Obsessed with the Wild West

Now living in a Tacoma condo, ninety-one-year-old cowboy painter Fred Oldfield has never given up the dream of the frontier.

It’s quiet on the Puyallup Fairgrounds. No gun shows or rodeos today, and the big fair won’t happen until September. On this late-June afternoon, its 160 acres are deserted, nothing but locked gates, shuttered booths and an idle roller coaster.

The Fred Oldfield Western Heritage & Art Center, at the north end of the fair, is quiet too. Past the wagon wheel at the entrance and the replica Boot Hill, the barnlike building is deserted. No one drives the buckboard; the bucking bronco is frozen in bronze.

“Hey, kid,” says a man in a red pearl-snap Western shirt, black leather vest and black Stetson. This is Fred Oldfield, the ninety-one-year-old Western painter for whom the Center is named. He looks about seventy, with a wide mobile smile and vigor in his step.

“Well,” he says, breaking the word in two, his voice tending to ride up and down when he gets excited, which he does when he talks about painting. “Want to see some art?”

Oldfield gives a private tour of his permanent collection, paintings of cowboys and Indians, horses and buffalo, open spaces, purple mountains and cabins in the snow.

Photography by Mike Kane

“The only thing I got to say for myself is, it’s really what I do and who I am, and whether it’s good or bad, that’s it,” says Oldfield, walking past more of his work, iconic paintings with iconic names: The Gambler and Long Tall Sheriff, Prisoners of Wounded Knee and Trapper’s Cabin. It’s the kind of American West art that for two centuries has been part of the cultural landscape, in the bank, in advertisements, in big museums. Famous names in the genre include Frederic Remington, Charles Russell and Joe Beeler. Yet if the work hasn’t made Oldfield as famous as some, since the 1960s it’s made him a good living: his paintings currently sell, he says, for between $2,500 and $10,000, enough that some of the proceeds can be plowed into the Center and put toward scholarships. In 2006, PBS made the documentary Painting the West with Fred Oldfield, and March 18, 2008 — Oldfield’s ninetieth birthday — was, by order of Senate Resolution 8730, declared “Fred Oldfield Day” in the state of Washington.

“This here is what I call ‘my life,’” he says, stepping into a diorama. His hand-tooled Western saddle sits below a rattlesnake hatband that, he says, “was made for me by my kid brother Russell.” There are paintbrushes standing in soup cans, a decades-old self-portrait (also in red shirt, black vest and black Stetson) and a sweet little Impressionistic landscape with which Oldfield seems especially pleased.

“My brother Dick did that; he took up painting when he was seventy-five,” he says.

Oldfield lost his brother Dick and sister Mary in the past seven months; he’s one of eleven siblings, eight of whom survived childhood. Now he’s the only one left. But he’s got his work, and he still paints “fifty or sixty paintings a year,” representations of a life scratched from the land. It’s the kind of existence very few people, if any, still live. Oldfield knows it looks veritably otherworldly to the school kids who visit and take art classes at the four-year-old Center, which was started by his daughter Joella, who is also its executive director.

Of the center visitors, Oldfield says, “What they know, they only seen in the movies. I get questions like, ever eat rattlesnake? I say, no, but I killed a couple.”

Born in 1918 on the Yakima Indian Reservation, where his parents, of Dutch and English stock, leased land, Oldfield says the family “never stayed put for more than two, three months,” but roamed Washington, Oregon and Idaho looking for work. They traveled sometimes on foot, sometimes on horseback, but mostly by covered wagon.

“It was like The Grapes of Wrath,” he says, standing before a wall of work he calls “my biography paintings,” a series that depicts his youth; in one of them, at twelve he’s trying to shoot a mink or muskrat. (“I was trying to make some money,” he says. “It was the Depression.”) In another, at fifteen, he’s hired out, herding cattle; at seventeen, he’s picking potatoes.

“I’d get two cents a half-sack — a sack was sixty-five pounds,” he says. “I could pick three hundred sacks a day — that’s ten tons of potatoes and I make five, six bucks. That’s better than the two bucks a day you could make pitching hay.”

That’s a lot of potatoes, as a kid, on his own. Where was the rest of his family?

“Out working, doing what they could do,” he says, though in 1934, they did all go together to southern Oregon, to mine gold. “That was a cold and miserable winter,” he says, his voice dipping low. “We got a shack, patched it. Didn’t get much gold, though.”

It was around this time that Oldfield made his first painting. He can’t say why; there must have been a break in the workday. “I sat on this old cellar — you know what a cellar is? It’s where you store your vegetables and fruits,” he says. “I sat on that, with a little piece of board, and I painted Mt. Adams. And the guy that owned the ranch there where I worked came out there and said, ‘By golly, it looks pretty good; I think you should do that.’”

Looking for Cassidy, 1977

By the time he was seventeen Oldfield was painting whenever he could, on whatever he could, including the bunkhouse walls of the hog ranch where he made ten dollars a month. “Plus room and groceries, of course,” he says. “I painted this mountain scene, then I looked at it and painted a frame around it. Then I painted the shadow of the frame — you only have to hold your hand over a wall to see the color change.”

After “barnstorming up in Alaska, looking for work,” Oldfield joined the military. Upon release, in 1947, he announced to his family he was going to art school. By this time he was married with two children. Asked how the art school idea went over with his family and his Army buddies, Oldfield laughs until he coughs.

“Well, my mother was always for it; she was kind of talented,” he says. “But I think the rest of the family was, ‘What are you doing?’ And then [my wife] Alice’s relatives, which was all ranchers and farmers, was like, ‘We know you paint, but what the hell do you do for a living?’”

Oldfield enrolled in the Burnley School for Professional Art in Seattle — and hated it. “Commercial art; you know, they wanted me to sell beer — I couldn’t stand it,” he says. “I couldn’t letter, to start with;

I didn’t want to is the reason I couldn’t. It has to come from you, or it isn’t any good; it’s no good at all. You want to create that rascal. You want to lay that color on that rock and have it right. The lighting, all the moss; all that little stuff counts.”

Creating that rascal — with a family to support — meant doing what he could to make a wage. Oldfield worked for a dry-cleaning outfit, clerked at a liquor store, sold military surplus. But always he was looking to paint. He painted scenes on the walls of Seattle bars. He spent a summer painting “little Mt. Rainiers” at the base of Mt. Rainier and selling them to tourists. He painted murals in Toppenish (and still participates in their annual Mural-in-a-Day event); in Alaska, he painted on squares of linoleum.

“Life has been a jewel for me,” he says, and by his calculus, he estimates he’s painted between two thousand and three thousand pieces. He’s working on another right now.

“There’s always one more I want to do, many more,” he says. “No matter how many and how long I live, I will never have done all the ones I want to do.”

And he paints them from memory. He may well be the last cowboy artist.

“Last around here,” he says, locking up the Center. “You have a few over in Montana, but it’s a hobby for most of them. They maybe go on a trail ride, or practice roping, but they’re Sunday riders.”

Prisoners of Wounded Knee, 1975

Oldfield drives his moonstone-blue 1996 Cadillac along Tacoma’s Pacific Avenue, slowing to call a big “Hello!” to a woman who’s recently moved into his building.

“I usually see her when she’s going on her workout in the morning,” he says, swinging the car up 5th Street and parking on Broadway. While he still paints mountains and streams, outlaws and lawmen, he now lives in a condo, after a successful buttering-up by daughter Joella.

“She lives in the condo upstairs, and she said, ‘Dad, I’d like to have you over at the condo; everybody’ll like you.’” Oldfield mock-grimaces in a way that shows he is not unhappy with the memory of her flattery. “I remember one sentence that did me in: she said, ‘Dad, I would just love to have you here closer.’”

He lets himself into the low-slung complex of apartments, as workmen jackhammer the sidewalk in order to lay high-speed cable. “I was wanting to go up to Puyallup, where I’m close to my work,” Oldfield says, over the racket. “And then I think, what the hell’s the difference? You never lived in a condo; give it a whirl!”

He opens the door to the two-bedroom apartment. The dining room has been turned into a painting studio, with a bay window overlooking Puget Sound. The view, on this crystal-clear day, is arresting.

“It is, it’s fantastic, but I don’t think I’ll ever paint it,” says Oldfield. “People say, what a view! I say, you know, I haven’t seen an Indian or a cowboy out there since I been here.”

He looks up. “Would you like a glass of wine?”

Oldfield pours two glasses of Lambrusco, cold from the fridge. Does he paint every day? I ask.

“Nearly every day,” he says. “I’ve learned: if I don’t want to paint, don’t touch it. You’ll do twice as much damage as you’ll do good.”

He moves to a chair before another large window. “I’ll paint for three hours and take a break. I found out, if you keep going, you lose the intensity and you’re not as sharp at what you want done. You get a little lethargic. Come back in an hour or two, ah, look at that; I can fix that.”

Does he have people calling, wanting to buy his work?

“Exactly. It could happen any minute!” Again, the big smile. “They don’t call me anymore; they e-mail Joella. A lot of people think she’s my manager, and honestly, she almost is.”

Oldfield takes off his hat. Behind him, the afternoon sun strikes the sound. He has no money worries. He doesn’t have to deal with dealers, whom he’s never trusted, anyway. (“They say, ‘Oh you’ll go over big in Japan,’” he recalls.) Joella and her husband are right upstairs; they throw great holiday parties, says Oldfield. And in his condo’s second bedroom is his seventy-two-year-old son, recently divorced and bunking in with dad for a while. It’s a cozy life, if not at all like the open spaces he visits nearly every day in his mind.