Anyone who is still riding a horse and turning out art-show paintings at 95 deserves a big birthday party. But Fred Oldfield, Western painter and longtime cowboy, is taking it one step further by celebrating his birthday this week at the Puyallup Fairgrounds with a painting workshop and a party raising funds for the artists he cares about – kids.
“I love working with kids because you never know what they’re gonna do,” says Oldfield, getting up from his painting corner at the newly refurbished Western Heritage Center at the Fairgrounds. “It’s interesting to watch them – how quickly they learn. I’m very shy, so it takes them a little while (to get to know me) but what I like is, they come back here and it’s like home.”
It’s those kids – the ones who learn painting from Oldfield and his other instructors at the center every week – who’ll benefit from Oldfield’s 95th birthday party Saturday. It’s a costume party (come as any decade from Oldfield’s life) where the ticket money goes to purchase art equipment and supplies for the classes that give local kids the gift of art. Specifically, Western art. Because Oldfield is one of the best-known living Washington painters in this genre, and at 95, he’s still going strong.
“I paint three to four hours every day,” Oldfield said. “I still have so much energy. I don’t know why. It’s the excitement of each new day.”
And though this is a painter who has been winning shows and selling works to collectors since the 1960s, he’s not resting on his laurels. Lately, Oldfield’s been exploring acrylics and transforming the romantic figurative style of his portraits and landscapes into something more impressionistic, the clear bright colors of the paints combining with soft, broad brushstrokes to convey even more emotion.
His favorite work is an oil painted years ago that shows captured Indians stumbling away from the Battle of Wounded Knee during a snowstorm. They clutch children and the wounded, and even the mounted soldier leading them looks pensive. You can feel the desperation and the cold.
“I don’t like clear-cut painting, it’s too much like a photograph,” he said. “With acrylics, the colors are different. But they dry fast, and during the fair they want you to do fast work.”
Clad in riding pants, a plaid shirt and cowboy boots and hat, Oldfield still looks every inch the cowboy he’s been for most of his life. Growing up on the Yakama Indian Reservation near Toppenish, he moved around a lot and worked herding cattle from a horse. (“The Indians called me their very own cowboy,” he jokes.) At age 17, he painted a flower on a bunkhouse wall and painted a frame around it, and realized he was onto something. For the rest of his life, during the war years in Alaska and working around the Northwest, he rode horses, herded cattle and painted: murals in Seattle bars and on walls in Toppenish, oil paintings and shows from malls to the Frye Art Museum.
About 20 years ago, the Puyallup Fair asked him to do live painting. Surrounded by hay bales, he would paint a work that raised scholarship money for local kids. Every year, his work still sends five Puyallup high school students to college. Eventually, Oldfield built the barn-like Heritage Center, now run by his daughter Joella.
Wrinkled and weatherbeaten from years outside, Oldfield still passes for decades younger. He moves easily around the Heritage Center that displays his own art from the self-taught early years using plain old house paint to murals and major works making their way back to the center as former collectors pass away. (The center also re-creates Western lifestyles: a shop front, a bedroom, a tack room.) He chats with an easy grace about his work. He drives from his Tacoma apartment all over the state for art shows and charity work, and even rides horses, both at the fairgrounds and on his old stomping grounds out east.
“It’s the getting on that kills me,” he said wryly. “I’ll have a sore hip tomorrow.”
He’s even been approached by Tacoma Art Museum to collaborate when they install their newly donated Haub collection of Western art. But it’s not big on his agenda.
“I’m not going to make too much time for that. I’ve got fishing to do,” he joked.
Information: 253-752-9708, fredoldfieldcenter.org
Rosemary Ponnekanti: 253-597-8568