Fred Oldfield as artistic influence

As a person with loose ties with the Yakama Indian Reservation, I was inspired by Native American ways and actually lived in my own 18′ Sioux-style tipi for nearly five years back in the early 1970s, then gave it to friends who needed a temporary home while they were building their cabin by a river up near the Colville Reservation.

My earlier fascination probably began in Toppenish on the Yakama Rez, as that was the first town we lived in when I was born (although I was actually delivered in another jurisdiction). Some folks there still had a tipi up in their back yards, especially during Pow Wow, rodeos and other times of celebration. However, in visiting my cousins, Fred & Alice Oldfield, at their “Frontier Village” and cafe close to the West Gate to Mount Rainier National Park near Elbie, Washington, USA, that was even more memorable being more engagingly immersive fun. The Indian Village he built with several tipis and statues of people doing tasks from an era now fading, that was where I would be transported in my imagination; even at about four or five years of age, I wanted to live there. It seemed to remind me of a home I had experienced in another timeframe!

I called Fred “Uncle Fred”, probably because he was eight or nine years older than my dad (I think I just called Alice “Mam”). Years later when I was in my late teens, I learned he was actually a relative called a second-cousin (What?). Even though Fred inscribed that cousin title in a book Mr. Moynahan had written about Fred Oldfield and his artwork, took me about 40 years before I got used to him now being a cousin. No matter how we were related, I admired the fact that he had crafted that frontier village and Indian encampment down the hill a bit.

Imagine stepping into some of his small oil paintings! That was something else I could do without being prompted to do so. They were on easels out front of the cafe, for sale to the tourists And although more were of cowboys than Indians (mostly horseback riders leading pack teams up a trail in the shadow of Mount Rainier), I still stood and stared into one until I disolved into that environment, which I was also simultaneously surrounded by. I wondered at how he could build a horse by brushing with orange and blue colors and somehow incorporate them into something containing both, side by side, without the colors blending into only mud. He could see colors in subjects where I could yet only see gradients.

You might think I was too young to notice such things. But I had sold my first sculpture (a pirate with a treasure on an island) to my teacher while a kindergartener. We kids all only had red/russet clay at the time, and as partial payment, I was the first kid to get a set of four clay colors. I was disappointed that after a bit of blending, they began to turn to a mud-color. So, I was able to eventually surmise that Uncle Fred (as I knew him at that time) perhaps did not overwork the colors with his brush strokes, leaving them for the eye to blend from further away. Since I was extremely near-sighted (that wasn’t discovered until meeting an optometrist well into first grade), I preferred to look at thing almost microscopically close, as they blurred quickly at only a few inches of pulling away. So, it was easier to see things if my nose was practically buried into them.

By the time I was 16, I’d won several art awards and earned extra funds selling drawings. But the idea of going to a college that taught art as a serious subject was seen as a ridiculous notion that only a fool would entertain. Still, as soon as I was done with high school, I managed to land a job as an apprentice sign painter for Dwinnel’s Central Neon about 50 miles away in Yakima. They handed me a shovel, pick, tarpaulin and hooked up a jackhammer rig to the back of a truck, pointed to a square rattle-can-painted on the tarmac or concrete and said the hole for concreet and a sign post needed to be one cubic yard or such. after a couple weeks they kidded me there about my now having earned my PhD in “Posthole Digging”, I was ready for other signwork. The next projects I worked on were primarily signs for their biggest account; Stewart Anderson’s Black Angus Restaurant, a popular west-coast chain back then. And Stewart was good friend and fan of Fred’s artwork.

Again, it seems I was remembering Fred and how his friend Stewart had suggested that when he auctioned off some prize bulls, Fred could have a cowgirl march around holding up an Oldfield painting to be bid on between bulls. Among other ranchers, a vice president of these United States of America bought one. He was later invited by the Queen of England to show show his art at Chatsworth Castle. With his daughter, Joella Oldfield, helping him with marketing details and scheduling shows or doing popular “Quick Draw” events with other artists, he was doing well.

Also while I was learning about hanging neon tubing, lettering with enamels and French quill brushes, pinstriping, airbrush painting, gold-leaf gilding, etcetera, I read an article in the Yakima Valley Herald about a mural that had been rediscovered under panelling over an old bar being revived. The new owner was thrilled with New Orleans style mural discovery. He was wondering who might be able to touch up the old-looking mural that bore the artist’s name, Fred Oldfield. It was like they assumed he was long gone. I was amazed he painted something besides cowboys, Indians, horses, cattles, forests, sagebrush and mountains. Fred was still inspiring me.

In the mid 1970s, I had Gypsy Arts and painted pinstripes and airbrush illustrations on anything from the size of a fingernail (before the average person even knew the word “airbrush”), to murals on semi-tractor-trailer rigs, but mostly the side panels of Econoline vans and motorcycle tanks. I ended up painting signs and such from Prosser to Tucson to Anaheim and back up to North Central Washington where I airbrushed t-shirts and other clothing in Chelan at a friend’s place (Dicken’s Art Gallery and Deli, where you could eat lunch while watching artists create). After I was doing camera-ready art layouts for a print shop. It was closing too (Chelan was a seasonal/summer tourist town). I bought the guy’s old offset printing equipment as he was leaving town. Thirty days later, I opened my own shop, Apple Press Printers (with Apple Press Brand design studio). Several more years went by before selling to another printer (I’d used an uncle’s Apple computer, then someone’s Mac computer, which alerted me to changing times in design from analog to digital). I began designing for my friend, Dolores Anna Strazicich-Holt, an opera singer who wanted me to do modern art for her Pacific Artwear (wearable art) company. We had a lot of fun painting half-days (we’d run out of room, spreading them out to let them dry enough before we could heatset them) selling the artwear almost Tupperware-Party style via friends and acquaintances in several countries. As one of my jobs as a teen was for the Department of Agriculture……

I was privileged to assist in summer mural painting classes for kids taught by “Cowboy Fred” using acrylic paints. Fred invited me sit in on other kids’ classes for painting with oils on canvas.

Perhaps my favorite Toppenish mural, of several painted there by my cousin, Fred Oldfield (born just outside of Toppenish on the REZ near Alfalfa, Washington, USA in 1911), was over 100 feet long on the side of the old Les Schwab building, and it was called “Haller’s Defeat”, where the Indians won the battle near the settlement of White Swan. The mural was repainted by Fred and other artists, but on a shorter building several years ago. These are old left & right positions in links (possibly at risk, as TheSphere pano host is no longer actively managed) to that mural here; LEFT being the cavalry leaving (; RIGHT being the “NDNs” herding them away (, with a closeup of artist’s names as an inset. And here is a panorama with Fred Oldfield (lead artist on that mural) in the Fred Oldfield Western Heritage [and Art] Center on the Puyallup Fairgrounds ( where he primarily teaches kids mural painting (I’ve helped out in those classes for a couple of summers, as I was formerly a sign painter and commercial artist). Here is Fred during his 96th birthday inside (below) before it got too thick with people to see him in his letter vest. And as he passed on less than a month before his 99th birthday, I’ll create a memorial page dedicated to him later this year (2017) and drop a link here when I do.

That was Fred in the cowboy hat, yellow shirt and vest.

Eric Johnson (with KOMO News) did a terrific feature on Fred featuring him on “Eric’s Heroes: Fred Oldfield, cowboy artist”.


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