Sculpting His Obsessions : From Karate Chops to Haircuts, Cornejo Is an Artful Master

Times Staff Writer

What do hair cutting, karate and sculpture have in common?

Albert Cornejo, if nothing else. He happens to be a master of all three.

As a young man he wanted to be a barber, as were his friends. He started cutting hair at age 18 and is still doing it at 48.

He became interested in karate when a customer invited him to visit a nearby studio. Now he is a fifth-degree black belt instructor.

Evening Regimen

A green papier-mache mask crafted by a friend years ago inspired him to try his hand at sculpture. He has since sculpted hundreds of pieces and appeared in eight exhibits.

“When I do something, I go fanatic, I go all the way,” he said. “I guess I get so interested in something, and if I’m going to do it, I like to be good at it.”


His approach to learning something new: practice from 7 p.m. until 2 or 3 a.m. five nights a week and all day on weekends. Follow this schedule for as many years as necessary.

Those were the hours he kept when he discovered surf fishing. His wife, Loretta, who was pregnant at the time, would fall asleep on the sand waiting for him to get tired. At 3 a.m., he would pick her up and carry her to the car.

That’s how he learned sculpture, toiling in his garage from the time he got home until the rest of the neighborhood was long asleep.

“It was like a narcotic,” he said. “I just locked myself in the garage. I couldn’t put it down.” He almost lost all his friends, who never understood why he couldn’t leave his sculpting for a night out.

He followed the same regimen to learn karate, working out constantly at Ed Parker’s Kenpo Karate Studio. “Man, I went great guns every night, every night, every night. . . .

“That’s why when people say, ‘Albert, you want to go golfing?’ I don’t want to do it. I’m afraid to. I know I’d be at it all the time.”

Born in Los Angeles in 1940, Cornejo had no interest in school, where he only got into fights. He joined the Army and went through basic training at Camp Chaffee, Ark.

There he cut hair for 10 or 15 cents a head, trying to give some style to the required crew cuts.

Back in Los Angeles, he attended barber school and prepared for the state board examination. “For the first time in my life, I hit the books like I never had before, because I wanted to pass that test,” he recalled.

When he passed it, he felt he had accomplished something great. He went to work for a Santa Monica barber, cutting hair for 95 cents per cut.

Today he owns a one-chair barbershop at 2507 Wilshire Blvd. in Santa Monica, where he is very much at home. He tells stories constantly, pausing to play a mournful blues run on the harmonica or to put on a tape of himself singing and playing guitar.

His little black Pomeranian, Kenpo Karate Cornejo, performs on command for visitors--running in circles, washing his face and jumping through a circle made by his master’s arms.

Celebrity Clientele

The autographed pictures on the wall attest to the celebrities who have trusted Cornejo with their hair: Lawrence Welk (“I cut his hair for 20 years!”), Jack Dempsey, Stan Laurel, Red Buttons and Lou Ferrigno.

But the celebrities tend to stop coming because he doesn’t make special accommodations for them, he said. All customers pay the same $15, so he treats them all alike.

“If President Reagan wanted an appointment at 1, I’d say, ‘Sorry, President Reagan, but Carlos here has an appointment then.’

“I’ve been here for a long time, and my customers to me aren’t just my customers. They’re my friends, and I love them a lot.”

Three nights a week, Cornejo donates his time to teach at the American Karate and Fitness Center. He told the management he would work for nothing, but he reserved the right to bring in youngsters off the street and let them train for free.

He studied karate under Ed Parker, who popularized martial arts in the United States. Cornejo credits Parker with teaching him discipline and control.

“He’s someone I look up to highly and respect as a second father. He straightened my act out. I was able to get rowdy inside on the mats and be calm on the streets.”

Met Presley

While training at the studio, Cornejo met Elvis Presley, for whom Parker occasionally worked as a bodyguard.

During a Presley dinner concert in Las Vegas, Cornejo said hello to the rock ‘n’ roll king from his table by the stage. Presley recognized him, shook his hand and started to sit on the stage to talk.

“All of a sudden everybody went crazy,” Cornejo said. “The girls were climbing on the table, stepping on my plate and knocking my champagne bottle over. Elvis had to tear himself away.”

Later, when some of the young women saw Cornejo and his wife getting off an elevator, they screamed and grabbed for the hand that had shaken Elvis’ hand. “They wanted to kiss my hand and hold it, and I’m standing there with my wife!”

At the time Cornejo became interested in sculpture, a friend introduced him to welding. He decided he would sculpt by welding together scraps of metal, so he bought an acetylene torch and taught himself how to use it. “I almost blew my house up twice,” he said.

At first he sculpted with nuts, bolts, spark plugs and other junk, but then he started using triangular iron wedges that gave his work a uniform look.

Sculpts by Eye

He never makes sketches beforehand or takes any measurements, sculpting entirely by eye.

“I just start building it one way till it starts to fall over, then I build it the other way till it starts to fall over that way, then I build it the other way till it stands up on its own--because I don’t know how to use a ruler,” he said.

Cornejo has never studied art. In fact, he has limited skills in reading, writing and arithmetic. But he works well with his hands and his artistic senses need no schooling.

“I couldn’t stand to go to school and learn, ‘Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?’ I wanted nothing to do with geography and latitudes and longitudes. I said, ‘Can’t I just take wood shop?’ ”

When he started exhibiting his works for sale, he priced them exorbitantly because he didn’t want to part with them. But a man said he wanted to buy a $300 piece.

“That’s $300,” Cornejo said.

“Yeah, I know,” the man said.

“Oh, gosh, I’m sorry,” Cornejo said. “My wife put these prices on here, and she doesn’t know. It’s really $600.”

He erased the original price and wrote in the new one. The buyer changed his mind.

Couldn’t Part With Work

Later, another man wanted to buy a $600 piece. Cornejo again apologized and said the actual price was $950. The buyer walked away.

Finally, confronted on his tactics, he had to start selling at the listed prices. But he couldn’t bear to part with his creations.

“It hurt me to see everything go, so I quit. I packed everything in my garage and left it there, and it’s been sitting there ever since.”

His problem now is having no room to work. He can barely squeeze between the boxes full of sculptures, much less find room to make new ones. Now he’s prepared to part with some of his treasures just because he needs to get back to work.

“I’m not much for coming home, sitting down and watching TV,” he said.