From Malibu cliffhanger to John Wayne sculpture

In February 1979, a large boulder estimated to weigh about 100 tons began slowly sliding down a Malibu cliffside – threatening six homes along Pacific Coast Highway.

A Caltrans project on Feb. 15, 1979, lowered the rock onto Pacific Coast Highway. An article in the late final edition of the Los Angeles Times reported:

A cheer went up from the 400 onlookers who watched the delicate and dangerous operation from land and from kayaks at sea.

The Guy. F. Atkinson Co. was hired for approximately $97,000 to remove the big rock.

The 400 onlookers included Adriana Gianturco, director of the California Department of Transportation who ordered the boulder’s removal, and sculptor Brett-Livingstone Strong, who negotiated to buy the big boulder for $100 from Pete Boli, the supervisor of the removal operation for the Atkinson firm. …

Originally Strong planned a sculpture of California Gov. Jerry Brown. But, after moving a section of the boulder to an outdoor studio in Century City, Strong started chipping away a John Wayne sculpture.

Staff writer Jerry Belcher reported on his progress in the March 29, 1979, Los Angeles Times:

Many’s the time John Wayne has found himself trapped between a rock and a hard place and, through strife and struggle, managed to get himself out from under.

This time, though, the Duke’s not between but within–trapped inside a chunk of the (in)famous Malibu rock–and he’s being rescued from that hard place by a young Australian sculptor with the melodramatically appropriate name of Brett-Livingstone Strong.

Wearing goggles to keep the True Grit out of his eyes, the 25-year-old artist has been chiseling away at a 12 1/2-ton chip off the old rock for about three weeks, seeking the form and face within, the hero struggling to get out of the stony imprisonment. In other words, he’s making a sculpture of The Duke.

As Malibu rock fans may recall, when the sculptor first saw the boulder perched precariously above the Pacific Coast Highway last month, he announced to the world that a heroic bust of Gov. Jerry Brown was somewhere inside the stone waiting to be freed by hammer and chisel.

The enterprising Strong bought what remained of the boulder (for $100) as soon as it came tumbling down from the cliffside. Then he arranged to have it transported to an impromptu outdoor studio at Century Square Shopping Center, just off Santa Monica Blvd. in Century City.

It was about the same time that the hero imprisoned within the rock began mysteriously to transmogrify himself from Superguv to Superstar.

The fact that this development inspired a great new flurry of publicity did not bother Strong in the slightest. He set to work on the rock with a vengeance–and an rented air chisel that costs him $60 a day.

By Wednesday, the face emerging from the 7-foot tall, caramel colored sandstone block was recognizable as that of the rugged and enduring Western star, although it will get some smoothing out. This despite the fact that Strong has never seen Wayne in person–he’s working from a photo of the Duke that appeared on the cover of US Magazine last year.

“For a time,” Strong says “ I was getting comments from people like ‘I believe that’s Jimmy Durante you’re carving.’ But now people say they can see the resemblance coming out. I’m getting compliments on it now.” …

When John Wayne died on June 11, 1979, Strong’s sculpture became a temporary memorial to the actor. Later that year, the sculpture was moved to the forecourt of Mann’s Chinese Theater in Hollywood.

Also in 1979, Strong sold the sculpture to Arizona real estate man Tom Murphy. He later donated the sculpture to Lubbock Christian University where it’s on display in the school’s library.

Link to the LCU Library’s John Wayne page.