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Artist Fred Oldfield continues love affair with fair

Western-themed oil painter Fred Oldfield works in his home studio overlooking the water in Tacoma on Thursday. His work is the inspiration for the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center at the Washington State Fair.
Western-themed oil painter Fred Oldfield works in his home studio overlooking the water in Tacoma on Thursday. His work is the inspiration for the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center at the Washington State Fair. Staff photographer

The Washington State Fair in Puyallup has adopted a new name, a new roller coaster and a new mascot in recent years.

But some things never change.

The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center has showcased art and helped instruct kids since 2002.

When the annual 17-day fair opens Friday (Sept. 11), fairgoers will marvel at the work of renowned Western artist Fred Oldfield.

During Wednesday’s set-up, it was clear he’s a fair veteran.

The 97-year-old cowboy couldn’t take more than a few steps without stopping to say hello to a familiar face.

Oldfield’s friends say he spends most of his time at the heritage center painting and teaching art classes, which are offered year-round.

But he begs to differ.

“I spend more time shaking hands and hookin’ girls,” he quipped, dressed in a large cowboy hat and Western gear.

“I love it during the fair,” he said. “That’s my vacation.”

Oldfield was born and raised in Toppenish on the Yakima Indian Reservation. He attended art school after serving in the Army during World War II, and started painting full time when he was about 40 years old.

He has three kids, six grandchildren and more great-grandchildren than he can remember.

“I have lost count,” he said, laughing.

Art runs in the family. Oldfield’s children are all musically talented, and he has a great-granddaughter attending college for dance choreography.

“My kids can sing,” he said. “I can’t carry a tune.”

Near the Red Gate at the fairgrounds, Oldfield’s namesake heritage center not only showcases his art and the work of his current and former students, but the walls are covered in traces of family history.

The artifacts and paintings stay in the center year-round, although some displays are assembled starting two weeks before the fair opens.

At least one exhibit is altered each year. A replica of an old barn building has been a school house, a dress shop and a saloon over the years.

This year, it’s a tribute to Oldfield’s mother, Sophie Westervelt Oldfield, and even features the artist’s first painting.

But the center’s main attractions are art and education.

For more than 20 years, Oldfield has painted at his condominium in Tacoma about 12 to 15 works of art ahead of the fair. The paintings are auctioned, with all proceeds donated to a college scholarship program for local kids.

Each auctioned item typically goes for about $4,000 or $5,000. The highest bid he’s ever had is $10,000.

Oldfield also does live painting at the center and sells his work at the end of the fair. Half of those proceeds also go to the scholarship fund.

About 80 students take art classes there each year. Oldfield keeps in touch with them well into and past their college years. Many come back to the fair to visit.

One former student is a musician in Chicago. Another paints murals.

Oldfield said teaching kids is the most rewarding part of his work at the fair, though he doesn’t really consider it work.

“If painting is work, it’s no good,” he said.

Denny Dargan was one of the crew members sprucing up the center Wednesday. Dargan serves as the center’s designated plumber, among his other duties, as part of the crew of about 20.

“There’s 20 elves. He’s Santa Claus,” Dargan said, pointing at Oldfield.

The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage Center wasn’t the only bustling area of the fairgrounds Wednesday.

Utility vehicles, golf carts and semitrailers drove from one corner to another, hauling supplies to food booths and other vendors.

Workers scrubbed down Fisher Scones booths inside and out, and seasonal fair workers stood in line to pick up identification badges.

Art also was sprawled out in the Pavilion. Stacks of paintings, sketches and other entries lined the tables ahead of the annual student art show.

Several booths down, Steve Klinger strung lights on a banner for The Totemaires, a Tacoma-based barbershop harmony chorus. He said the group, which includes singers in their 80s, is hoping to increase its membership.

“It’s an old establishment and we’re trying to revive it,” he said.

Back in the heritage center, Oldfield said at least one thing has changed over the decades at the fair.

He recalled the first year he served as grand marshal a couple of decades ago for the cattle drive, the annual opening ceremony that kicks off the fair again this year.

“I didn’t know anybody then,” he said.

That’s no longer the case.

“He knows everybody!” a woman yelled from another room.

But one thing that hasn’t changed, Oldfield said, standing in the middle of the heritage center:

“This is the place.”

IF YOU GO

What: Washington State Fair

When: Sept. 11-27; Monday-Thursday 10 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday and Saturday 9 a.m.-11 p.m., Sunday 9 a.m.-10 p.m.

Where: 110 Ninth Ave. S.W. in Puyallup

Cattle drive: Starts at 10 a.m. Friday, down South Meridian.

More online: Visit thefair.com for information on events, attractions, tickets and more.

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