the community that attracted Shelton in 1983 for the same reason many Southern California expats found the North Coast and stayed: “I wanted to get out of L.A.,” he said. “This seemed like a good place to retire and do artwork. … I’ve always liked this area.”
The prolific sculptor lives in a rambling house that backs up to a Bridge Street hillside. An equally irregular sculpture garden and a covered-up classic car (which doesn’t run) add to the impression of an owner-resident who marches to his own band, for which he also picks out the music and the musicians.
His great nephew Lukecanyon “Luke” Shelton, also an artist, lives with him.
Ernie Shelton loves his Bridge Street location, he said. “I can walk just about everywhere.”
And every time he does, Amelia guides his way back with a wistful expression and hint of a smile. She and he are at home in Cambria.