The first time premier western artist Fred Oldfield created successful art came in the summer of 1934. As retold in Joella Oldfield’s book, Better Than I Deserve, sixteen year old Fred was lying on his bunk after a long day herding cattle, and he began to sketch. First, he drew a bull thistle on the wall and liked it so he followed that by drawing a frame around it, a nail above it and a chain to hang it on.
Soon his brother Dick came in and said, “Why the hell would you waste your time drawing a bull thistle?” Fred was thrilled! Dick recognized the subject. He had validated Fred’s talent. It was the first success of what would become nearly a century of acclaim and love for the work of this homegrown artist.
On June 25, The Fred Oldfeld Western Heritage Center in Puyallup will celebrate twenty years of bringing Oldfield’s art to the community, along with art lessons for children and adults and an astonishing array of activities aimed at building an old west style community in a twenty-first century setting.
Fred Oldfield was born on the Yakama Indian Reservation in 1918, one of nine surviving children born to William and Sophie Oldfield. He came into the world at the time that America was changing from rural to urban, and as he would find out when he drew the thistle, he was born with the ability to capture that change.
Fred was cast in the mold of an “aw shucks, Ma’am” cowboy hero. Think John Wayne with a paint box instead of six guns. Growing up on the Yakama reservation, he had strong ties with the people living there. His paintings of tribal people are often heartbreakingly tender.
His adolescent years were far from idyllic. He wrote of riding the rails with thirty or forty men from the hobo jungles that were common in those days. Fred and big brother Dick jumped on a freight, Fred wrote. “A ‘railroad bull’ (railroad security) riding on the top of the train pulled his coattails back and pulled out and pulled out a pair of six-shooters, and said, ‘Don’t catch’er boys or I’ll shoot.’
“I was remembering all the tales the men had told and I expected to be shot at any minute.” He wasn’t, though. Fred also survived brushes with the “reven’ooers” over bootleg alcohol and other misunderstandings with the law and danger. These stories, mostly documented, are always a shock to those who knew Fred Oldfield. The artist was the epitome of the honest, hard working cowboy, but those were tough times for growing up.
The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center is a combination museum and activity Center.
Director Joella Oldfield is anxious to welcome every guest personally, to show exhibits from various stages of Fred’s life. For the 20th Anniversary celebration, there’s a day of free fun and family activities followed by the evening gala: 20 Years of Tunes, Tales and Togetherness. June 25, 5:00 to 8:30 pm in the VIP Tent on the Washington State Fairgrounds at www.fredoldfieldcenter.org.
Part Two, coming soon: Fred Oldfield Makes His First Sale and Wins World War II.